Submission to Foundations for Change – Homelessness in NSW

CPSA welcomes the opportunity to comment on Foundations for Change – Homelessness in NSW
Older people and homelessness

Increasing numbers of older Australians are becoming homeless. One in seven homeless people are over 55 years old, and the numbers are climbing, particularly among older women. Homelessness is a terrible situation to be in at any age, but for people over 55 the outlook is particularly bleak. Sixty-four per cent of people over 55 living on the street die within 5 years.

For many of this group, a lack of financial resources and assets has meant that they are unable to sustain their housing. Reasons identified from the research included:

  • Being forced out of the workforce early;
  • Having insufficient superannuation/savings
  • Discrimination in the housing market
  • Death of an income earning spouse
  • Poor health or serious illness often resulting from abuse.

The risk of homelessness among older Australians can only be reduced by Governments prepared to ensure an adequate supply of social and affordable housing for people on low incomes that is suitable to their needs and allows them to 'age in place'.

For this reason, CPSA advocates that the NSW Government commit to preventing homelessness among people over 55 by a guarantee of short-term or emergency housing at a minimum. This guarantee should be enshrined in legislation. Of particular concern is homelessness amongst older women. This is increasing yet hidden from the public eye. The 2011 NSW census found that 36 per cent of older homeless people were women. However, this figure is considered to be an underestimate as older women experiencing homelessness are not generally found in places where they can be counted, as few are sleeping rough or staying in crisis accommodation.

Older homeless women have not usually had a history of homelessness; they become homeless due to unemployment, illness or family crises such as separation, widowhood or domestic violence. Generally their housing problems result from their poverty.

Lack of housing

It is CPSA's position that lack of social housing is the root cause of homelessness in New South Wales. In the discussion about homelessness in NSW, issues that may cause people to lose their home, whether owned or rented, loom large in the debate on how to address homelessness. The premise appears to be that by addressing domestic violence, mental health problems, addiction and so on, homelessness can be reduced significantly.

While these issues are all important in their own right and they can and do in many instances cause people to become homeless, it is fanciful to think that homelessness can or should be addressed primarily by reducing the incidence of domestic violence, improving mental health care and addiction.

The primary function of social housing in NSW is to ensure every person eligible for housing support is housed.
It is a sinister inversion of the argument to blame homelessness on the circumstances from which demand for a home arises, rather than on the fact that there is no home to meet that demand. The NSW Government's Foundations for change – Homelessness in NSW discussion paper does identify social housing reform as a component of the NSW Government's homelessness strategy.

The Future Directions social housing program aims to (1) reduce homelessness; (2) provide more housing and support for those needing social housing; and (3) provide more support to help people divert from or successfully transition out of the social housing system.

The discussion paper uses the 2011 Census to put a number on the incidence of homelessness: 28,192, and notes that this figure represents an increase of 20 per cent compared with 2006. Homelessness in NSW is growing.

The combined public and community housing stock consists of just under 150,000 units with a further 21,000 units leased by FACS on the private rental market. This means that with a total stock of about 170,000 units and without a significant public and community housing building program, FACS is dealing with an unmet demand of 59,000 households, a capacity shortage of some 30 per cent [1].

In addition, the FACS Quarterly Statistical Social Housing Reports suggest that approximately 10,000 applicants (presumably households) are housed annually, of which 4,000 were previously homeless or at risk. It would therefore take a minimum of seven years just to house the 2011 Census number of NSW homeless of 28,192.

It is clear that for the NSW Homelessness Strategy to be effective it will need to commit to the creation of increased social housing supply. A NSW Homelessness Strategy that does not address unmet demand measuring 30 per cent of social housing stock cannot be a credible document.

CPSA recognises that an increased social housing supply is not a silver bullet solution. The prevention of people ending up living on the street is also critical to a successful homelessness strategy, because at that extremity the solution is no longer as simple and as relatively cheap as providing social housing.

The current system in New South Wales to prevent people from becoming homeless or remaining homeless largely consists in those people presenting for assistance. There are also initiatives where the community and government sectors act on certain indicators related to domestic violence, addiction and mental health problems, but there are no systems for monitoring the two most obvious indicators of imminent homelessness, rent arrears and mortgage defaults.

Discussion paper questions

How can government and non-government agencies build on previous NSW homelessness initiatives and plans to create a robust strategy to prevent and reduce homelessness in NSW?

Policy makers need to recognise that for the overwhelmingly larger part homelessness is due to lack of housing for people who become homeless for a variety of reasons. The focus of the policy response should therefore be to increase the supply of housing.

