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Are we really failing the homeless? Crunching the new data

News that homelessness has increased appears to show the government is failing on the issue. But as Crikey intern Sally Whyte discovers, that’s not the whole story.

Fresh data appears to show the federal government’s promise to halve homelessness by 2020 is failing: the number of homeless people has increased by 8% over the last five years.

But an analysis by Crikey has found that perception of failure may not be justified as the situation is complicated. For starters, Labor has followed through on most of its promises on homelessness and progress is being made in ways which the data may not yet capture.

Statistics released this week show that despite most promises in the government’s The Road Home white paper being acted on, reaching targets to reduce homelessness looks increasingly difficult. Homelessness has increased by 8% nationally from the 2006 census to the 2011 census, despite then-prime minister Kevin Rudd pledging in 2008 to halve homelessness by 2020.

The numbers point to a 13.5% decrease in people “sleeping rough”, but a 31% increase in people living in overcrowded houses. Support services say this shows success in getting people off the streets but a continued shortage in public housing. The number of homeless rose from 89,728 in 2006 to 105, 237 in 2011. The increase in people registered in overcrowded accommodation made up 64% of the 15,509 additional homeless people.

Much of the media coverage presented the data as evidence of policy failure. But a closer look reveals a more nuanced situation.

The government’s white paper promised $1.2 billion in funding from federal and state governments over five years; $800 million to the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness and $400 million to the National Partnership on Social Housing. The report also flagged a Council on Homelessness reporting to the prime minister, progress reports by the COAG Reform Council, legislation to replace the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act and establishing the Bea Miles Foundation.

The white paper has mostly been acted upon by federal and state governments, but success hasn’t necessarily followed in kind.

So far the only element to have stalled is the Bea Miles Foundation. Touted as a way to “work in partnership with the business and corporate sectors to harness their efforts in reducing homelessness”, the foundation is believed to have been shelved due to the GFC. According to Tony Nicholson, chair of the Council on Homelessness, “it awaits better times”.

The COAG Reform Council and the Council on Homelessness have both reported back to government, giving a clearer vision of housing affordability problems and data collection of people experiencing homelessness and at risk of homelessness. Federal Housing Minister Brendan O’Connor told the National Press Club yesterday that $11 million was spent on research into homelessness.

As far as legislation to replace 1994’s Supported Accommodation Assistance Act, the government released the exposure draft of the Homelessness Bill 2012 in June.

So money has been spent and councils have reported. Nicholson says the money is still effective despite homelessness apparently rising, “otherwise we would have seen an increase in rough sleepers”.

Dr John Falzon, CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society, tells Crikey that rough sleepers are “notoriously hard to keep track of”, but believes the numbers reflect what the society’s volunteers are observing, especially in relation to overcrowded houses. According to Bob McColl at the ABS, 550 extra census collectors worked with support services to more accurately count homeless people, including in regional areas. Nicholson says the ABS data has come from “the most robust counting rules that we’ve ever had on homelessness”, but the figures are now 14 months old. According to more recent data seen by the Council on Homelessness, “we do seem to be making progress”.

Nicholson says the interim target of reducing rough sleeping by 25% by the end of 2013 is “realistically achievable”, but the target of reducing overall homelessness by 20% has run into the hurdle of affordable housing. Falzon says he is an “eternal optimist” when it comes to the 2013 benchmark. Mission Australia’s executive leader of community services, James Toomey, thinks reaching the 20% figure will be difficult. All experts agree that renewed commitment and funding will be needed to reach the 2020 target.

In 2011, just 6% of homeless people were on the streets, down from 8% in 2006 and 9% in 2001. As well as rough sleepers, the overall homelessness figure includes couch surfers, people in supported housing and overcrowded housing.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians make up 25% of the homeless population, at 26,744. The rate of homelessness amongst indigenous Australians is 488 per 10,000, compared to 49 per 10,000 for the general population. McColl says it is still possible that the census undercounted the rate of homelessness among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. Living in overcrowded accommodation is a severe problem in the Northern Territory where 244 per 10,000 people live in accommodation that would require at least four more bedrooms to accommodate people adequately.

The COAG Reform Council’s most recent housing affordability report for 2010-2011 shows there is no indication affordability has improved, and the private rental market has actually worsened significantly for the lowest income houses. “This problem is not going to go away unless we tackle the problem of public housing,” said Falzon.

Without investment in housing, rough sleeping may decrease but homelessness overall may not. According to the National Housing Supply Council, there is a shortage of 539,000 rental properties for lower income renters across the country. Nicholson thinks that public housing across the country is in “dire straits”.

Meanwhile, COAG is due to discuss extending the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness, which expires in June next year, tomorrow. O’Connor has called for states and territories to match federal homelessness funding for the 2013-2014 financial year while a longer term agreement is negotiated. It is the second last meeting before the agreement expires and so far no state has committed to further spending.

O’Connor told the Press Club he would approach the states to negotiate a partnership to replace the NPAH. He says the current $1.1 billion agreement would not simply roll on, and that he expects states to be more transparent.

