Putting people experiencing homelessness in car parks is not the answer


Rising rents are pushing more people every day into homelessness. Homeless services are struggling to meet this need, because there simply isn’t housing available that people can afford. That means more people sleeping rough; occupying streets, parks and abandoned buildings across the nation.

In response to this human crisis, caring people want to help and try and identify solutions.  An example of people trying to find solutions is using empty carparks as homeless accommodation in Geelong.

Ending homelessness isn’t about providing shelter in a car park for an evening or two, it’s about providing good quality long-term housing and support for those who need it.

The problem with this kind of dormitory-style night shelter is that it is not a long-term answer, and in the short term, can be very dangerous.

In the 1990’s Victoria redeveloped its night shelters, moving away from large-scale, mainly dormitory-style, crisis accommodation — and this was done for good reason.

The night shelters were neither safe nor secure for people experiencing homelessness. They were frightening environments where violence, intimidation and sexual assault were commonplace. They had more in common with prisons or old style institutions than a home.

These were places where it wasn’t safe for staff to walk around buildings alone at night. For those most vulnerable, women, older people, people with mental illness and young people, they were particularly frightening.

Crisis-accommodation is often necessary, but it should always be safe.

While ad-hoc night shelters make people less visible, and give the general public and governments the impression that homelessness is being ‘taken care of’, this is not the reality.   

Ending homelessness isn’t about providing shelter in a car park for an evening or two, it’s about providing good quality long-term housing and support for those who need it.

Of course, it is frightening for people to have nowhere to go. But, the reality is that pushing large numbers of vulnerable people together into poorly supervised ad hoc arrangements can be at least as dangerous as sleeping rough. 

A car park will provide even less safety or security than the old style night shelters, and is also cold, dirty, and dehumanising. People will presumably need to be up and out of their bed before the parking day starts around 6am.   Where will they go then?

Staying in night shelters requires toughness and street smarts to survive. As people gain the smarts for this kind of accommodation, and suffer the emotional and physical ‘bruises’ of life lived on the edge, their lives tend to spiral downwards and hope fades. The skills and confidence required to manage an ordinary home are no longer required and can be diminished over time. This is one reason why the longer people are homeless, the more likely they will become entrenched in homelessness.

It’s why our solutions need to always focus on pathways out of homelessness,

Evidence in both Australia and overseas has shown that the best way to address long-term homelessness is by providing people with housing and support to manage health and other problems, an approach called Housing First. 

Provide a decent, affordable home in the community. Provide support to people to have their health needs met, to sustain their housing, and to create a better life for themselves.

These programs address the practical needs that people have, but they also offer something more that is also profoundly important. In what they offer, they say to people: you have dignity and worth, you have a right to be housed. We value you and have hope for your future.

This is the opposite of what we are saying to people when we tell them to sleep in a cold, dirty car park.

In Australia, we have a small smattering of Housing First programs, but nowhere near enough. We have hardly any social housing for single people, and so people languish on waiting lists for years.

People who are homeless need governments to make a significant investment to address this shortfall.

People are rightly shocked at the levels of homelessness in our community and want to help. However, the answer is not turning back the clock to the failed approach of the past, but to move forward with what we know works.