Skip navigation

Counting Down To Zero: How To Make Homelessness History

On the heels of a whirlwind research tour, Churchill Fellow David Pearson shares his plan to solve homelessness in Australia.

Your fellowship tackled a big question: “What does it take to end homelessness?” If you had to boil it down, what’s the answer?

I thought it would be more complicated. But in the end, the answer was very simple.

It came to me after I got home. During my trip I’d been thinking about homelessness non-stop for six weeks. To unwind, I was watching a reality TV show where people go into the wilderness. They quoted the Art of War, by Sun Tsu: “Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

That’s the solution: to end homelessness, first you need a strategy. You also need a definition: what does “ending homelessness” mean? And you need a way to measure it.

During your Fellowship, you visited US, Canada, England, Scotland, Finland, and Sweden. What was the most eye-opening lesson from your trip?

Australia is really far behind. We’re the only country with no strategy for ending homelessness, and no definition of what that means. We don’t really measure homelessness, either. There’s the five-yearly Census, but when those figures get released they’re 18 months out of date.

The Federal Government is developing a National Housing and Homelessness Plan. That’s a positive step. But really, we need a National Housing and Ending Homelessness Plan. Because unless you’re actively trying to end homelessness, you end up just managing it. Providing sleeping bags, food or putting someone in a hotel for a few nights – those are Bandaids. They don’t solve the problem.

Australia is a wealthy nation. Yet every night, one in 200 people experiences homelessness. Why are the numbers so high?

Homelessness happens when other systems fail – housing, income support, child protection, the health system. Australia’s housing system is broken. It’s been in crisis for decades, and it’s driving people into homelessness. We treat housing as a vehicle for wealth creation, rather than a basic human right. Our tax system is geared to help people make a profit, rather than meeting our community’s basic human needs.

To end homelessness, we need to build more social and affordable housing. But that alone won’t fix the problem. And while the housing crisis continues, there’s plenty we can do as community.

Which countries are leading the way on solving homelessness?

For government policy, it’s Finland: they’ve been reducing homelessness for decades. Australia can learn from Finland, but it’s a very different country. Finland has high taxes, proper income support, a strong mental health system. People simply can’t survive on Newstart here.

On community action, it’s the US and Canada leading the way. Local communities there are ending homelessness with an approach called “Functional Zero”.

Your Churchill report sets out a blueprint to end homelessness. What are some key steps?

First, we defined “ending homelessness”: it means preventing it where possible, and making it a rare, brief, once-off occurrence.

We call that “Functional Zero”. That’s your target. Instead of “counting up” toward the goal of housing X number of people, each community counts down toward achieving Functional Zero.

Then you break the problem down into small bites. Chronic rough sleeping is the most deadly and costly form of homelessness, so we start there. Most importantly, we don’t stop there. The goal is to end homelessness for everyone, everywhere. To do that, we need to collaborate, change how we allocate resources, and integrate our systems.

How does Housing First fit into the picture?

You can’t end homelessness without it. “Housing First” means exactly that: housing comes first, then support. Rather than making you go into temporary accommodation while you access support, we house you straight away, in your forever home.

You said “measuring” was important. How do you track progress?

You need reliable data. The “By-Name List” is a big innovation. That’s a list of every person within a local community who’s experiencing homelessness, by name. It records what kind of housing and support each person needs, and the data is only used for that purpose. Everything’s de-identified to protect privacy.

You can see public dashboards for each Zero project around Australia. The Advance to Zero movement holds all that data. It’s not held by government.

What’s the biggest misconception about homelessness?

That it’s a personal choice, or it’s the person’s fault. People become homeless because they have no good options, no real choices left. In reality, homelessness is a choice made by our society. Do we really want to put growing property wealth above meeting basic human needs?

Is public support a big factor?

It’s vital! Homelessness is a solvable problem. But to fix it, we need the community to support that goal.

What can people do to help?

Ask your local MP what they’re doing about ending homelessness. Are they making it a priority? Have they set a strategy? Are they measuring it? You could refer them to my Churchill report.

Support your local Zero project, join the Melbourne Zero campaign. And if you see someone sleeping rough, make eye contact, smile. Show kindness. Be the change you want to see.

Interview and write-up by Meg Mundell.

David Pearson is CEO of the Australian Alliance to End Homelessness (AAEH). He is a senior advisor to the Institute of Global Homelessness (IGH), a 2020 Keneth Myer Innovation Fellow, and a 2020 Churchill Fellow.


Add your voice to the Melbourne Zero campaign - be part of positive change today! We’re making Melbourne a world-leading city in ending homelessness, starting with ending rough sleeping by 2030.

Continue Reading

Read More

Add your voice today

From business leaders to your next-door neighbours, we're calling on every Melburnian to join the Melbourne Zero movement and help end homelessness in our city.