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Some home truths about ending homelessness


Rather than telling the homelessness sector to lift its game, the State Government should look at its own performance, argues Labor’s Nat Cook.

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Just over three years ago I signed an agreement on behalf of the Weatherill Labor Government for Adelaide to be a Vanguard City that would end homelessness on inner city streets by December 2020.

We did this with Dame Louise Casey, Chair of the Institute of Global Homelessness, then Lord Mayor of Adelaide Martin Haese and David Pearson, then CEO of the Don Dunstan Foundation.

The Marshall Government subsequently supported the project and its ambition but, tragically, it has taken a global health pandemic for the government to make a serious effort. More than $8 million was committed to help homeless people during COVID-19 including emergency hotel accommodation for rough sleepers.

The problem is that hotels aren’t homes, so longer-term solutions had to be found. Sadly, not everyone kept a roof over their head through the program with many being evicted. Where are they now? What is the full story of their COVID experience? We may never know.

The Minister for Human Services said on June 12 that evictions were often because the people in hotel rooms had “misbehaved”. I would suggest this group needed a different type of accommodation and more resources to support their social and health needs. But that would take some added political will and government departments working together right?

The Minister’s chief executive has said publicly that they didn’t ask questions – they just put people in hotel rooms. He went on to say that around 140 people – more than a quarter of all those who were housed – were evicted or walked away from the program.

We are told that recently that the Adelaide Zero Project has achieved a significant milestone in increasing the housing rate and finding permanent housing for over 70 people in July. It shows the project and the sector are working together, to coordinate housing and support for people sleeping rough.

The interesting thing about this COVID response is that the government suddenly managed to find over 70 vacancies in public housing per month, rather than the previous 10. Imagine if they had done that all the way through the program – we would have reached zero by now, well and truly.

In the next breath, the Liberal Government nows argues that the homelessness sector needs to work together better. What kind of smoke and mirrors is this? A sector that achieves the highest housing rate in a long time, celebrated as it should be, now being accused of not working together? Anyone else confused?

I would suggest that the government isn’t doing enough to get its own house in order, and drive collaboration between government agencies. The sector’s collaboration is not because of the government – it’s in spite of it.

Rather than the Minister saying the homelessness sector needs reform, the government needs to be working together to better address barriers to more permanent housing arrangements, such as complex psychosocial, mental health and financial issues. Until government departments come together to coordinate and better meet people’s individual needs, we will not end homelessness on our city’s streets or anywhere else.

The government is dreaming if they think the project will achieve zero rough sleepers by the end of the year – and then maintain that – without significant investment in additional housing and supports.

These are critical to getting some of our most vulnerable people off the streets and into long term housing.

We know what works. The sector has done the work. But it seems the Minister isn’t listening.

The Institute of Global Homelessness has set out recommendations on how to do this and the City of Adelaide has invested in some of these solutions. But what have we heard from the State Government? Very little.

This week we saw the government release their new model of homelessness prevention – the Housing First ‘Glasgow’ model. The thing about the Glasgow model is that all of the sector codesigned the model, with the funding body, Glasgow City Council, sitting at the table as an equal partner, not as the decision maker. Additionally, the key criticism of this model is the lack of housing stock – the same problem we have here!

There is no way the government can say they have a ‘Glasgow’ model without the buy-in and relationships that came from the process – not to mention the dwindling number of housing stock in the system.

It’s simply a way of the government reducing the number of contracts it has with homelessness services. And it is doing this without investing in extra housing and without investing in better coordination of government services.

This is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic as the iceberg approaches.

Of those who weren’t kicked out of the hotels by the government, long term housing has often come from public housing. This makes a great one-off story for the government, but what about those who were about to be offered those homes? The vast majority of public housing already goes to people who are homeless or at imminent risk of homelessness. Sadly, this is like robbing Peter to pay Paul when neither of them has a home to begin with. And the huge waiting list for public housing is about to get bigger as the Federal Liberal Government prematurely turns off its COVID-19 support programs.

This isn’t sustainable. We need to build capacity urgently. This can be done in a range of ways, but the first thing the government needs to do is open their ears.

If not, then all we will be doing is playing whack-a-mole. They hit one problem on the head and two more pop up next door.

Nat Cook is the state Opposition’s Human Services spokesperson.

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