The complex problem of Canberra’s homelessness

25 August 2015

In 2011 the ACT had the second highest rate of homelessness, at 50 people per 10,000 people, just higher than the national average of 48.9.

As always we need to take a close look at the detail when we talk about and respond to numbers like this.

What this figure means is that there were 1,785 people in Canberra experiencing homelessness with most of those people, more than 1,100, in supported accommodation – a rate of 30.9 per 10,000 people, almost 3 times better than the national rate.

29 people were sleeping rough, living on the streets, sleeping in parks and in other temporary shelter not intended for housing – the lowest number nationally.

In Canberra we have 10,848 public housing dwellings, 30 per 1,000 dwellings, almost double the national average of 17. As demand for public housing and homelessness services increases it’s clear to me that our response can’t be just to build more houses, we must focus on the causes. 

That’s why in the ACT we also provides the highest rate of homelessness accommodation and the highest level of public and social housing with 98 per cent of allocations made to those most in need, higher than in any other jurisdiction.

There are many causes of homelessness but the main causes are family breakdown and domestic violence and the largest proportion of public housing placements today are for women and children escaping domestic violence.

Other reasons include: mental health, issues related to drugs and alcohol, housing affordability and financial pressures such as loss of job or income. Because of the complex causes of homelessness it means there can’t be and isn’t a simple response.

The ACT Government works closely with the community sector around homelessness and in 2014-15 we provided funding of $20 million for specialist homelessness services. 

Services provided include the Street to Home program which helps those sleeping rough to overcome barriers to find and maintain appropriate housing and re-engage with support services. Through the Supportive Tenancy Services program support is being provided to help people avoid eviction – regardless of whether someone is in public or affordable housing, private rental or has a mortgage.

This year we opened Common Ground in Gungahlin with 20 homes for chronically homeless people and 20 homes for low income people paying affordable rent.

These examples are in addition to funding to services like the Domestic Violence Crisis Service for refuge accommodation and transitional housing, referrals and priority placement in long-term public housing.

We invest well above the national average in recurrent homelessness spending per person in the ACT but the need for homelessness services is increasing, while at the same time funding from the Federal Government has been reduced.

This has meant we’ve had to change the way we do things and our aim has been to focus more on early intervention, maintaining crisis beds, reaching out more to rough sleepers and programs to sustain tenancies.

To get a better understanding of what is working well and where we need to focus more effort or try new approaches we undertook an independent review.

The review found prevention programs have increased, services are well integrated and people are getting better results in areas like employment and education. It also found that increasingly, people using specialist homelessness services are likely to have more complex needs.

The fact is that homelessness is an increasing problem in its size and complexity across Australia and we need a Federal Government that will take a greater lead and work with states and territories to better respond.

In Canberra alone 20-30% of people accessing homelessness services come from outside the ACT and other national responsibilities like negative gearing, wage rates and welfare payment levels also have a major influence over people’s ability to afford a new home.

The ACT Government’s aim is to provide anyone in need of housing support with the help they need, when they need it, and for the right amount of time. We need a Federal Government that makes housing affordability and homelessness a greater priority.

It is a big challenge but we will continue to work with our hardworking community organisations and workers in the homelessness sector to achieve it. To make sure everyone has access to safe, appropriate and affordable housing – something that will improve economic and social inclusion – is good for everyone.