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Homelessness and the house of lies


Much of what Australians believe about homeless people is built on a myth which obscures our failings as a body politic, writes John Falzon.

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“I’m sorry mate”, he said as I found a coat for him from the back of the Night Patrol Van on a cold winter’s night.

“What do you mean, you’re sorry?” I asked him.

“I’m sorry”, he said, “for being homeless.”

“You’ve got nothing to be sorry for, mate”, I said. “I’m sorry we haven’t fixed this.”

The man who had been sleeping rough for months on end felt sorry because, as he explained to me, people found his presence on the streets unnerving. At the end of the day, however, neither his apology nor mine will make a difference. Fixing homelessness is not about being sorry. It’s certainly not about the people experiencing homelessness being sorry for anything, but neither is it about anybody else feeling sorry for them or sorry for the situation which we have come to normalise as a nation, that of a growing number of people either experiencing, or being at risk of, homelessness.

Fixing homelessness is not about contrition. It’s about commitment. The Adelaide Zero Project is leading the charge on this front, with Adelaide the first city in Australia to actively track the number of rough sleepers in its inner-city and report the figures publicly.

In a push to end street homelessness by the end of 2020, the city is actively engaged with people sleeping rough face-to-face to determine their individual needs, know them by name and prioritise secure housing.

Over the past 12 months, the project has made 180 housing placements to support people living on our streets into secure housing – this is significant and an extraordinary achievement. The project is a collective approach to making a different choice when it comes to homelessness. It’s about redefining the problem and recognising that homelessness isn’t the problem, it’s the result of the problem.

But everyone needs to be committed.

You can’t, as a society, commit to something, if you don’t really know what it is you’re committing to. Let’s take the recent comments on homelessness by the Federal Assistant Minister for Community Housing, Homelessness and Community Services, Luke Howarth, on ABC Radio National: “I want to put a positive spin on it as well and not just say Australia’s in a housing crisis when it affects a very, very small percentage of the population.”

If you try hard enough you can spin just about anything positively, but the facts speak for themselves. Tonight, 226 people will be sleeping rough on the streets and parklands of Adelaide. The ABS reports that the number of people experiencing homelessness in Australia has increased by 14 per cent, going from 102,439 people in 2011 to 116,427 in 2016.

What Australia needs, in this ideological fantasy, is not the provision of housing but the consignment of the condemned to the house of lies.

Everything depends on who defines a problem, including defining it as a problem. If you keep on accumulating and repeating lies about who or what the problem is, you end up laying the rows of bricks that form an imposing house of lies.

Neoliberalism, including its soft version, social liberalism, defines homelessness as a tragic circumstance afflicting individuals which can be overcome given a modicum of social support and a big chunk of behavioural change. At best, the social support, in this tradition, is best delivered by charity, with some government help, while the behavioural change is constructed as being somewhere between correction and coercion, sometimes badged as “tough love”.

That’s the best scenario in this framing.

The more brutal version is that people experiencing homelessness are told that they have only themselves to blame and that virtually any assistance will only harm their chances of getting up and standing on their own two feet, fixing the mess they have gotten themselves into. Witness the recently renewed attacks on unemployed workers as the Federal Government continues to resist calls for a desperately needed increase to Newstart.

When you define a problem you also get to define its solution, based on how you define its parameters. The Minister had some interesting things to say about how he defined the problem in this case: “There are a number of areas and I’ll be focusing on all of them, but I think people on the street is important because that’s what Australians see if they’re in a capital city. They can see people on the street – they want something done about that.”

It is a common trope that sees homelessness in terms of its visibility and on the discomfort that “people on the street” cause for “Australians” (the “us” he is talking to). In other words, “we” are being subjected to the problematic spectacle of homelessness. People experiencing homelessness are themselves defined as “our” problem.

The solution, according to this discourse, lies not in addressing the causes of homelessness, and certainly not in providing the socio-political space for the people experiencing homelessness to define what the real problem is. Rather, the solution lies in lessening its visibility, clearing the streets of people who, like the man I spoke of earlier, are made to feel residual and removable. What Australia needs, in this ideological fantasy, is not the provision of housing but the consignment of the condemned to the house of lies.

In a compelling report by Peter Mares, we read of Finland’s political choice to eliminate rough sleeping through the “Housing First” approach. Instead of cycling people through short-term accommodation services and abandoning them to the whims of the private rental market, Finland has made a rational decision to ensure that people have a place to call home. This is not only more respectful of people’s rights, but it also ends up being more cost-efficient in the long-term since having a place to call home is the building block to addressing so many other problems.

Without a place to call home, it is nigh impossible to get a job, keep a job, go to school, university or TAFE, or take care of your health. This is not pie-in-the-sky idealism – it’s a practical reality, a pragmatic response to a social problem. But that’s the difference. Homelessness is defined in this instance as a symptom of a social problem, the problem of growing inequality, rather than a personal failing.

As long as we continue to be sucked in by the neoliberal myth that posits the people facing exclusion as the problem, rather than the social and economic system that actually excludes and punishes them, we can never hope for the political will required to eliminate homelessness.

It is not poverty that causes homelessness, it’s wealth – especially speculative wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, constraining the choices of the many. The twin engines of the neoliberal agenda are the marketisation of the public sphere (including the erosion of the social security system) and the atomisation of the working class through residualisation (unemployment, underemployment, precarity, exclusion) and dis-organisation (attacks on the union movement and workers’ rights).

By consenting to a neoliberal framework, which privileges the notion of choice, we are actually severely constraining the choices of people who are residualised and relegated. What neoliberalism does is accelerate and accentuate the breadth of choices available to a tiny elite, whilst eroding the choices of the many and completely stripping the choices of some.

Homelessness is an indicator of bad political choices leading to the manufacture of inequality.

The neoliberal myth is that the market is the guaranteed vehicle for the delivery of choice. The reality, as evidenced in Finland, is that it is the role of government to deliver what the market cannot, namely equitable access to the essentials of life, even within the context of a market-based economy. The Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute estimates that Australia needs 727,300 new social housing properties over the next 20 years to meet the current shortfall and address rising need.

Homelessness is not an indicator of bad personal choices leading to the personal tragedy of poverty. Homelessness is an indicator of bad political choices leading to the manufacture of inequality.

As the beautiful Irish proverb reminds us: “It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.”

If any of us is without shelter, it is because the rest of us, through our political choices as a society, have failed them.

Thinking critically about the causes of homelessness and inequality is crucial. But acting collectively to build the kind of society where we really are a shelter to each other – this is the key to making a concrete difference. This is not an act of charity – it is an act of justice.

It’s time we built a more equitable society in which housing is enjoyed by all as a human right instead of by some as a speculative sport. At present, however, it seems we are spending far too much time building extensions to the house of lies.

Dr John Falzon (@JohnFalzon) is senior fellow for inequality and social justice at Per Capita. He was national CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia from 2006 to 2018.

He’s speaking at the Don Dunstan Foundation’s Homelessness Conference this week at Adelaide Convention Centre (Wednesday,  August 7).

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