Warehousing the homeless is not the answer

The following blog was prepared in response to an article in the Herald Sun suggesting that homelessness can be solved by building a Government-owned and operated boarding house.

 Warehousing the homeless is not the answer

We have made great effort to move away from the old-school model of large-scale homeless shelters. We know from experience here, and around the world, that these kinds of facilities create far more problems than they solve.

Warehousing hundreds of highly disadvantaged, highly traumatised, long-term homeless under one roof in the outer fringes of the city is not the answer to our homelessness crisis.

Evidence shows that the best way to end someone’s homelessness is to offer them a home in the community that is permanent, affordable and safe, and then, for some, to provide one-on-one support as needed, sometimes over years, to stay housed. These homes need to be scattered throughout our community in places that are close to jobs, transport and services, and to avoid the creation of ghettos.

When you consider that 1,000 people are sleeping rough in Victoria every night, building and staffing a large-scale shelter with 100+ beds barely touches the sides. Plus, when you do the sums, creating such facilities is no cheaper than providing subsidised homes set in the community.

No-one overcomes their addiction and mental health issues on the street, but they certainly don’t do it living side-by-side under one roof with hundreds of others struggling with the same issues. And importantly, if the chronic shortage of affordable housing in the ‘outside world’ remains unaddressed, there is nowhere for people to go, creating bottlenecks.

Most people who have been long-term homeless have experienced childhood trauma, family violence, episodes of mental illness and have cycled in and out of state care and other institutions.

Many of their harrowing stories are the same ones we’ve heard through the Royal Commission into Institutional & Sexual Abuse. They are some of the most damaged people in our society. It’s unfair to simply label them vagrants and demand they pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

What people experiencing homelessness want is an ordinary home with their own kitchen and bathroom and with rent that is set according to their income.

Once they have that, they can begin to address the issues that have contributed to their homelessness, start to reconnect with family, and begin to engage with jobs and education. But until we provide the ‘housing first’ we’re just going around in circles.

The social housing commitments made by the State Government in recent weeks and months make excellent progress, though some of the housing will take years to come online. In the meantime, the State Government could get people off the street immediately by spot-purchasing some of the glut of one-bedroom units on the market and turning them into public housing. They could also provide funding to homelessness agencies to lease existing private rentals to provide to clients at reduced rate.

It’s estimated there are 84,000 vacant properties in Victoria. It’s high time we had a vacancy tax on empty homes so investors are discouraged from sitting on homes whilst they make a capital gain. And the Government could immediately introduce mandatory Inclusionary Zoning so that all private developments over 10 dwellings are required to include a proportion of social housing.  

It is encouraging to see so many in the community coming up with ideas for how to tackle homelessness. Let’s make sure that we’re channelling our energies into the right ideas.