A ROOF OVER MY HEAD

THE NEED FOR EMERGENCY HOUSING

By Chris White

 

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ADDRESS to The HUMANIST SOCIETY of SA - Friday 13/8/04

    The recent Howard Government budget did not provide any capital funds to build Trust homes to arrest our homelessness crisis and are not promising anything in this federal election campaign other than more cut backs to public housing.

    This is despite the disgrace that at any one winter night some 7,500 South Australians are homeless, about 900 sleeping rough, the rest in boarding houses or staying with friends or in cars. Homelessness is for many a grim desperate existence. “Homeless man crushed by a garbage compactor because he slept in the back of the dumpster,” the worst story in the Advertiser 25/5/04. And there are many tragic stories appearing in the Messenger Press, and the Sunday Mail and in today’s Advertiser by Mark Herselman in today’s Advertiser “Time to face alarming truth about homeless.”

    Elana a 60 year old homeless woman told her story at the Homelessness SA Conference. At dawn in her sleeping bag in inner Adelaide she was scared by a shadow over her.
A policeman politely inquired whether she had seen a man with a knife pass by! Moving on, it took her 4 hours waiting at the day shelter for her turn to have a shower and laundry. Then onto a friend’s house for 22 frustrating calls to agencies regretfully saying no vacancies. Elana is not in the “crisis category” for Housing, but was on the waiting list. Six months later she was able to get into a Trust Home. And she now works to assist the homeless. 
Barry told his story. A brash young man making big money but with drinking and gambling, “a derelict in my own home” ends up older, wiser and homeless. Elana and Barry sell their paper “The Big Issue.”

    Those who make it to a Housing Trust home say in wonderment at the “privacy and being able to say at last this is my home with my family .” But the homeless subculture is, “Not always depressing, not lonely because we meet a lot of people”. A young man says, “It is difficult writing a CV in the dark”. A homeless man living in a tree in North Adelaide is denied assistance because “he did not have an address”.

    Apart from these homeless, there are another 45,000 who are what housing policy makers refer to as “in extreme housing stress” and also desperate for secure stable and public housing. Trust homes are urgently required.

    There are many stories. The question is what are the governments doing?

First the Howard government.

     Why this crisis? Despite some homelessness prevention programmes, one obvious reason is the lack of public housing. A key cause is the Howard government’s severe capital grant cutbacks of 60% to our Housing Trust. SA has had our public housing stock reduced since 1997 far in excess of any housing authority in Australia. The Trust’s ability to build social housing through the Commonwealth State Housing Agreement, (CSHA) saw a cut back this year by another $12 million. More of this “economic rationalism” over the next 5 years means the Howard government is responsible for the homeless not getting a home.

Our community’s need for safe, affordable public housing is painfully high. What are the figures? There are currently 6,600 people on the Housing Trust high housing need waiting list with 900 in the extreme category, but it still takes over 6 months to be housed.

In the Housing Trust’s category 3 waiting list, there are 27,000 low income earners. Many of these are SA’s “new working poor”: in work, but in the precarious labour market as casuals, labour hire and contract workers, many being women. A key reason for the suffering of our “working poor” and “housing poor” is high rents in the private sector. They have to wait for over a decade to get into Housing Trust homes. The capital cut backs also mean problems for the aboriginal housing and problems in Community Housing.

Consequently, there is a very large number of South Australians who are unable to access affordable housing due to the restricted and declining number of houses in the public sector. This policy runs counter to the history of the Trust.

The cut backs by Federal and State governments have been so severe that our public housing sector would need to increase by 60% just to assist those low income households in housing stress currently in rental housing. Some 45,000 dwellings are required and the money invested to build them. The private rental market does not serve these needs. Although there is some Commonwealth rent assistance to individuals, my core issue here is money or the lack thereof to build homes.

 Action in the form of capital funding to build shelter is urgent; emergency accommodation, boarding houses, flats and secure, affordable Housing Trust houses; and funds for the Community Housing Association and for Aboriginal Housing.

South Australia’s current funding shortfall is $160 million per year to maintain our public housing stock. Without this funding, our Housing Trust is forced to “cannibalise” selling off 1,100 houses each year while the need for housing grows. Over the past ten years of Federal and State Liberal governments, there has been a reduction of 14,700 Housing Trust houses. This is a disgrace!

 SA requires the political strategy to insist with both Federal and State governments that SA’s share, as in our past, should not be limited to our population size but to the 14.4% share of the national public housing stock to restore public housing to former levels and to address the growth in poverty (see the SA Parliament Poverty Report.).

The issue has to be starkly put that either SA returns to our historic level of public housing or else South Australians will continue to lack affordable housing. For 40 years both political parties believed in investing in public housing.

Unfortunately far too many very comfortable citizens have no idea of who the homeless are despite the good articles in the press. The priorities would include: homeless children; young women escaping domestic violence; family’s living in cars; the Aboriginal homeless; the mentally ill; offenders just out of prison; disadvantaged youth and the older single male alcoholic.

Those who, after a long wait, make it to public housing have not only a home, but hope.

Shelter is a human right. We need to increase the supply of affordable housing which is accessible to homeless people and available to the working poor. This addresses poverty as it reduces the proportion of income spent on shelter and it limits the amount that can be charged for private rental property. 

Building low cost public sector housing stimulates our economy. Now is the time to inject investment into our housing sector. Housing contributes to health, community well being and the stability for people to have jobs.

This is an election year. John Howard’s government can be judged. He is not addressing homelessness as a priority. There is the election campaign. Public pressure nationally and in SA by housing and social justice activists is trying to put homelessness and public housing on the political agenda. Pressure is then on the Howard government to make commitments. As there is a large election spending surplus, why shouldn’t a government invest in public housing?

