The bleeding obvious about homelessness



The Prime Minister wants us to be clever. Well here's clever: How about we make sure everybody's got a place to call home?

Cardboard houseWe're a rich nation, so how can we not afford to provide something as basic, as essential, as a place to live? What are the compelling economic reasons why we can't make sure everyone has a place to feel safe, a place from which we can go to school, take care of our health, and go to work?

How is it okay to deny people, including children, a place where they can love and be loved, where they can connect with each other instead of being cut off and, sometimes literally, locked out?

We can afford to line the pockets of corporations that manage offshore concentration camps in our name — a highly expensive exercise in cruelty and barbarism. We carefully construct limbos to which we consign people who, as it happens, believe so strongly in Australia that they risk life and limb to come here as they flee the cruelty and barbarism that has overtaken their countries of origin.

If we want to be clever, if we want to be innovative, these are the very people we should welcome with open arms: people who believe in us, and desperately want to build a different future with us.

If we want to be clever — and I agree with the Prime Minister that we should indeed aspire to this as a society — we'll make sure everyone has a place to call home, along with a well-resourced, needs-based education system and universal healthcare. Let's face it; not having a place to live and feel safe is about as bad as it gets when it comes to barriers to education.

Homelessness can also mean unbearable and overcrowded living conditions, parents struggling with the difficult job of trying to get a job (while being told that they are just not trying hard enough), or kids trying to attempt the herculean task of studying when all they have is a tiny corner of a cramped and noisy lounge-room that doubles as a bedroom at night.

The problem of homelessness and the shortage of social and affordable housing is so huge that we need a massive solution and a massive financial commitment if we want to lay claim to being civilised and fair, let alone smart and innovative. This is why, among other things such as reforms to negative gearing and capital gains tax exemptions, we need a $10 billion social and affordable housing fund.


"You're not going to encourage innovation if you keep relying on the blunt tool, but sharp weapon, of class, race, gender and disability-based incarceration."


There are more than 100,000 people experiencing homelessness and over 850,000 households experiencing housing stress (where a household's income is in the bottom 40 per cent of incomes and it is paying more than 30 per cent of this income on housing).

It's true that to fix a massive problem there will be a massive cost. But, to use a housing analogy, the longer you leave it to repair the roof, the more you'll end up paying to fix the damage.

Similarly, the longer we leave it to fix the housing problem in Australia, the bigger the social and economic cost will be, for all of us. Because the cost of condemning masses of people to unemployment, low education outcomes and poor physical and mental health are incalculable.

That's in economic terms. In human terms we're staring down the barrel of a social crisis; a completely avoidable human tragedy writ large.

I know that those of us who are calling for a concrete solution to the housing and homelessness crisis are going to be written off as dreamers. Perhaps that's because there are forces in Australian society that don't want to acknowledge, let alone address, the nightmare that those who are forced to bear the daily brunt of inequality live within.

From the First Peoples all the way through to the most recent seekers of refuge, people suffer precisely because we have failed as a nation to bite the tax reform bullet; because there are those who persist in the fiction that it is justifiable to take way from those at the bottom in order to preserve the perks and privileges of those at the top.

I know too that we are going to be dismissed as bleeding hearts. But we're not bleeding hearts. We're just stating the bleeding obvious. You're not going to create the space for innovation unless you take care of accommodation as well as health and education.

And you're certainly not going to encourage innovation if you keep relying on the blunt tool, but sharp weapon, of class, race, gender and disability-based incarceration.

Because right now, in the midst of the homelessness and housing crisis, we're making an art-form out of locking people up instead of housing them.

If you're a member of the First Peoples or an asylum seeker or someone forced to bear the brunt of class or gender inequality or someone living with a disability, being locked up follows hot on the heels of being locked out. But as activist and philosopher Angela Davis reminds us: 'Prisons do not disappear problems. Prisons disappear human beings.'

Making sure everyone has a place to call home on the other hand; well, that makes us feel human.


John FalzonDr John Falzon is Chief Executive of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council.

Download the St Vincent De Paul Society report The Ache for Home: a plan to address chronic homelessness and housing unaffordability in Australia here.

Topic tags: John Falzon, Malcolm Turnbull, homelessness



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Existing comments

Apart from noting that Falzon's darling Angela Davis is a hardline communist, who, for all her purported advocacy of prisoners, was rightly vilified by Alexander Solzhenitsyn for her strange refusal to support prisoners in socialist countries throughout the world, I have very little to add to my E.S. 2013 comments on Falzon's ludicrous proposals re. homelessness: "Here are a couple of pointers in the right direction. Many homeless are mentally ill. That's because our governments in their ivory towered wisdom threw them on the streets a couple of decades back and left many of them to self-medicate: one of the greatest acts of cruelty committed in our society in the last half century. Many other homeless are aborigines in the absurd state-manufactured constructs we call "remote communities". A third tranche are unemployed because of minimum wage laws and other union-backed coercive regulations which chop off the lowest rungs of the employment ladder plus the mountain of green and red tape that prevents people starting up small businesses. Another significant number are homeless due to marital breakdown - a chief cause of which is the introduction of no-fault divorce. In sum, Australian citizens have no reason to feel guilty about the homeless. What they need to do is punish the la-la land policies of left-inspired regimes that created the problem in the first place." The only thing I will add is that abolishing government-imposed restrictions on housing development such as stamp duty, greens-inspired blockages to land release, and the labyrinth of regulations concerning house design, would greatly reduce the cost of housing to the poor. In the light of his support for the hypocrite Angela Davis, I don't expect Falzon - a big-government-at-all-costs advocate - would approve of these measures, even if the poor were to benefit.

