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Access to housing isn't a reward it's a human right

  • 29 September 2017


The Australian government has recently committed to spending an additional $375.3 million — with funding to be matched by state and territory governments — over three years on improving housing outcomes and reducing the number of people sleeping rough.

On the face of it, increased government spending makes sense. Demand for emergency accommodation is at a historic high due to people on low incomes being unable to afford increasing rent prices, access limited public and community services and secure permanent work. There are 35,000 people waiting for public and community housing in Victoria alone.

Yet history tells us that we won't end homelessness in Australia by building more crisis accommodation, and it's clear we can't rely on the private market to fill the growing housing gap. We've known since 1988 that social housing plays a crucial role in reducing homelessness, alongside government spending on community services like emergency shelters, mental health clinics, and criminal proceedings.

So what's stopping us from investing in social housing and replicating the success we've seen in countries like Finland? The Nordic country is the only EU state not in the midst of a housing crisis and has just 52 shelter beds in the entire country, a reduction from 600 in 2008. Finland's success has been attributed to a major government investment in social housing, which focused on moving people into permanent homes as soon as they became homeless instead of accessing crisis services and entering the system.

This Housing First approach does not require people experiencing homelessness to address all of their problems including behavioural health problems or to graduate through a series of services before they can access housing. The model assumes people have to be housed in order to get 'well', and that allowing the person experiencing homelessness to have a choice over their home and how they interact with community support services increases the likelihood they will remain in their house and improve their life.

In Australia, like most western countries, there has been a political shift away from the provision of public social housing and the Housing First model. This is because as a society we still see homelessness as an issue of personal pathology or deviance, not as a sign that our housing markets and community services are dysfunctional.

As a result, our approach to homelessness and, therefore, our services, are built around making people 'ready' for housing or helping them to address certain issues in order