What arguments does the Howard government not understand? Housing is fundamental whether for social inclusion, health, social justice, child development, caring for the disabled, local jobs, crime reduction, building a cohesive community and a productive and competitive economy or ensuring basic shelter, a human right for citizens.

With high numbers of both homeless people and the “working poor” in the three Liberal marginal electorates of Adelaide, Makin and Hindmarsh, there are opportunities for campaigning. The political problem is that most voters are either not aware or could not care less. The homeless are the forgotten minority in our housing debate. The homeless do not have the lobbying voice of big business. Unless citizens and Humanists speak up!

There is a new group active in the Federal election, and non-party political. It is Services First, a national group pointing to popular support in the polls for investing in improved services rather than tax cuts. Access information on www.servicesfirst.com.au

Housing is an important part. Also, contact Shelter SA, Homelessness SA and SACOSS.

At least Mark Latham acknowledges that affordable public housing is an important issue and talks about being in public housing to provide as it did for him the ladder of opportunity. He has made a commitment of $400 million nationally over three years; this is short of injecting a billion dollars into public housing, but is a start. A Labor Housing Minister Darryl Melham would immediately re-negotiate the Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement. So it is a start; and $400 million more than the Howard government. Part of Latham’s strategy is to encourage superannuation funds to invest in affordable housing. Latham will have a National Housing strategy.

For details of what is really required nationally, please see the outcomes of the recent National Housing Affordability sponsored by the HIA, ACOSS, ALGA, ACTU in association with the National Housing Alliance.

The idea of the summit came from the Housing Industry Association. The strategies should not be ignored by political parties and policy makers.

Please access the excellent papers on www.housingsummit.org.au

The research presented is startling on the need; there is a crisis:

1. for the homeless, over 100,000 homeless every night, a national scandal, with 200 children seeking emergency shelter but none available;

2. Over a million of the working poor in housing poverty; in housing stress because as low income earners, they have to pay well over 30% of income on rent in the private rental market and can't get into public housing;

3. low income earners unable to get home ownership.

The Howard government (with no rep attending, no Housing Minister) is walking away from capital funding to build homes through state housing trusts, so Australia urgently requires: 

1) A National Affordability Housing Agreement. The supply of affordable housing is critical.
     2) Increased public investment for affordable housing beginning with an extra $500 million.
     3) A Public Sector Housing renewal Fund and an Affordable Housing Innovations Fund.
     4) Reform to the tax system to improve equity and efficiency of their impact on housing affordability; it is amazing how there is more assistance to the upper classes!; a national strategy for land and infrastructure planning.; a National Housing Minister and Housing policy; targeted First Home Buyers grant;...and much more.

Chair Professor Julian Disney has prepared a summary and will chair a housing conference at Adelaide Town Hall on Monday 6th of September.

As this an election year, the issue of housing affordability has to be more strongly on the national agenda. The Howard government has again been most mean in a rich society! The PM is a housing subsidised tenant, and lives in Public Housing! Yet the poor can't get a decent home!

See also: the National Shelter Policy Platform; the Australian Federation of Homelessness Organisations; ACOSS and ACTU policies; a good paper by John Sutton, CFMEU.

    Are you going act to raise homelessness as an important enough issue for political parties to take notice?

 

I have not dealt here in detail with the Rann government that has started with good social inclusion initiatives on sleeping rough and $12 million of programmes to prevent homelessness. But some comments can be made. Premier Rann’s promise was to cut homelessness in half in his first term. This important object will not be achieved and so the promise is redefined to cut those sleeping rough, ie. 900 by a half. Good, but not what was promised. Rann has some good programmes for assistance to prevent homelessness and hopefully these will have an impact. But what is missing and the new Minister Jay Weatherill knows this, is capital to build Trust homes; to stop the sell-off of Trust homes and to recommence a building programme that meets the need. Despite having funds, the SA government is yet to commit significantly in capital spending on Trust homes because of the Treasurer’s economic rationalist beliefs. Some funds are available now and not being spent in two areas. First, is some $22 million. This has some history but was when the former Liberal housing Minister Dean Brown used Commonwealth Housing money for health reasons. Former Housing Minister Steph Key was eventually able to get this money.

Back to the Housing Trust and some $8 million has gone to maintenance, but another $22 million is yet to be spent; despite the crisis. Second, the Housing Trust has been forced for years by Treasurers to hold very large cash reserves; this year Kevin Foley insisted cash reserves in the order of $70 million! Yes, despite the crying need to build homes, the Labor Treasurer forces the Trust to hold onto this huge amount. I argue that this money has to be invested now. But also there is an urgency for ongoing capital funding otherwise the yet to be announced Rann government 10 year Housing Plan will not be adequately funded to meet the housing demand. It is very difficult for those welfare agencies struggling with homeless issues to see the large windfalls coming into the SA Treasury coffers from increasing land prices and large land tax and stamp duties tax. A part of this could go to public housing. But Kevin Foley is fearful of borrowing at a time of low interest rates to fund capital building of houses.

 In fact on the basis that the Labor government would not fund the Trust, the Treasurer wants to sell of 1500 Trust homes to retire debt of $400 million, to compulsorily move tenants from these “more expensive” homes (because of rising land prices), and to raise housing trust rents. This is without building any more Trust homes…despite the human need, the emergency. Whether the new Housing Minister Jay Weatherill will resist this is yet to be seen.

Indeed it is an emergency!

Meanwhile, please buy The Big Issue, the independent magazine sold on the streets by vendors seeking to positively change their lives.

 

Chris White is a researcher at Flinders University and recent member of the SA Housing Trust Board.

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