Homelessness has long been described as a ‘wicked problem’.
Despite the tireless efforts of the specialist homelessness sector, other intersecting parts of the community sector and governments, the number of people experiencing homelessness remains unacceptably high.
More than 100,000 people turned up at Victorian homelessness service last year asking for help. However, this statistic only tells part of the story.
For example, there are 100,000 people waiting for a home (on the Victorian Housing Register) and nearly a million Victorians living in housing stress on the edge of homelessness.
Behind every number is a person – which can make the magnitude of the problem feel overwhelming. However, for the first time in a long time, there’s a real chance to turn things around.
Over the past couple of decades there’s been a steady paradigm shift in the way we think about ending homelessness. The concept of ‘Housing First’ has taken hold and – excitingly – we’re seeing an acceleration of this approach in Victoria.
Housing First is a model of homelessness support that is, literally, ‘housing first’. Stable housing is provided to people experiencing long-term homelessness, with support services usually attached. But housing is the starting point.
It’s a human rights approach that is distinctly different to models that make housing conditional on people engaging with support services to address individual drivers of homelessness (such as counselling for substance use) or that only provide a person with housing after they have changed some element of their personal behaviour (like not drinking alcohol).
There’s a wealth of research showing that Housing First approaches, first adopted in the US in the 1990s, significantly help people break free from homelessness, especially chronic or recurring homelessness and rough sleeping.
Home is a bedrock, and Housing First approaches recognise this.
‘Housing First’ seems like a no-brainer. But it’s still early days for the implementation of this best practice model in Australia.
Emma from the Peter McVerry Trust (Ireland) explains the benefits of Housing First.
The Victorian Government has gone some way towards implementing Housing First models in recent years – including the Melbourne Street to a Home Initiative and Victoria’s Homelessness and Rough Sleeper Action Plan.
Most recently, there’s been the From Homelessness to a Home program that’s finding permanent homes for the roughly 1,700 people the government whisked into emergency hotel accommodation as the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
But funding for each of these programs has been time-limited.
Another barrier preventing this proven approach from being adopted uniformly and permanently is the lack of affordable long-term housing, especially social housing.
No amount of support will enable a person to move into and sustain a home if there isn’t a suitable, affordable home available. Social housing is a key solution for Victorians who can’t access homes in the private market, for a range of reasons including low incomes and high costs, discrimination or because there is not sufficient housing stock in the private rental market that meets the needs of older renters or renters with disabilities.
No amount of support will enable a person to move into and sustain a home if there isn’t a suitable, affordable home available.
The Victorian Government’s $5.3 billion Big Housing Build package announced last year promises to deliver 9,000 new social housing properties over the next four years (plus close to 3,000 new ‘affordable homes’).
This is a record level of investment and is a big step towards delivering the steady pipeline of new public and community housing needed to systematically implement a Housing First model across Victoria.
Importantly, Victoria is also developing a 10-Year Social and Affordable Housing Strategy. We’ve estimated that Victoria will require 60,000 new social housing homes by 2031 to fully meet community need.
We’ve also identified that investment is required to make sure a diverse range of programs are available to intervene early and prevent evictions. This is crucial for Victorians to sustain the transition out of homelessness.
But, for the first time in a long time, there’s a real chance to make a systemic difference to this problem, and to the lives of people experiencing homelessness.
The Victorian Government has taken another positive step towards universal implementation of Housing First with the From Homelessness to a Home program, and has demonstrated willingness to follow the research about what support works for people with complex needs or who’ve experienced recurring or chronic homelessness.
In the 2021 Victorian Budget, we need the Government to sustain the From Homelessness to a Home program, and incorporate Housing First models across the service system.
Because a safe home is a human right that needs to come first for every Victorian.