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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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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