To end homelessness we need to change our thinking

Just over a year ago, Wayne ‘Mouse’ Perry was stabbed to death while sleeping rough at Enterprise Park on the edge of the Melbourne CBD. A few weeks later a man was stabbed in a rooming house in Kew and in July last year two young people died near Ballarat while sleeping in their car on a cold night. These were high profile cases that stirred all kinds of public grief and calls for action.

At the end of 2014, a year where homelessness featured in the media and public discourse more heavily than it had for decades, we were left with funding cuts from the federal government and uncertainty at the state level. It begs the question: why haven’t these high profile deaths translated into any real social or political action? Is it because we think that homelessness is inevitable? Or that individuals are to blame for their situation and therefore less deserving of help?

Or maybe it’s because as a collective, we’ve been thinking about homelessness the wrong way around.

For decades governments, charities and individuals have been focusing their efforts on ‘helping the homeless.’ Their work has made many lives that bit easier, and our dedicated homelessness services have helped thousands of people put their lives back on track. But if we are serious about preventing tragedies like the deaths of Mouse and countless others we never hear about, our thinking needs to shift from how we can help the homeless to how can we end homelessness.

It is this paradigm shift towards ending homelessness that saw homelessness drop by 20 per cent in the USA between 2005 and 2013. Through the biggest financial crisis that country had seen since the great depression and in a harsh social welfare system, they were able to reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness by over 100,000. 

They did it with a very simple solution: providing affordable housing with the support services that people need. They did it by getting people who experienced homelessness for the first time back into housing ASAP and helped them pay the rent so that the problems associated with homelessness didn’t pile up.

And they did it by targeting support services at the times in people‘s lives where homelessness was more likely to occur. Because they committed to ending homelessness, they tracked it and then they funded success.  The United States has become an unlikely leader in the delivery of effective homelessness services. 

Of course it is essential that governments adequately fund services that help people who are living the experience of homelessness. But our ambition should be to end homelessness for good, which requires a change in the collective mindset and a realisation that homelessness does not need to exist in our society.