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Homeless Persons' Week

MS LAWDER (Brindabella) (3.25): I move:

That this Assembly:

(1) notes:

(a) that 4-10 August 2014 is National Homeless Persons' Week;

(b) homelessness causes devastating personal harm, significantly impacts on society and costs the government;

(c) one in three people experiencing homelessness present at an emergency department in a year, which is more than the average rate;

(d) a quarter of people experiencing homelessness were charged with a criminal offence in the past six months, and one in three of those in prison reported being homeless in the month before, which is more than the general population;

(e) people experiencing homelessness are more likely to be unemployed than those in the general population;

(f) that a safe and suitable place to live underpins a full and healthy life and enables social inclusion, education, health and employment opportunities; and

(g) the solution to homelessness lies in the provision of more housing, specifically affordable housing, together with targeted support to enable people to sustain their tenancies; and

(2) calls on the ACT Government to:

(a) increase the supply of affordable housing in the ACT;

(b) continue to implement innovative models as well as continue those that have proven successful in reducing disadvantage to vulnerable Canberrans; and

(c) report back to the Assembly on progress.

I rise today to speak to this motion to mark national Homeless Persons Week. It is timely for us to reflect on the struggles that are faced daily by so many Australians, and more specifically Canberrans, and what we as a society can be doing to improve the lives of those who need our help.

The ABS statistical definition of homelessness says a person is considered homeless:

...  if their current living arrangement:

       •     is in a dwelling that is inadequate; or

       •     has no tenure, or if their initial tenure is short and not extendable; or

       •     does not allow them to have control of, and access to space for social relations.

We must all be very clear that homelessness is not houselessness and it is not rooflessness. It means not having a safe, secure place to call home. Many people immediately think of people experiencing homelessness as the rough sleepers, people you may see on the streets at night—the most visible kind of homelessness—with their sleeping bag, huddled in a corner. This is a bit of a stereotype, and it is only a small fraction of people who are considered homeless, especially here in Canberra, where only two per cent of people experiencing homelessness are rough sleepers.

People experiencing homelessness include people who are couch surfing, people sleeping in their cars or those who have left domestic violence situations and may be in a temporary refuge with no home to go to. It may be that the sole breadwinner of a family has been in an accident or has an injury and can no longer work; suddenly, their lifestyle is no longer supported and their rent can no longer be paid. Not long after that, an eviction notice comes and they enter into homelessness.

Access to safe and secure housing is one of the most basic of human rights. It is essential for human survival with dignity, and it is essential to give people the best shot at life, the best chance to have a good education, the best chance to find and keep employment and the best chance to be in good health. Adequate housing provides everyone with the greatest opportunity to contribute positively to our society.

The 2011 census showed that there were 1,785 people experiencing homelessness in the ACT, which, according to the census, was the second highest rate after the Northern Territory. And if you ask community organisations around the ACT, you will note that they estimate that the figure is higher than that. It is a serious issue for us.

We must also think of the families in our city who are hovering on the brink of homelessness, those we call at risk of homelessness. There are somewhere in the realm of 9,000 families in Canberra struggling so much with the cost of rent and their home loans that they forgo basics such as food or leave the heater off in winter. They forgo school excursions for their children. I have also heard of people who do not buy batteries for their hearing aids because they cannot afford them.

The estimates committee heard that one in two people are turned away from services. Homelessness is a moral blight on our society. I am sure we all agree it is not acceptable that people in our city are unable to obtain safe and secure accommodation for themselves and their families. Yet despite all of us agreeing on this, the problem continues. This indicates the complexity of this issue. It is a multifaceted challenge and it needs a multipronged approach; none of us would claim to have all the answers.

When we are thinking about those experiencing homelessness and what actions need to be taken, we need to also take time to think about the effect this has on society in its entirety. Homelessness causes devastating personal harm and ultimately impacts on society and creates a significant cost to government. Take the health system, for example. One in three people experiencing homelessness present at an emergency department in a year, much higher than the general rate of only 13 per cent of people across Australia. It is around 33 per cent for those who are experiencing homelessness. Over a six-month period, on average, a quarter of people experiencing homelessness were charged with a criminal offence. One in three people in prison reported being homeless in the month leading up to their offence. We have also heard many times about the homelessness issues facing people who are leaving prison and other care situations. Statistics clearly show that those who do not have adequate stable accommodation are more likely to be unemployed and are far less likely to be able to hold down a job, if they have one, when they enter into homelessness.

High rates of homelessness indicate that housing is unaffordable or inaccessible. The solution to homelessness lies in the provision of more affordable housing and bridging the gap between social housing and the private market. The government needs to work to increase the supply of affordable housing in the ACT and make housing more affordable. I was pleased that the commonwealth government renewed funding for the national partnership agreement on homelessness for another year, but we cannot rely solely on commonwealth programs and funding; we must do everything we can as a territory government to help out vulnerable members of our society.

Recently, Minister Barr spoke at ACT Shelter about the need for more affordable housing, which is positive, and I agree. But at that time he did not mention the supports required to enable people to sustain their tenancies and leave the cycle of homelessness. That is vital for long-term solutions. Simply putting a roof over people's heads does not necessarily address the structural drivers behind why they became homeless in the first place.

My motion today in the Assembly is not a partisan motion; it is something that all members of this Assembly should be able to agree on. I genuinely believe we want to reduce and prevent homelessness; we can all acknowledge that there is an issue of homelessness in the ACT; and we all need to continue to work to resolve the issue, as well as addressing the underlying structural causes of homelessness. I call on the government today to make this issue a priority for them. I commend the motion to the Assembly.


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