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'Critical' funding to prevent homelessness on hold

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A multi-million dollar fund aimed at preventing homelessness – and described as “critical” by the State Government – is lying dormant, eight months after tenders closed for service providers seeking to keep people off the streets.

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The State Government called for expressions of interest last May from organisations for the first $6 million of a new $20 million Homelessness Prevention Fund.

Tenders closed in June, with documents showing successful bidders should have been notified in August, contracts executed in September and started in October.

But homelessness service providers have told InDaily they still haven’t heard anything and are concerned about the delay in getting vital funding out to help South Australia’s most vulnerable.

The Hutt St Centre was one organisation that submitted a joint tender with some other agencies.

Chief executive officer Chris Burns said it was “not normal for a government procurement process to commence and then after you’ve submitted your tender nothing further to be said”.

“In government procurement they normally are quite rigid, and stick to their timings exactly,” he told InDaily.

“To this date we have had no response to our tender and I’m not aware of anyone else in the sector who’s received a response.

“To not hear anything at all is quite odd as far as I’m concerned.

“Whatever services our clients could have received as a consequence of that prevention fund, they haven’t received.”

When the Government called for tenders last May, it said the fund’s aim was to “prevent people falling into homelessness in the first place”.

“We’re asking organisations to put forward their expressions of interest so we can trial new approaches, with the aim of diverting people away from crisis homelessness services and into stable, safe and long-term housing,” Human Services Minister Michelle Lensink said at the time.

“Substantial reform to the sector has not happened for about 10 years, and this prevention fund will be a big part of the reform process.

“The emergence of COVID-19 highlights more than ever we need to ensure the system is working well – so we’re pushing ahead with this plan.”

Lensink said the current homelessness system was “outdated, expensive and does not achieve real outcomes for South Australians who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless and people using the system have told us it’s not working for them”.

“We’re spending millions of dollars every year on crisis accommodation – and this does not provide long-term solutions for people experiencing homelessness and that’s why reform in this area is critical,” she said.

Lensink said the $20 million Homelessness Prevention Fund was part of the Government’s $550 million housing and homelessness strategy released in 2019.

Burns said he and other service providers were excited about the idea of addressing prevention.

“This was taking the ambulance from the bottom of the cliff and building a fence at the top of it,” he said.

“How do you stop people becoming homeless, how do you support them to pay that electricity bill that they can’t pay, that if it’s paid it might just prevent them becoming homeless?”

He said the one-month deadline to submit a tender was challenging.

“For us to do that in that time we had to hire someone to assist us to put in that tender response,” he said.

“The notifications were supposed to be done by August and commencement in October.

“I am concerned because this is aiming at preventing which is a critical part of keeping people out of homelessness and clearly we are keen to get on with it.”

St Vincent de Paul Society also submitted a tender as part of a group bid.

Chief executive officer Louise Miller Frost told InDaily “we haven’t heard anything – I don’t think anyone else has”.

“It would have been nice to be up and running by now but I suspect what they are trying to do is align it with the homelessness reform process but timing seems a little disjointed,” she said.

“All of this money is supposed to be about disadvantaged communities.

“It’s homelessness prevention so you would assume if services aren’t being rolled out then prevention isn’t happening.”

Miller Frost said providers were keen to “actually look at the prevention strategies for homelessness”.

“Prevention can be a lot more of an immediate response to stop people falling into homelessness so it was pretty exciting when they came out with the idea of actually having a prevention fund,” she said.

“People who become homeless often have an experience of trauma that has caused them to fall into homelessness, but also being homeless is, in itself, quite traumatic so if we can prevent people going through that experience then they’re able to recover and move on with their lives much faster and much more effectively.”

Opposition human services spokeswoman Nat Cook criticised the delay and called on the Government to get on with delivering the funding.

“These NGOs have had resources diverted away from the frontline to write this tender during the early phase of the COVID crisis,” she said.

“Also at the same time they were having to adapt to deal with an influx of people seeking shelter.

“Now they have been waiting six months and they have not had any contact from the department to tell them what is going on.

“Who knows if it will even go ahead?”

Cook said the whole process had put the non-government sector “under enormous strain”.

“This is in a time where housing and homelessness is becoming one of the biggest social crises that we’ve seen,” she said.

“There’s rental stress, we are seeing families living in tents, we are seeing families house-sitting, going from house to house.”

Human Services Minister Michelle Lensink didn’t answer questions from InDaily about the delay, but said “successful tenders will be announced in the coming weeks”.

“Unlike the former Labor Government, the Marshall Liberal Government is intent on reforming the homelessness system so we can get better, long-term outcomes for our most vulnerable, as well as ensure we’re getting the most out of taxpayer dollars,” she said.

“Instead of constantly criticising the Government, we really urge Nat Cook and Labor to support our aim of getting more South Australians into safe and stable housing – and keeping them there.”

The Government is also working on a broader reform of the homelessness sector, which would force service providers into new “alliances” that would bid for government contracts on behalf of the organisations they represent.

The overhaul – called Future Directions for Homelessness – is based on a scheme in the United Kingdom and is due to be implemented in South Australia in July.

It’s been criticised by some of South Australia’s largest service providers, who have warned that “homelessness will continue to grow” under the new system.

But the Government argues it will ensure funding is spent more effectively and efficiently and it won’t reduce the $70 million a year spent on reducing homelessness.

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