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We must shift our homelessness outrage ‘up . . .

We must shift our homelessness outrage ‘up the food chain’

By Llewellyn Reynders.
Published on the VCOSS Voice on 11 April 2017.
http://vcoss.org.au/blog/shifting-out-homelessness-outrage-up-the-food-chain/

That ‘prevention is better than cure’ is such a universally acknowledged and repeated truth it long ago become a cliché. But overuse shouldn’t detract from its meaning.

Everybody agrees it’s better to regulate air travel than just investigate when disasters occur. We know having a fire plan can save your life in a bushfire. And whatever Pauline Hanson says, it’s better to vaccinate your kids before they get whooping cough.

This is uncontroversial to the point of mundane.

So if prevention is the approach du jour, why do we spend so little time and money preventing homelessness?

Sure, a huge amount of energy is expended discussing people who have already hit rock bottom: how to support them, where they should (and shouldn’t) be allowed they sleep, etc. These are critical discussions. Homelessness is a great scourge on our society and people who experience homelessness need our compassion, understanding and support.

But if just 20 per cent of the public discussion was about how to prevent people becoming homeless in the first place, we’d be much closer to a genuine solution.

Supporting people when their housing is under threat is far more cost-effective than waiting for them to become homeless.

If we’re serious about combating homelessness we must move our outrage ‘up the food chain’.

 

This is why social advocacy bodies like VCOSS are urging Victoria to adopt a robust homelessness prevention model that puts a handbrake on vulnerable people sliding towards homelessness.

Such a system could:

  • SUPPORT people negotiating with their landlords or creditors
  • BROKER finance to help people manage rent debts or damage bills
  • PROVIDE legal assistance so tenants can fight unfair eviction notices
  • DELIVER financial counselling for people struggling to pay the rent
  • REFER tenants to expert support for family breakdowns, violence, abuse, drug and alcohol issues or mental health concerns
  • HELP tenants to overcome literacy or language barriers that prevent them resolving problems with their landlord.

Such measures to support at-risk tenants could dramatically reduce homelessness in Victoria.

They could provide a place for landlord and real estate agents to refer people to get tenancies back on track, instead of evicting people into homelessness. However, they would need to be funded separately from frontline crisis services which are already struggling with overwhelming demand and shrinking budgets.

It’s right to recognise that homelessness prevention work is already being undertaken, including by community sector organisations like the Salvation Army and Launch Housing.

For example, the Social Housing Advocacy and Support Program provides tailored case management to stabilise and maintain people’s tenancies, preventing them from becoming homeless. But it’s restricted to public housing tenants, and misses the large numbers of private renters and community housing tenants whose housing is under threat.

(The program was first trialed by the Kennett Government in the 1990s. It was so successful helping people sustain their tenancies Labor expanded it in partnership with 11 community sector support agencies. But the program’s funding was slashed in 2012.)

As VCOSS and an alliance of support agencies have argued previously, it’s shameful that there are people homeless in a country as affluent as Australia.

But the real shame is how this crisis only generates outrage and reaction when it’s visible on our streets.

If we’re serious about combating homelessness we must move our outrage ‘up the food chain’.

We must help people at risk of homelessness, not ignore them only to feign indignation when they later have the gall to sleep in the city or ask for help.

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