Charities aren’t enough. ACT government should take over homelessness services

October 20, 2017
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Homelessness is closer than many of us think. A single stressful event can make a person’s life spiral out of control. A death in the family, a breakdown in relationships or simply losing a job can all quickly lead to homelessness.

Domestic violence is responsible for one-quarter of all homelessness, and is most common on Saturday nights. Yet the ACT government’s outsourced emergency accommodation service, OneLink, only operates Monday to Friday from 8am to 6pm.

Once your personal situation is unstable, you can’t decide to “be homeless” just a couple of days a week. You can’t time your need for emergency shelter to happen during business hours. The accommodation and food services of community services and charities, which operate a few days or a few hours a week, are manifestly inadequate in providing the security and safety of stable shelter that the rest of us take for granted.

Community organisations are not the problem. Nor can they be the solution. The vast majority of these services do amazing work but they are often staffed by volunteers or rely on donations for funding. More grant money won’t fix an inefficient and fragmented system propped up by governments that are reluctant to address the problem directly.

The ACT is an affluent community. On every measure, our wealth and income is higher than the national average. ACT Labor, despite espousing a commitment to social fairness, has presided over a decade during which the rate of homelessness in Canberra rose from the second-lowest to the second-highest in the nation.

No member of the Legislative Assembly should be proud of this outcome. Labor has traditionally used the power of government to tackle social problems. Yet ACT Labor has been content to tinker around the edges of homelessness; it has tried nothing substantial.

We are making the problem harder than it needs to be. The best treatment for homelessness is simple: provide people with a place to stay.

People should have safe, secure, 24/7 emergency accommodation on the same day they need it – not in a week, a month or a year. Like a public hospital, this should be a coordinated, government-run service, providing emergency shelter to all who need it. There is already plenty of floor space available in Canberra’s empty government offices. Does the ACT government support repurposing these offices to address our increasing homelessness problem? Has it written to the federal government about it?

To rebut a likely objection in advance, these facilities would not be “slums” but highly supervised, strictly temporary accommodation. Just like in a hospital, those taking shelter would have 24-hour access to support, including case workers, medical practitioners, legal advice, and security in cases where violence is a risk. No more buck-passing. Just a single point where individuals and families can stay until they can transition back into private or public housing in the shortest reasonable time.

The ACT government is holding yet another housing and homelessness summit on Tuesday, October 17. No doubt the elected members, public servants and chief executives in attendance will come up with many ideas requiring more expensive strategies and action plans to be written up by consultants. (In an tone-deaf move, many of these attendees will then drink wine and eat canapes at the Australasian Housing Industry awards ceremony held immediately afterwards, nodding approvingly about “social-housing success stories” while the people they are meant to help continue to shiver in cars and sleep on couches.)

It’s time the government stepped in and recognised that services for homeless people are a fundamental social good, just like healthcare. The cost savings in avoided crime, trauma, assault and poorer educational outcomes would be significant.

To those who are more concerned that I am speaking outside the Labor Party tent than about the fate of the 2000 homeless people in our city, I say: didn’t you join the Labor Party to come up with real solutions to social problems like this? If not, then whose interests are you representing?