Despite the average Australian equating homelessness with sleeping on the streets, only 7% of the people officially classified as homeless in Australia are rough sleepers. Though the numbers of people sleeping rough increased by approximately 2000 people nationally between 2011 and 2016, their proportion of the total homeless population has remained the same over this period. This is despite government spending on homelessness exceeding $817.4 million in 2016-17, an increase of 29% from $634.2 million in 2012-13.
Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data indicate that the total number of homeless people has grown from 89,728 in 2006 to 116,427 in 2016 — an increase of 30% over the decade. These inflated figures are based on a questionable definition that includes people such as those living in overcrowded accommodation. Overcrowding has increased most in the cities where rates of net overseas migration have been the highest. For some groups, such as recent migrants, living in crowded dwellings is a rational economic decision, while for others it may reflect cultural preferences for shared living spaces.
By including the ‘housed homeless’ (such as those living in supported accommodation) and people who would never consider themselves to be homeless, the current official definition distorts resource allocation and dilutes out those most in need; chronic rough sleepers. It is in the interest of the ‘homelessness industry’ — the academics, charities and NGOS that undertake research, conduct advocacy, and lobby government for more taxpayer-funded spending on the alleged problems and solutions — for the numbers of homeless to be artificially high.
The orthodox understanding of the causes of homelessness promoted by the industry overemphasises the role of economic and social structures (structuralism). Solutions based on structuralist explanations — such as increasing the supply of affordable social housing — are insufficient to reduce rough sleeping. Such approaches minimise the role of, and fail to address, the individual characteristics, choices, and behaviours; especially the high rates of mental illness and drug abuse that afflict rough sleepers.
Current public housing policy contributes to the problem. By encouraging unemployment and poverty through a number of perverse incentives, social housing maintains people on the margins of homelessness. Tenancy breakdowns are often related to the antisocial behaviours and criminal activities associated with drug use (especially methamphetamines). While tenancy support provides an opportunity for vulnerable individuals with complex needs to maintain housing, there is too much scope for such people to refuse support and to potentially face eviction.
Homelessness services have proved unable to reduce the numbers of rough sleepers because of an unwillingness to implement the benign and enlightened paternalism necessary to help the most vulnerable exit the streets. ‘Housing First’ initiatives — which seek to provide unconditional access to housing, independent of treatment options and requirements — are successful in exiting some rough sleepers from the streets but do little to address the mental illness and drug abuse factors leading to homelessness.
SOURCE: Dr Carlos d’Abrera. “Dying with Their Rights On: The myths and realities of ending homelessness in Australia.” The Centre for Independent Studies, December 2018.
Produced by the librarians at the Brotherhood of St Laurence in Melbourne, Australia