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It's time to end street deaths - by David Pearson

David Pearson, Australian Alliance to End Homelessness

In communities across Australia, it’s a tragic fact that people are dying whilst homeless every year. Health and homelessness are intrinsically linked, and international studies have shown that experiencing rough sleeping homelessness can reduce life expectancy by approximately 30 years; and that as many as one in three deaths were attributable to conditions that could have been prevented or treated. 

If this wasn’t bad enough, in Australia we don’t even measure how many people are dying whilst homeless, which means we don’t know the full extent of the problem and how to address it.

We need metrics, evidence, and data to inform key decisions and determine priorities, like government policy and budget allocation. That’s why we measure things like the unemployment rate and road fatalities.

Yet, currently, there is no national system or database that measures and tracks how many people are dying whilst homeless, who they are, or where this is happening. Without this information, how are we to drive and measure change?

The good news is that there are already some systems in place in communities across Australia that can shift the dial on this problem and even help to end homelessness for good. Zero projects are leading the way through the implementation of something called By-Name Lists, which are part of the Advance to Zero approach to ending homelessness.

By-Name Lists help us to gather real-time information about people experiencing homelessness in communities to make sure we can match them to the right support services. As a part of this work, we can build an understanding of how many people are experiencing homelessness in a community and what their needs are – particularly health – and then set about meeting those needs, both housing and support.

Ultimately, though, Australia needs a consistent nationwide approach to work hand in hand with community action.

The best way for this to happen is for the Commonwealth Government to take a leadership role – this is why the Australian Alliance to End Homelessness has called for the development of a national homelessness deaths and life expectancy gap reporting framework. This framework should:

  • set out how to improve data capture
  • drive more accurate measures of homelessness in hospital and coronial administrative data
  • articulate the number of deaths among people experiencing homelessness in addition to their age and cause of death at local, state/territory and national levels
  • seek to report on this data in as close to real-time as possible.

Each death of a person experiencing homelessness is a tragedy and an ultimate systemic failure, but it can be fixed.

If we want to drive change in this area, we need to measure and publicly report on the fact that people are dying across our country without a safe place to call home. With a solid federal and community-based approach, we can work together to put an end to the often-preventable deaths of people experiencing homelessness.

If you want to make a real difference to the lives of people experiencing homelessness, get involved with Melbourne Zero and make your voice heard by writing to your local MP. We need to remind all governments that keeping people safe is one of their most basic and fundamental responsibilities, and with adequate funding, we can fight to stop the needless deaths of people on our streets and prevent it from ever happening in future. In the meantime, implementing By-Name Lists at a local level means we can look out for the most vulnerable people in our communities and help to meet their needs.

Other countries have shown us that ending homelessness is possible through this approach, so why not here too?

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