For homeless people, the types of services offered may vary considerably according to where they are based, a recent analysis suggests. People who are homeless in Darwin get different treatment to the homeless in Sydney.

Homeless people in Sydney may benefit from a comprehensive assertive outreach service that not only provides much-needed housing, but also assistance in maintaining a home and improving physical and mental health states. The situation is similar in Brisbane where outreach is available to people on the street and post-housing, though the capacity for delivering health services is somewhat limited by lack of professional support.

In Darwin, assertive outreach does not address housing or health-care issues but rather focuses on preventing “antisocial” behaviour by “moving on” people who dwell in public places. Those who are visitors are also encouraged to “return to country”.

One of the questions this raises is whether law-and-order perspectives dominate policies for indigenous people (in the NT anyway) rather than a more holistic health and welfare approach employed in other places.

The report, The Role of Assertive Outreach in Ending “Rough Sleeping”, by Rhonda Phillips and Cameron Parsell of the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, examines how assertive outreach can be realised and implemented in Australia and to what extent it is achieving its policy objectives thus far.

Assertive outreach refers to actions that deliberately and strategically work towards ending a person’s state of homelessness. It specifically targets those who are “sleeping rough”, which includes people who are literally homeless and those who may be sleeping in derelict buildings, cars and/or public areas.

The Australian government aims to reduce the current rate of overall homelessness by half and offer supported housing to all rough sleepers who seek it by 2020. In order to achieve this goal, assertive outreach has become the core approach for homelessness strategies implemented across the country.

The report researches assertive outreach case studies from Sydney, Brisbane and Darwin. Assertive outreach in Sydney and Brisbane consisted of street-based outreach to prioritise and assist vulnerable people to exit rough sleeping, and post-housing outreach to help them to sustain their tenancies and achieve better health, social and economic well-being.

While both cities worked towards the common goal of permanently ending rough sleeping at a policy and practical level, Sydney excelled by recruiting a multidisciplinary team comprising of peer support workers, non-specialist housing outreach workers and hospital-supported health professionals for a highly integrated response.

The Brisbane program is staffed only  by non-specialist housing outreach workers to perform street-based and post-housing approaches, and enlisted the help of the government Homeless Health Outreach Team and a community nurse to collaborate with and support them on a short-term basis.

The outcomes, informed by review of early outcomes and service-user feedback indicate that although the assertive outreach efforts were mainly focused on housing provision, the program on the whole was generally successful. User perspectives showed that the persistent and assertive approach of workers was a desired feature of the programs: workers actively approached users, assumed responsibility of the entire housing application process and helped participants to address other personal problems without being disrespectful or coercive.

The primary issue that confronted the practices was the programs’ restricted capacity to supply enough housing. The limited availability of social housing resulted in a constant state of more people requiring housing than could be provided. Furthermore, only a small number of those who achieved housing were reunited with family or moved into non-social housing options.

The distinct model of assertive outreach adopted by Darwin is mainly a product of its local context. First, the target population itself is a barrier to the type of assertive outreach that is practised in Sydney and Brisbane. Darwin has a significant homeless population — up to 2000 on any given night and the majority are Aborigines or Torres Strait Islanders who practise activities such as public dwelling, drinking and temporary travels.

To add to the matter, housing is significantly more scarce in Darwin, making accommodation provision virtually impossible. For these reasons, assertive outreach is not conceptualised as a model to achieve permanent housing for rough sleepers in Darwin.

Assertive outreach in Darwin is a policy response to “antisocial” behavior — a term that encompasses activities that are associated with rough sleeping, public intoxication, transience and short-term visiting. The program is driven by law-and-order considerations, managed and funded by the Department of Justice and not integrated within the health policy framework.

Peter Fray

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