WALKING WITH THE EXCLUDED
By Fr Andy Hamilton SJ
The projected National Housing and Homelessness Plan, which is expected to be released in 2024, is welcome. It also comes at a testing time as people struggle to find accommodation and to meet high rents and increased mortgage payments. People with low income and other forms of disadvantage are most likely to be homeless. The call to address this situation is urgent, and the measures to do so will require careful planning.
Jesuit Social Services can draw on its extensive experience with young people affected by homelessness. We believe that secure and suitable accommodation are a human right, not a privilege. It shapes the future life and health of young people with complex needs – particularly those who have been in and out of home care or under the justice system – and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Homelessness, overcrowding and the terrible anxieties those situations breed blight their lives. These things and their social causes must be addressed in the National Plan.
In the present shortage of private rental accommodation and high cost of houses, people on low incomes and with complex needs rely on social housing. This includes public housing, in which rent is capped as a proportion of income, is secure, and is based on people’s needs. It also includes community housing run by not-for-profit organisations, where rents are also capped at a higher threshold but where there are more restrictions on admission. The proportion of social housing, and especially of public housing, has declined sharply in the last twenty years. Yet people with low incomes and disadvantage rely increasingly on it. It is therefore important for the Government to urgently expand the number and proportion of community and particularly social houses.
The present crisis of homelessness shows that it is not attributable to the individuals who are homeless but to the neglect of social needs. Most people in public housing have low incomes, have faced domestic violence or family breakdown, or a housing crisis and eviction. As part of a housing policy, these social conditions must also be addressed. Jobseeker and related payments must increase by 50% and Commonwealth Rent Assistance by up to 100%, so that people can afford accommodation. Special programs that address in a concerted and personalised way the needs of people with special and multiple disadvantage must also be developed.
The extreme temperature, fires and flooding in recent years have focused attention on the quality of houses and of the environment. Many Australian houses, and particularly public housing, are by today’s standards poorly designed and expensive to heat or cool. People with low incomes and disadvantage who live in them are likely to be unable to meet the costs of heating and cooling, to have poor public transport, and few green areas to moderate temperature. These conditions affect their physical and mental health. The response to them must include regulating the energy efficiency of new social housing, remedying defects in older public housing, and strengthening rental standards to require heating and cooling. Because vulnerability to extreme climate and other facets of entrenched disadvantage are often concentrated in particular geographical areas, their needs should be addressed in partnership with local community organisations. Planning for future extreme weather conditions will also be essential.
Among those disproportionately affected by homelessness and lack of suitable accommodation are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and children. While the Northern Territory Government plans to commit to providing 20% of all new housing is welcome, it also requires a ten-year Housing and Homelessness Plan to be drawn up in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Throughout Australia, children form a high proportion of people who are homeless, but are a small minority in public housing. The special needs of children moving out of out-of-home care and from detention under the justice system must also be met by person-centred programs that address their complex and multiple needs.
(These reflections are drawn from one of many submissions made by Jesuit Social Services to Government enquiries on current issues. The submissions always focus on the needs of the people, especially young people, whom our Jesuit Social Services staff accompany and whose experience and needs we understand.)
Click here for a recent ABC report on The changing nature of homelessness
Fr Andy Hamilton SJ was recently made a life member of the Australasian Catholic Press Association.