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  • 1
    CML
    Posted Thursday, 15 November 2012 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    I live in SA. What hope do the homeless people have when governments do such stupid things. A few weeks ago, the SA government announced a grant of $8,500 dollars for ANYONE who wantd to build a NEW home. There does not appear to be a means test on this policy, and apparently it also applies to investor purchased new homes (as opposed to owner-occupied ones). The only caveat is that the home must be worth under $500,000 dollars. I think these details are correct, but am open to comment if not.
    For heaven sake, why wasn’t this money put into public housing for those people who could never afford to build their own home, no matter what the cost? All this does is further enhance the riches of those few who can afford to invest in housing for rental. And we all know how affordable private rental properties are when you are on a pension or low income! Blo+dy crazy!
    The reason given by the government for this grant, was to bolster the construction industry, which is in dire straits here. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to them that the houses would still be built, no matter which sector (private or public) if they supply the money. At least the poor/homeless would have half a chance of a roof over their heads if there was more public housing.

  • 2
    michael crook
    Posted Thursday, 15 November 2012 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    At a time when the states are reneging on their commitments or duckshoving costs to the Federal Government homelessness can only increase. As one of the 550 census collectors doing the homeless census, I found it very difficult to track down homeless persons that I actually knew , from my own previous association with local community centres, were there. Also a lot of the car sleepers, did not want to take part.

  • 3
    Bill
    Posted Thursday, 15 November 2012 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    Without denying that homelessness is a real problem, it may not be the case that homelessness has increased by 8%. The data collection methodology has changed significantly, so it is not really useful to compare the raw numbers.

  • 4
    The Old Bill
    Posted Friday, 16 November 2012 at 12:30 am | Permalink

    Not only does the SA government give away money to people for investment properties, but they are selling off their Trust housing stocks as fast as possible without replacing them. Soon there will be no housing except that available from private sources. At least it’s good weather here at the moment

  • 5
    Leo Braun
    Posted Tuesday, 20 November 2012 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    To the attention Minister for Housing, Tim Mander!

    The Concept of ‘Home’ is of Growing Importance in the Law!

    For the majority, “home is a lot more than shelter. Home is a place of security, belonging and comfort”, Justice Bell said. Forced eviction of vulnerable people raises profoundly important social, ethical and legal issues. Such people are very vulnerable and their human rights are imperilled by their circumstances!

    Hence in a nutshell, Justice Bell believes that current state laws do not adequately protect the security of tenure for public housing tenants, who can be evicted without reason or cause. During 18-09-12 lecture at Monash University, Faculty of Law, Justice Kevin Bell of the Victorian Supreme Court focused precisely on such a lack of protection from forced eviction of people living in public housing.

    No wonder smart state Dept of Housing offloaded touchy stock to community housing companies. Whatever it takes to outsource our elementary needs of existence. Just as deregulated banks borrowed recklessly to finance speculative bubble. Ballooned as feds abolished death duty and halved the capital gains tax. Along the frenzy feeding via negative gearing with tax deductibility of the interest against all the income.

    No wonder for rental market’s inflation!

    To offset which, public housing ought to represent at least 6% of the total housing stock. Because public housing underpins an entire housing system, beside the rendered an anti-inflationary benefit to the economy in the lucky country. Where life vital necessities should have never turned into the lucrative commodities. Yet astonishingly Aussie taxpayers in fact subsidised feds endorsed gainful galore (to please the insatiable capitalists) to the detriment duped citizens.

    What hope do the homeless and low income battlers have, when the Newman Government reintroduced stamp duty concessions in Queensland for repeat home purchasers, costing the state budget over $250 million in lost revenue. Then having chutzpah to siphon $5 million from the Tenant Advice and Advocacy Program. Hell bent to annihilate any systemic advocacy (offered by the Tenants’ Union of Queensland) for the helpless tenants.

    Claiming: “this money was needed to fund social housing programs”, although celebrating “RIVERFIRE” extravaganza at the taxpayers expense! Followed by the review of tenancy law and social housing entitlements. Culminating in rent hike, cut tenancy agreements length and tackled under-occupancy issues (out of sight pesky media).

    It is hard not to see the funding withdrawal as anything but a way to silence tenants advocacy groups. Ironically, Director General Natalie McDonald insisted in the Tenant News Feb 2005: “Dept of Housing will continue to reinvest in quality housing outcomes and assist as many Queenslanders as possible to enjoy the security and equity, public housing offers”!

    Speaking of which, having initially moved to the Public Housing after signing Residential Tenancy Agreement (0010139532) on 19-08-98. Signed jointly with my defacto partner. Yet short lived euphoria dissipated as blacklisted on unemployables heap — faced moreover tribulations as a result of the hijacked father in Poland. Thus compelled to venture abroad in Aug 2000. Whereas on my return in Sept 2001, I contemplated moving to Melbourne.

    Though interim having rented a room in Annie Street. However relocation idea didn’t come to fruition, so I applied for the public housing on 27-09-02. Subsequently, I was uprooted in 2006, from the Warry Street domicile due to the site redevelopment. So at that stage having had a major chat with my ex partner apropos allowing me to lodge in her place, for the time being.

    Once received consent, especially Centrelink’s on 12-04-06, Dept of Housing started charging rent on 24-04-06. Only to dump me from the queue on 25-08-08, because I had a roof overhead, while awaiting for public housing. Then terror came as Dr Flegg’s Policy Advisor insinuated on 14-11-12 (Ref COM 12597-2012) that since a couple was entitled to occupy one bedroom unit, Dept of Housing cast-out living arrangement of separated under one roof.

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