A line in the sand on ending homelessness, Op Ed by Jenny Smith

New rough sleeping action plan is a turning point in #homelessness policy in Victoria #auspol #spingst Click To Tweet


When we look upon the streets, and into the parks of our towns and cities, we see the tip of the iceberg of homelessness in our community.  While those who are rough sleeping are a relatively small group, they are undoubtedly doing it very hard.  They are exacerbating their physical and mental health problems.  Many are on the receiving end of abuse, of violence, injury and even death.

Rough sleeping is the most visible symptom of our housing affordability crisis. For a single person on a low income, the situation is dire. The most recent DHHS rent report shows that last quarter just 4-in-1000 of Melbourne’s one-bedroom rentals would be affordable to a single person on Newstart. For the long-term homeless, this impossible housing situation is worsened by the impacts of mental illness, long-term unemployment, childhood trauma and substance abuse. For people with multiple, disadvantages, getting a home is half the challenge. ‘Staying housed’ can be equally difficult.

Rough sleepers often need ongoing support to keep a home and to stay engaged with health and welfare supports. Getting to appointments, maintaining mental health, treating the physical impacts of years on the street, dealing with crises, adjusting to a new life and neighbours, learning to cook and manage budgets, continuing medication – these are challenges that can become stumbling blocks, that can lead to loss of housing; tipping rough sleepers back into homelessness.

There is no doubt that rising homelessness is exercising the minds of governments across the western world.  The Victorian government has faced this challenge head on and seized the opportunity it presents for considered planning.  The Minister’s announcement of a Victorian rough sleeping action plan, is a critical turning point in homelessness policy in Victoria.  It will begin to turn off the tap of homelessness.

The plan contains service responses that are unarguably international best practice.  The new assertive outreach teams will engage rough sleepers, not just in the CBD, not just across metro Melbourne, but also in regional areas. This will reduce the ‘drift’ of rough sleepers to the inner city and CBD.

The Andrews government has recognised people with very complex problems are presenting and re-presenting to our homelessness services, as well as churning through our hospital emergency departments, psychiatric facilities and jails.  The action plan is a game changer.  Teams of skilled professionals across the state, will work closely with rough sleepers, for as long as they need after they are housed, to prevent them cycling back onto the street, and into hospitals and the justice system. The package also includes more homes for rough sleepers.

This is the piece of the puzzle we’ve been calling for, for a long time.  It will prevent some deaths such as we saw four years ago, with the tragic murder of Wayne ‘Mouse’ Perry, and puts a wedge firmly in the revolving door between homelessness, prison and hospitals.

This leadership will save taxpayers money in the long run, as we’ll see less people cycling through these institutions.

The past 12 months have been some of the darkest times for Melbourne’s homeless and for those who work with them.  Demonizing of those experiencing homelessness has been at an all-time high, driven by negative portrayals of homelessness by some media outlets. 


Thankfully it appears we’ve come full circle. Supporting rough sleepers is far more productive than punishing them with fines and confiscating belongings.

Today’s announcement is a light at the end of the tunnel. This comprehensive package is a line in the sand for homelessness in Victoria. But to make the plan foolproof, it needs Federal reinforcement to resolve the housing crisis that ultimately underlies all homelessness. With 200,000 people languishing on social housing wait lists nationally, it is time for our national government to come to the party and guarantee the pipeline of social housing that would ensure every Australian has a safe, affordable, permanent place to live.