HH | 29 March 2016  

I hope HH doesn't fall on hard times. But if he does, Vinnies will be there to help.

MargaretC | 29 March 2016  

As someone who became a single parent without an unencumbered home because of my husband's gambling problem (gaming: a policy-driven initiative) ... because of my workplace being Tendered (tenderised!) out with the loss of my job (another policy-driven initiative) ... because one of my 3 children was considered not to exist even though we had proof she did (policy-driven initiative to exclude if her paperwork ... yes paperwork! ... was not older than 5 years!!!) ... because I've worked hard to raise decent citizens (my children) and worked/studied part-time (therefore have little superannuation) etc, etc, I am deeply offended at HH's assumptions about the policy approaches that cause homelessness. I concur with Margaret C.

mary tehan | 30 March 2016  

Thanks John. Solid as usual. How about the 2 words Housing Trust?? Provided shelter and dignity, not simply a small and shrinking crisis service, and huge work opportunities too. Started by a Liberal Premier. Their rent to purchase plans were the entry point for any many of us. With our large young family we were Trust tenants and glad to be. I believe one day there will be a return to such schemes and it will be considered innovative and bold. Simply telling people to rent privately forever, will only store up disaster for the future elderly.

Pauline Small | 30 March 2016  

Thanks for another deeply human and deeply Christian article John. HH's contribution shows just what Australia is up against if it's to respond humanely and innovatively to people's real situations and real needs. Your para on the Immigration Detention camps is a perfect account of the vicious and financially disastrous response that our politicians, for electoral advantage, have chosen to make to people in distress. I don't recognise the country we'e become. Keep feeling, thinking and writing for us.

Joe Castley | 30 March 2016  

If government were not in the way, one could build a basic earth bag house for around $300.00, and a really nice one for around $5,000 in about six weeks. But government *is* in the way. So there are 540 regulatory ticks required from start to finish of a basic house in Melbourne, which the earth bag house would totally fail, even though it has excellent green credentials. And then around 44% of the final cost of a regular house is in taxes. Moreover, the cost of land itself is astronomical compared to regions around the world with similar population density (eg Texas). That's because of government land use/release/zoning restrictions. It's bleeding obvious that the biggest enemy of affordable housing for the poor is the state.

HH | 30 March 2016  

Am I supposed to apologise for making suggestions that, in my opinion, would drastically reduce the cost of housing for poor Australians? Not going to do that, my friends: I care for the poor and want to help them.

HH | 30 March 2016  

HH identifies at least some of the groups most at risk of homelessness: the mentally ill, Aborigines in remote communities, single mothers. Having identified them,do you take the position HH that, for some reason, they do not deserve a housing policy that gives them the chance of a home? Do the mentally ill not deserve a home - perhaps because they are mentally ill; and Aborigines, remote or city, are they not deserving because of their Aboriginality; and single mothers because...? Categorising those in need is not a solution. And nor is your proposal for self constructed bag houses. I do agree though that the cost of housing in Australia is at an absurd level. Driven up, in my view, by tax concessions to the well-off.

Vin Victory | 30 March 2016  

Whether or not we feel guilty or not is irrelevant. Our obligation to our neighbour does not depend on how guilty we feel. And homelessness is a problem whether or not those involved are mentally ill. We are a rich country and we can afford to solve the problem. And that would benefit all of us in upholding the dignity of those in distress. Indeed, negative gearing was originally sold by Treasury to the government on the grounds that it would stimulate the supply of low cost housing. So who were the utopian dreamers? Indeed, it is time we recognised that naive faith in the market system is simply another idol..

Lee Boldeman | 19 July 2016  

To HH, you are right, Angela Davis is a communist. john Falzon is always quoting Marxist's ideology, example on 28 May 2014 he wrote an article published by Eureka Street which he quotes Brecht Franz Fanon, and Slavoj Zisek. the 3 of them are well known Marxists. I am a supporter of the SVDP, and I pray that John Falzon Chief Executive of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, will distant himself from Marxist, Communist, Socialist crap.

Ron Cini | 19 July 2016  

Zizek a communist? Ms Davis always sounds so supercilious and self righteous I turn off fast in terror if by mischance 3CR is using her to fill dead air as I turn by, so she may be a hardline Stalin could do no wrongist for all I know. Still HH's comments about prisoners in socialist countries deserves an answer. Amongst his(a guess, I know, I can be wrong, but that's where I'd lay my bets)confusing pile of fact and opinion this might be a followable thread leading somewhere informative.

Jillian | 23 July 2016  

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