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Ending homelessness. It can be done.

This is an edited extract of VCOSS CEO Emma King’s presentation before Victoria’s first ever Parliamentary Inquiry into Homelessness.

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When we talk about homelessness, there is one key thing we much first acknowledge: we can end homelessness.

Homelessness is preventable. Homelessness is solvable.

Be under no illusion. Homelessness has been created by choices made in the past, and choices that continue to be made today. Choices about how society is structured, about how our economy is run, and about how services are funded.

Homelessness exists because of the choices we as a community make every single day about what is a priority, and what isn’t.

These choices have led to the fact that tonight in Victoria nearly 25,000 people, including around 5,000 kids, will be without a home. That’s tonight alone.

The good news is because homelessness has been created by us, it can be solved by us.

By making different choices, we can end homelessness in Victoria.

A lack of knowledge or ideas isn’t the problem. We know what works here in Victoria and what doesn’t work, and we know what has worked overseas.

What’s lacking, in general terms, is a broad, deep and sustained commitment to pursuing what works, and doing so on the scale, and for the length of time required, to really make a difference.

Let’s be absolutely clear here: ending homelessness will cost money upfront.

Yes, there are smart things we can do that cost very little. But the big, seismic things we must to do end homelessness will cost money now, and only generate savings later.

Savings in the crisis services we’ll no longer need to fund, and the prisons we will no longer need to build. Savings from the economic benefits from having more people in study, or in work.

What’s lacking … is a broad, deep and sustained commitment to pursuing what works, and doing so on the scale, and for the length of time required, to really make a difference.

The first thing we need to do is dramatically increase our public and community housing stock. We need at least 6,000 new public and community homes to be built each year, to be exact.

Victoria talks a lot about the Big Build. We love to see cranes on the horizon, and tradies, builders, engineers and architects in work. What we need is a Big Build to end homelessness.

We will never genuinely end homelessness if people don’t have homes to live in. It’s as simple as that.

 

What does homelessness look like?

Homelessness does not mean rooflessness.

We know there may be 25,000 experiencing homelessness on any given night in Victoria. The most visible form of homelessness remains rough sleeping, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Much more common in Victoria is so-called ‘hidden homelessness’, where where a person may have a roof over their head, but have no security and no private or social space. That is, the elements of what makes a house a home.

They may be in a registered or unregistered rooming houses, be living in a severely overcrowded dwelling, couch surfing, staying in a motel or sleeping in their car.

 

What is the scale of the problem we are facing?

Some VCOSS members are funded homelessness services and provide support to people at risk of, or experiencing, homelessness.

Almost 17,000 people used homelessness services in 2017–18, but every day about 90 people are turned away from these services without even a conversation about what support they might needed.

And that’s just the official, reported figure. Some VCOSS members say they alone turn away about 90 people each day because they’re unable to meet demand.

This is a person walking into a hospital emergency department with a gash in your arm and blood dripping on the floor, and a nurse saying “Come back when it’s infected”.

37% of people who presented to a homelessness service were already homeless when they sought support. This is just another example of how our current system is set up for crisis. We shouldn’t be waiting until people are in crisis before helping them.

Because of our critical shortage of affordable housing in Victoria, once people are homeless, it is so much more difficult to help them.

 

So how do we end homelessness for good?

There is no single experience of homelessness, meaning there is no single solution. Tomes can be written about the many policies, programs and initiatives needed end homelessness.

But as a starting point Victoria must stop relying on services, especially homelessness services, to respond to crises. The way to end homelessness is to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place.

We’ll need to make change in five key areas to prevent homelessness:

 

Structural reform

We can prevent homelessness through structural change. That is, do something about the economic, environmental and social conditions that affect people’s opportunity. The main structural change we want to see is the dramatic increase in public and community housing we already mentioned. Other structural changes are already happening, such as the residential tenancies reforms. We should continue to explore planning and land use solutions, like using vacant government land and inclusionary zoning.

Systemic reform

We absolutely need to do something about poverty; a good place to start is by raising Newstart.

Early intervention

We can do more to improve access to the service system. As things stand, there is a hodgepodge of under-funded, narrow and disconnected programs that work if and when people can access them. The help people get depends strongly on where they turn.

Eviction prevention

Everything that we are doing to intervene early to prevent life’s disruptions from escalating into crisis makes a difference, but there’s more to do. Early intervention responses include legal assistance, advocacy, financial counselling and emergency financial relief, flexible funding packages, negotiation with landlords and real estate agents and more.

Housing stability

When people have housing, the easiest thing we can do is support people to hang onto it. This means resourcing services which support people as soon as their housing comes under stress, rather than waiting until they are on the brink of homelessness. We can prevent people from being turned away from homelessness services if we fortified the safety net in other parts of the service system.

 

Being bold

Imagine if Victoria declared ‘enough was enough’. If our parliamentarians made this pledge: from today, the State of Victoria will not allow one more person to become homeless?

Such a course of action wouldn’t solve all the challenges facing people who are already homeless, and it wouldn’t fix our chronic shortage of public and community housing. All that would still need to be done.

But we have to start somewhere. We have to stop the bleeding.

And what better way to start than by putting a stake in the ground and saying: No more. Not any longer. Not on our watch.