The Ethics and Legality of Homelessness in Australia in 2021
It is a great privilege to be a part of 3RDSPACE as Chairman of the Board of Directors.
We get to see and support the fabulous work done by staff and volunteers, with up to 1000 visits each week by people in the direst need of respite and support as they battle being without a safe home to live and rest in.
In recent days I’ve had the privilege of personally supporting the Everybody’s Home campaign for Federal Government funding to end homelessness in the coming Budget.
I also sent copies of the following article to parliamentarians and posted it on LinkedIn and Facebook.
It’s a personal view but I hope you find it interesting and that it leaves you wanting to support action.
The problem of homelessness is an avalanche gathering speed.
The numbers of people without any kind of home will increase in Australia from 20,000 to at least 30,000 by 2025. That’s a 50% increase in 5 years.
Having a nation where people who are experiencing social, health and economic distress and also can’t find safe housing is a national disgrace, which for some reason we, the people, continue to allow to persist.
Why do we allow homelessness to persist in our modern, prosperous and advanced communities?
Homelessness is a chronic social, political and economic issue that will not solve itself. Homelessness will not go away unless action is taken.
The system for solving homelessness is broken.
The range of people experiencing homelessness in 2021 covers all sections of our community and as noted above, it is getting worse at approximately 10% each year.
The days of thinking of homeless people as male, 40-60 years old, alcoholic, unemployed and isolated are gone.
In 2021, homeless people comprise little babies through to 85+ oldies, all genders, people from cities and towns and rural areas, all ethnic groups, all socio-economic groups and a disproportionate number of Indigenous people.
We, the people, don’t want others in our society to be treated unfairly and as some kind of lesser human beings.
Yet we allow homelessness to persist.
There seem to be three main reasons:
1. Misunderstanding about how easy it is for ordinary people to become homeless
2. Misunderstanding about the constitutional and political responsibility of the State
3. Misunderstanding about how easy it is to solve homelessness.
It’s easy for people to end up in the most severe conditions in our nation, trying to survive day to day. Many don’t survive homelessness. Statistics are unclear but suggest that for every 10 people who are chronically homeless i.e. literally living on the streets, about 3-5 die every year. We have about 5,000 people who are chronically homeless, suggesting that about 2,000 people are dying each year by being forced to live on the streets.
It is a convenient mistruth that homeless people are those who have chosen to live that way.
Sure, ordinary people make bad life choices. They make mistakes.
But virtually no one “chooses” a lifestyle of violence, degradation, exposure to the elements, illness and social isolation.
Even prisoners live better – and the average cost of keeping a prisoner in jail is about $1m per year!
Today, the causes of homelessness are becoming more complex: poverty, unemployment, mental illness, new illicit drugs and cross-generational trauma from neglect and abuse.
Once a person becomes homeless, the chances of them becoming sicker, more subject to ongoing violence and more unemployable increase dramatically; how can anyone hold a job, be healthy, feel safe and have healthy relationships when living on the streets?
Unless we, the community, require transformation the issues of homelessness and the paralysis in problem-solving will continue.
Under the existing policies of government, the number of people who don’t have a safe place to call home continues to rise. Government policies are not even keeping pace with, let alone improving, the rates of housing the homeless.
Coupled with the risk of epidemics, social unrest, new emerging addictive drugs and the explosion of mental illness, there is an increased risk of a social upheaval triggered by that avalanche in the number of people who have no hope, no help, no future.
All it may take is something as simple as another pandemic which quickly spreads to people experiencing homelessness. There would be a high danger of not being able to trace covid if homeless people contracted it
But is doesn’t have to be that way.
It is practical for every person who needs a safe home to have one.
Every year governments at both state and federal levels find hundreds of billions of dollars to finance the building of hospitals, bridges, tunnels, schools, parks, airports, shipping ports, aged care facilities, disability services, guided missiles, submarines.
Yet we don’t seem to be able to find maybe $10 billion over several years to build safe homes for every person who needs one.
Why is that? What forces are at play, preventing a solution?
Why don’t governments want to solve the issue?
State and Federal Governments have the financial resources to do it; taxes and loan funds go out for Olympic Games bids, tourism ventures, landscaped parks, solar energy subsidies, mass vaccinations, industry subsidies, research and development initiatives, new jails, so why not safe, life-sustaining housing for all?
Do governments think that homeless people aren’t as worthy as any of these activities?
When government wants to fund new projects they find the funding, sometimes through taxation but much more often through raising funds in the capital markets.
Every year, State government treasury departments raise hundreds of billions of dollars for projects.
Why can’t they marshal a few billion through direct State funding or through Federal Government grants to solve homelessness?
Must we continue indefinitely to see inaction and inefficiency in holding the status quo?
Do Governments not see it as their responsibility?
They have both constitutional powers and responsibilities to provide people who need homes, at both State and Federal level.
While the Commonwealth doesn’t have specific constitutional power over housing the population, they have the resources to act, much as they do for many state areas of responsibility like roads, schools, health and the like.
