Open up empty government offices to the homeless

May 28, 2017
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It has always frustrated me that we do not use empty government buildings as temporary accommodation for homeless people. The juxtaposition of recent stories in the media about homelessness and vacant government office space is striking.

The federal government has identified nearly 200,000 square metres of unoccupied floor area it leases in Canberra alone. Fitting out less than a quarter of this space would be ample to house the 1500 homeless people now living in this city.

The ACT has the second-highest rate of homelessness in Australia, behind the Northern Territory. The Productivity Commission’s 2017 Report on Government Services shows the ACT failed last year to provide accommodation solutions to more than 34 per cent of people seeking accommodation support, the equal highest rate of failure in the country. Since 2012, the ACT has been the worst or second-worst performing jurisdiction on this measure.

As the repurposing of the Addison Hotel in Sydney shows, we can make better use of vacant buildings to address homelessness. It would certainly be a far more effective use of taxpayers’ money than letting leased buildings remain idle. All that is needed is political determination, some smart planning and willingness to act.

Unlike the confronting sight of a person sleeping rough on the street, people who live in emergency accommodation or “couch surf” from house to house are mostly invisible to the population. Yet the negative effects of this secondary homelessness on people’s lives are significant and real.

Homelessness is often triggered by relationship breakdown. A Swinburne University and Hanover Welfare Services longitudinal study found people who suddenly become sole parents can find it almost impossible to access rental accommodation, especially when they have a low income and a poor or non-existent rental history in the private market.

The burden of homelessness can fall disproportionately on people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. More than 16 per cent of people in the ACT needing accommodation aid are from countries where English is not the main language – almost double the national average.

Once a person becomes homeless, it can be very difficult to return to the private market. ACT rental vacancy rates are often below 1 per cent, making it easy for landlords to put “risky” applications at the bottom of the pile.

As the ABC reported recently, young homeless people (and especially women) may resort to sexual favours to secure shelter for the night. Insecure accommodation exposes homeless families to trauma and violence. Others end up in emergency accommodation that offers only a few days of accommodation, often also with people who have drug-and-alcohol issues – a frightening option for families.

The current system, which relies mostly on grants to community accommodation providers, is ad hoc and poorly regulated. What is needed is a large stock of medium-term, temporary accommodation that can provide safe, secure and stable housing for residents while they are helped to return to a permanent home.

As government-run facilities, people accessing these rooms would be provided with security and visited regularly by case managers to ensure they receive the services they need. Everything from accessing employment and education services, to drug-and-alcohol rehabilitation and help with paperwork for public-housing waiting lists.

The goal of these temporary fit-outs would be to rapidly scale installations up and down in response to client demand. Ideally, an excess of rooms should be maintained to ensure every person and family who needs shelter can always access a room and a bed. As soon as an office floor leased by any government agency or department is expected to be vacant for 12 months or more, it should be flagged as available to convert to temporary residential rooms.

A vast number of objections can be anticipated from public servants but they will be mostly excuses or baseless fears. Fit-out costs can be minimised through smart, modular approaches that reuse 95 to 100 per cent of material. Rooms can use office-style prefabricated partitions. Preconstructed bathrooms and kitchen units can be installed where existing toilet and kitchen facilities are insufficient for communal use.

In a well-off country like Australia, there should be no reason for a person to be homeless. We are proud of our universal healthcare system yet, for some reason, the need for universal shelter is not similarly endorsed. Rather than relying on the cash-strapped community sector to fill the gap, governments should see this as a their primary responsibility.

I raised this suggestion with local residents while campaigning as a candidate in the last ACT election, and the idea received near-universal acclaim. I believe taxpayers expect the government to ensure that people have a roof over their head. All that is needed is people with the vision to make it happen.

Original source: Canberra Times, April 18 2017.

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