Houses without walls


Front doorHousing researchers Dr Guy Johnson and Professor Chris Chamberlain have recently argued for a 'housing first' approach, that offers people permanent housing to homeless people without first putting conditions on their behaviour.

The concept flies in the face of politicians and welfare agencies in Australia, where it seems the idea of 'conditionality' has never been so popular. It's almost as if there's a race to think of new ways of making welfare support conditional on responsible behavior.

There's an assumption that jobs, housing and a secure income are available to anyone willing to take advantage of education, training and job opportunities. And for those temporarily down on their luck, there are things like welfare-to-work programs and mental health services. So if disadvantage persists, it can only be because some people refuse to be helped.

Conditionality is also popular with the broader public. Most of us believe in equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcomes. When we are doing alright, it's tempting to think it's because we are setting our alarm clocks early, showing up to work and putting in the effort. People who are unwilling to take advantage of the opportunities available have no one to blame but themselves. It's only fair that their welfare support should be conditional on how they behave.

But sometimes conditionality just doesn't work. Homelessness is a prime example.

In the latest Australian Journal of Social Issues, Johnson and Chamberlain argue that policy responses to the homeless mentally ill often fail because they expect people to accept treatment before offering them a place to live. This approach assumes that problems such as mental illness are the root cause of homelessness, and insists that people take responsibility for straightening themselves out before we 'reward' them with housing.

But as Johnson and Chamberlain explain, most people who are homeless do not have a mental illness and, in some cases, mental illness is a consequence, raather than a cause, of homelessness. Research by the Sacred Heart Mission suggests more than half of its clients developed a mental health problem after becoming homeless.

Homelessness has many causes. Many of those have little or nothing to do with individual behaviour. Family breakdown, the death of a spouse or parent, the high cost of housing and the low rates of payment of Centrelink allowances and pensions are just some.

Research in the US suggests that, while it's important to offer treatment and other assistance, supportive relationships are more effective when people enter into them voluntarily.

This is why Johnson and Chamberlain's 'housing first' approach works. Not only does permanent housing provide a more stable environment in which people can receive help, but it offers people a greater sense of freedom, control and privacy. And the evidence suggests that this can often help people get on top of such problems as mental illness, drug abuse and problem drinking.

However, Johnson and Chamberlain's approach also challenges the public's sense of what's fair. Many people want governments to demand responsible behaviour before handing out benefits like housing or cash. There's a strong suspicion that unconditional benefits make problems worse.

And that may be true, in some cases. But in the case of homelessness among people with a mental illness the evidence suggests that relaxing conditionality leads to better outcomes. 

Paul O'CallaghanPaul O'Callaghan is Executive Director of Catholic Social Services Australia. 

Topic tags: Paul O'Callaghan, Guy Johnson, Chris Chamberlain, Catholic Social Services Australia, housing first



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Existing comments

It's good to see some academics speak out at last and offer a counter view to the populist politicians and rightwing moralists we suffer from in every field these days. The 'deserving poor' and 'noblesse oblige' are back with us in a self-satisfied, smug and increasingly stupid nation led by cruel and ignorant politicians suplemented by wowserist church leaders, mainly from the evangelical threads, who look no further than big-stick actions. No politicians will take any notice of their calls for change. No church leaders will support them publicly, lest their funding be questioned.

Harold Wilson | 07 July 2011  

Paul, if only those in authority would listen to you. It doesn't take much imagination to grasp the fact that homelessness creates insecurity and anxiety at the least; and often puts people in personal danger so that they live with fear as well. Hardly the emotional state in which to cope with existing mental health problems or to promote continuing mental health. Add to this that it is so much more difficult for the homelss ones to access services, and the disinclination of employers to hire anyone without an address, let alone the difficulties for homeless applicants to present for interviews in a well groomed condition and prepare CV's and one can see the beginning of a downward spiral into despair opening under the feet of the most robust individual. Simple, adequate, private accomodation should be available for every individual in this wealthy, 'lucky' country, whether they 'deserve' it or not; even for those who do not pay.

Pirrial | 07 July 2011  

Dear Paul, Thank you for the ideas you put forward. It's pity we hadn't realised this before. A sense of belonging and having a place and privacy to call ones own are among the first things we need to give us a sense of self-worth.

Jean Sietzema-Dickson | 07 July 2011  

Nobody can live on the CentreLink payment alone if they have to spend it for everything they need. If where they study (depends on the subjects and the institutes offer the) is too far to go, they do have to spend much of income on housing and transportation. There education is the least they have can afford for. How much does a young one need to educate himself/herself? CentreLink payment is less than &450 per fortnight. There they spend time on survival - not education - depending on how much their parents can support. Housing should be close to 2 millions I guess - there both students and working people with low incomes should be accommodated. For students, it should be close to where they study and for working people - where they work. Only by this arrangement, full advantage can be taken from the system. And the design of accommodation and arrangement must be suitable for those who are really doing their best and should be seen separately from those who have other conditions. That is about house design and the design of the system. If the houses are designed and built badly, and the system is not working, then it won't work. Any good approach should consider these. I agree with mental problem develops only after people become hopeless or extremely stressed by homeless conditions. The stress comes from the need to solve existing crisis and to gain the next step in life. Current system has nothing for these. It simply not working.

AZURE | 07 July 2011  

A good article, Paul! I am not in favour of conditional and/or interventionist policies. We should write to our politicians and strongly oppose these policies. I heard a recent program on 'Life Matters' about a recent survey by the Grattan Institute which supports the Sacred Heart Mission that mental illness develops as a result of homelessness. I believe that main issue for housing is the lack of low cost and affordable housing for young people and old people who are reliant on the 'Old Age' pension. This particularly affects the inner suburbs of our major cities, where most of the housing development in the past decade has been luxury and expensive apartments. There has been very little planning by government bodies - the planning has been dominated by property developers and banks. It is my understanding that a lot of young people are forced to live in overcrowded and substandard rooming houses and guesthouses.

Mark Doyle | 07 July 2011  

After reading this I was struck by its alignment with psychologist Abraham Maslow's 'hierarchy of needs.' Without meeting their basic needs first, how can we expect people to want to seek to meet their higher needs? Yet that is exactly what 'conditionality' expects. Excellent article.

Moira Byrne Garton | 08 July 2011  

Housing First (for example) Common Ground Camperdown is not even 50 percent for chronic homeless. Given my own example, being housed without immediacy of supports allows fallback to the boarding house(homeless) rather than housed option (self esteem issues). Common Ground has numerous failings.Surprisingly there is a link to donate for both Eureka Street and St Vinnies appeal 5 million plus not enough and 2 million to Lifeline.More about dollar donations Fact remains current practices all all levels of homelessness are not working. The internet is not accessible by chronic homeless however these are people I know street begging for drugs,physical emotional educational restraints a 20 year old been sleeping on streets for 7 years admitting to me he begs for drugs as he is the worst person out! Or the middle aged gentleman at the train station been rough sleeping over 20 years who, when i gave him paperwork with addresses and numbers on it I dont even believe he knew any longer how to read, let alone use a telephone to make calls. these are people consistantly being missed by malaigned Vulnerability Indexes or do gooders without a care to step outside their narrowmindedness of policy formulations without HOMELESS INCLUSION!

stephanie calabornes | 10 July 2011  

I understand all of the experts and researchers are trying to help but I have been one of the chronic homeless for nearly two years now. I have written a book but no money to publish, and I know more about Homeless than any of the experts. Maybe someone should come down and join me in Miser-ee one day and I'll give them a guided tour.

Brendan Lauritz | 08 August 2011  

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