It is a mistake to think that the market will somehow ensure an increase in supply. People who have the financial resources to house themselves will do so. It is the people who actually fall into homelessness who do not have the economic power to even compete for affordable housing. People falling into homelessness may be dealing with other issues as well, but the biggest factor in them being homeless is that there is no house for them. Homelessness can therefore only be prevented and reduced if the NSW Government creates and subsidises housing specifically for people who are or are about to become homeless.

What are the key outcomes the homelessness system should deliver and what outcomes can it influence?

Appropriate and secure housing is a big factor in successfully managing issues such as domestic and family violence and mental health. However, it is fanciful to think that homelessness as a social issue can be meaningfully addressed or resolved by ramping up strategies addressing domestic and family violence and mental health. The key outcome for the homelessness system is to provide sufficient and appropriate housing for people who would otherwise become or continue to be homeless.

What role can the corporate sector, philanthropists and other people in the community play to help reduce homelessness?

There is a tendency in governments in Australia to seek policy solutions that are either market-based or charity-based. Governments need to recognise that they themselves need to ensure they are resourced to implement solutions to social problems. In the case of housing, Australian policy makers should look to Western-European countries, where governments plan and regulate housing across the private rental, owner-occupied and social housing sectors, and where rent regulation ensures that the incidence of homelessness is low.

Are there circumstances where it is more difficult to link people to a suitable housing option? What are the barriers?

The lack of supply of appropriate housing is the most significant barrier to find homeless people a house.

In addition to increasing housing supply, what actions are needed to improve access to housing for people experiencing homelessness and how can the access system for social housing be more responsive to their needs?

The lack of supply of appropriate housing is the most significant barrier to find homeless people a house.

What different supports or tenancy management approaches could help keep people at risk of homelessness in their homes?

Social housing providers need to accept that the right to a secure home is a human right and that eviction from the social housing system is a human rights abuse. It doesn't mean that rent payment delinquency and anti-social behaviour need not be dealt with, but eviction by the social housing system directly contributes to chronic homelessness and should therefore be an anathema. In NSW it currently isn't.

What needs to change to get greater private sector involvement in delivering social and affordable homes?

It is fanciful to think that the private sector, which responds to market indicators, would of its own accord become involved in addressing in social and affordable housing shortages. Regulation at the planning level is required to create the adequate supply and rent regulation is required to ensure that tenants and the Government subsidising those tenants can afford housing thus created. The NSW Government should regulate private sector rents and set commensurate rents for its social and affordable housing, while subsidising on a means-tested basis those tenants who cannot afford the regulated rent.

How can exit planning and pathways into housing be better connected?

The lack of supply of appropriate housing is the most significant barrier to finding people exiting from statutory care or the justice system a house.

How can employment initiatives be linked with other initiatives to support housing and homelessness outcomes?

Government employment initiatives should focus on getting people into work. However, the pre-requisite for any job is secure housing. In other words, housing and homelessness outcomes support employment, not the other way around. An adequate supply of social and affordable housing is a prerequisite for successful Government employment initiatives.

Recognising that there are many factors which can increase the risk of homelessness, how can services get better at identifying these people earlier and helping them to get support in place?

The current system in New South Wales to prevent people from becoming homeless or remaining homeless largely consists in those people presenting for assistance. There are also initiatives where the community and government sectors act on certain indicators related to domestic violence, addiction and mental health problems, but there are no systems for monitoring the two most obvious indicators of imminent homelessness, rent arrears and mortgage defaults.

Where are there program opportunities to improve the prevention of homelessness?

The current system in New South Wales to prevent people from becoming homeless or remaining homeless largely consists in those people presenting for assistance. There are also initiatives where the community and government sectors act on certain indicators related to domestic violence, addiction and mental health problems, but there are no systems for monitoring the two most obvious indicators of imminent homelessness, rent arrears and mortgage defaults.

What system-wide changes are required to focus on the prevention of homelessness?

The homelessness system needs to identify and where necessary create indicators of impending homelessness. Reports to police of domestic and family violence can be such an indicator, presentation at a hospital for mental health issues, rent arrears, mortgage defaults are all valid indicators of people at risk of losing their home. However, any system of indicator monitoring is pointless without an adequate supply of social housing to actually prevent a person from becoming homeless.

What data being collected by agencies could be shared to improve responses to homelessness?

The homelessness system needs to identify and where necessary create indicators of impending homelessness. Reports to police of domestic and family violence can be such an indicator, presentation at a hospital for mental health issues, rent arrears, mortgage defaults are all valid indicators of people at risk of losing their home. However, any system of indicator monitoring is pointless without an adequate supply of social housing to actually prevent a person from becoming homeless.

[1] Information lifted from www.facs.nsw.gov.au on 20 October 2016.