The old argument that housing is a state responsibility is true legally but no longer is it true morally, ethically or electorally.
It may also be untrue legally: if the States have a constitutional responsibility to provide housing for all, are they acting illegally in not providing it?
Do governments not know what to do to solve homelessness?
They say continually that homelessness is a complex problem. That is compete nonsense.
Sure, the causes of homelessness are complex, but the answer is simple: build more homes!
So, if governments know what is required to fix homelessness, is it that they just aren’t capable of marshalling the public service resources to fix homelessness?
Is it a case of bureaucratic incompetence? It doesn’t seem so.
In the current COVID pandemic, Housing Department officials across Australia have mustered tens of thousands of accommodation units and got people off the streets and out of over-crowded, unsanitary, violence-filled accommodation.
The Prime Minister, Ministers and Premiers have made the financial resources available for short term relief but now are crying poor that that kind of relief can’t continue forever.
But it can. They just have to have the same kind of commitment they have to other projects.
So, if building and maintaining sufficient homes for the whole population is economically and financially doable and is morally, ethically and legally right, do our governments, for some other reason, actually want some of the people in their electorates to be unsafe, insecure and not having a decent home?
It’s impossible to imagine what that reason could be.
Do governments think it is not worth providing mentally and physically distressed and ill, addicted, vulnerable, aged and young people in their communities with secure, safe homes so they can experience dignity, protection and support?
Numerous studies show governments actually save money when people are not on the streets, requiring police, ambulance, hospital, welfare and crisis support service.
It is cheaper to have everyone who needs a home housed and supported than on the streets.
In simpler times, not-for-profits and charities were able to provide relief.
Some housing was provided by them but never enough.
Even back in the early days of the colonial governments and as we moved into the early days of Federation, governments understood their responsibility to provide housing for all.
Housing Departments had large budgets to build and maintain housing for the growing population.
And other schemes prevented homeless such as the opening up of Crown land at no cost and Veterans’ return from war land packages.
Homelessness still occurred but it was at a much, much lower level than it is today.
From the 1980’s on, governments fell prey to the orthodoxy that it was the private sector that is best placed to provide public housing.
The result of that policy change has been a multi-decade disaster that is getting worse.
Private sector housing providers cannot build sufficient affordable public housing without large- scale government financing.
This is especially so in relation to the most vulnerable people experiencing homelessness. Unless governments provide the construction capital and subsidise the rentals of tenants, private companies can never make an economic case for construction work and the most vulnerable will never be housed.
Is the real reason for the crisis in homelessness that Governments are just plain apathetic about the issue?
Don’t they want to end homelessness because the electing public don’t care either?
That seems to be the answer as to why Governments don’t want to solve homelessness: there aren’t votes in it.
What does this say about our society?
It’s hard to imagine a single elector actually wanting to vote for a party that has a policy for homelessness to continue.
It’s easy to imagine electors wanting to endorse parties that protect our public health, build new infrastructure, provide education, AND provide safe, good standard homes for those who can’t solve their lack of homelessness without our help.
Even those who naively think that homelessness is a choice would be glad to see everyone who lives in our communities safely homed.
It all comes down to this: unless governments see that while there may not be votes to win an election on homelessness, there is a need for fairness, ethics and community responsibility to kick in.
Homelessness is the ugly face of a deep ethical problem: those with the power to solve homelessness, be they government ministers, parliamentarians or public servants, do not act to solve a very solvable problem.
Now is the time for governments to act.
State Governments have studied homelessness for over a hundred years.
They know the numbers, they know the costs.
They need to put compelling cases to the Federal Government for finance.
It doesn’t matter whether political parties have values of providing opportunity or social values of promoting equity and fairness. Homeless people need opportunity and they need fair treatment, which they are not getting from either side of politics.
Only Governments can solve homelessness by providing the necessary capital to build and maintain our most vulnerable people in safe, decent housing.
It requires a transformational mindset: it cannot be more of the same. It cannot be incremental change.
A new mindset is required: “Provide Homes For All.”
The time is right for a transformation in homelessness.
Specifically, governments at State level can marshal capital to finance private industry to construct new housing.
In Queensland about 20,000 homes and units are needed right now.
The figures are proportionally similar in each State.
State Governments then need to provide ongoing maintenance funding for people on low or no incomes to stay housed and in decently maintained dwellings.
Does that seem like too difficult a solution to implement?
What it all seems to come down to is this:
1. Governments say there is not enough money to solve homelessness. But there is.
2. Politicians don’t think there are votes in it. But there could be, provided they take on political leadership and explain why homelessness diminishes our society.
Dostoevsky said: “The degree of civilisation can be judged by entering its prisons.” I would add “…and counting the numbers of people without safe homes.”
Would you be content to live without a home? Is it reasonable to expect anyone in our society today to have to live without a home?
If you support the case put here, please advocate for transformational action by your local State and Federal members of parliament.
Please sign the petition at: https://everybodyshome.com.au
Please also forward this note to friends, family and colleagues so we can build awareness and support.