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COVID taught us homes are the solution to homelessness - by Peter Mares

Peter Mares author of No Place Like Home: Repairing Australia’s Housing Crisis 

In the first half of 2020, as the COVID pandemic spread across Australia, something quite extraordinary happened.  

Within a very short space of time, state and territory governments found temporary accommodation, mostly in the form of empty hotel rooms, for more than 7000 people who would otherwise have been living on the street. According to a report for the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, this meant that “for the first-time rough sleeping was briefly eliminated”.

In the COVID response, emergency shelter was also accompanied by extra supports and was not time limited to just a few nights stay, as is generally the case in “normal” times.  

It was a remarkable achievement and a demonstration of what can be done with political will and adequate resources. It also forged new models of collaboration between government agencies, healthcare providers, peak housing groups and the specialist homelessness sector. 

But the question was also going to be what happens next — what happens when the pandemic and its associated lockdowns ease? A hotel room — regardless of how clean and safe — is not a home.  

Before COVID hit, existing policy responses to homelessness were failing dismally. In its eye-opening 2019 report, A Crisis Within a Crisis, Melbourne’s Northern & Western Homelessness Networks concluded that despite costing millions of dollars, the emergency shelter approach — that is, putting people up for a few nights in motels, hostels and boarding houses— often did more harm than good. Motels, they concluded, were producing misery: 

Many would argue that providing any accommodation is better than nothing, and is at least a roof over a person’s head. The reality of many people’s experience challenges this notion. Consumers reported feeling unsafe, demoralised by the squalor they witnessed, with a growing sense of worthlessness and disconnection from their community. Many reported feeling that the quality of the accommodation was a reflection of the way that their community viewed them. 

Mixed results 

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that about 280,000 people are supported by Specialist Homelessness services annually, a figure that number has been trending up by about 2 per cent per year for a decade. 

Six in ten of those clients were women, and three in ten were aged under 18, with young women aged 15 to 24 the most over-represented cohort seeking support. The most common reasons for seeking help were family and domestic violence, housing crisis, or inadequate or inappropriate dwellings. 

Sadly, the outcomes of assistance were mixed at best. Only about one third of people were helped into secure housing; the rest were still rough sleeping, couch surfing or living in short term digs. 

As the Crisis within a Crisis report concluded: 

We are failing large numbers of people … by providing sub-standard and potentially damaging emergency accommodation, with little or no immediate follow up support to access more suitable housing, and no support to maintain that housing once accessed.  

COVID’s interruption of the business-as-usual approach to homelessness provided an opportunity to break with the past and there are some promising signs of long-term change. 

Since COVID hit, the Victorian, Queensland, WA and Tasmanian state governments have all made significant investments to build new homes for people on the lowest incomes. (There is some building going on in SA and NSW too, but mostly to replace old public housing, without adding much to overall dwelling numbers.) 

The total state effort amounts to about $10 billion. Housing expert Hal Pawson from the UNSW City Futures Research Centre says these programs will add 15,500 homes to the stock of social housing. 

Since the change of government in May, Canberra is now investing too. One of Labor’s election promises was the $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund is intended to build 20,000 new social housing dwellings plus another 10,000 “affordable” homes for key workers like police, nurses and teachers. Since taking office, Labor has also established a National Housing Accord with the “aspirational” national target of delivering one million new, well-located homes by 2029. 

These initiatives will make a difference, but still fall short of the scale of the challenge. There are more than 160,000 applications on social housing waiting lists around Australia. Since those numbers are for households, they probably include more than 300,000 people, a third of them children. Four in ten households on those waiting lists are classified as “greatest need” because they are already homeless or at risk of homelessness or living in housing that makes them sick or is totally unsuitable for their circumstances. 

A new pathway? 

Year after year, Victoria’s longstanding epidemic of street homelessness failed to motivate concerted government action or much public concern. Melbournians had become inured to walking past people sleeping on footpaths around the CBD. The sudden change of approach after COVID hit was not the result of a few found compassion for street sleepers or a dawning care for their wellbeing; it arose primarily from the sudden realisation those without shelter posed a public health risk to the rest of us because they could not effectively isolate. 

Yet it has taught us important lessons about what works, and that is why Melbourne Zero is so important. We can maintain the gains made during COVID, building on knowledge won and alliances formed to move beyond short term crisis accommodation as a response to homelessness. Rough sleeping is only one form of homelessness of course, which can include a range of other situations, like living in severely overcrowded dwellings or in houses that are unsafe or unsanitary, couch surfing, and temporary accommodation in hostels and rooming houses. But street homelessness is a good place to focus our effort, because it represents the acute end of the problem. And if we can show that we bring street homelessness down to zero, then that will provide a model for tackling all other forms of homelessness too.  

As Finland’s success in eliminating street homelessness demonstrates, the answer will not be found in more emergency shelters, decommissioned buses fitted out as capsule hotels, free swags or mobile laundries. While such well-intentioned initiatives can provide immediate assistance to people in crisis, our effort needs to be channelled into the single solution to homelessness that works — and that is providing people with home.s. 

Why it makes sense 

We’ll benefit from ending street homelessness. Melbourne will be a more desirable and attractive place to live, work and visit without people curled up in shop doorways. Getting people into homes will increase workforce participation and reduce public spending on welfare, health services and the criminal justice system. 

But most importantly of all, having a place to call home is the foundation of a flourishing life.  

Before COVID, John White lived on the streets on and off for several years. In September 2021, because of the COVID response to rough sleeping, he moved into a new home and, as he told ABC radio, cried with relief: "It makes you feel like you're part of the community again and the human race, not just living out there like an abandoned dog." 

Everyone needs a home. Let’s learn the lessons of COVID, and end street homelessness in Melbourne. 

Peter Mares is a contributing editor at Inside Story magazine, a moderator with Cranlana Centre for Ethical Leadership, and an adjunct senior research fellow at Monash University’s School of Media, Film and Journalism. His book No Place Like Home: Repairing Australia’s Housing Crisis is published by Text. 

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