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Ending homelessness in a crisis?

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Tents in the heart of Sydney in 2017

A lot has happened in the last few months – good and bad. One of the positives is that perhaps as many as one third of all homeless people sleeping rough in Australia have been temporarily sheltered in response to COVID-19.

As of early June, in Adelaide there were 294 people being accommodated in 250 rooms across 26 motels thanks to the COVID-19 Emergency Accommodation for Rough Sleepers (CEARS).

This phenomenal statistic represents one of the most significant homelessness responses Australia has seen since the Rudd Government’s unprecedented investment and attention to housing and homelessness in the mid-2000s. This shows that rapid progress is possible, if the will is there, and that despite the common misconception to the contrary, the scale of homelessness in Australia is both preventable and solvable.

There is a saying in politics, never let a good crisis go to waste, because in crisis there is opportunity. In fact, the very word crisis comes from the Greek ‘to separate, to sift’ which means to pass judgement, to keep only what is worthwhile. Former US President Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, once said that in a crisis there is the opportunity to do things you thought could not be done before.

Ending rough sleeping homelessness is possible – in fact this crisis has shown that it’s a necessity. What we can’t do is temporarily shelter this group of highly vulnerable people and then, when the crisis is over, just tip them back onto the streets. We need a sustainable response.

While it might seem strange, even naïve, to be talking about ending homelessness when we have just entered the first recession in 29 years, now is exactly the time to be talking about the kind of country, state and community we want to be on the other side of this health and economic crisis.

At the height of the pandemic in Australia, there were a lot of Second World War analogies about how previous generations were called on to fight fascism and all we have to do is stay home. Another comparison we should draw on is how well Australia planned for the recovery from that war. At the time, it was Australian leaders John Curtin and Ben Chifley who planned for “victory in war” and “victory in peace” by establishing the Department of Post War Reconstruction. This was at a time when most of Europe was still occupied by the Nazis and Japanese bombs were still falling on northern Australia.

In order to effectively respond to our generation’s crisis, we need to provide rapid shelter to people who have no place to call home. We are currently doing this. But we need to take the next step.

As Australians we have set a standard that says when you present to an emergency department you get treatment free of charge. That is the minimum standard of healthcare you can expect in this country. It is a standard that took time to define and create and it was born out of the desire to provide better healthcare for veterans returning from the Second World War.

We ought to set a similar standard when it comes to housing when this ‘war like’ crisis is over. No one should have to sleep rough, not before this crisis, not during it, and certainly not after it.

Now, of course, there are multiple types of homelessness; rough sleeping is but one, but it is the type that costs the most in terms of taxpayer expenditure and reduced life expectancy for those affected, and, as this pandemic has proven, it places us all at risk if left unaddressed.

We must set a new standard that should be upheld when this crisis is over. At the Australian Alliance to End Homelessness we have done a lot of work on how we set that standard,  how we measure it and define it. South Australia has led the way in implementing it though the Adelaide Zero Project. To end rough-sleeping homelessness, a community must ensure, and demonstrate through data, that homelessness is a rare occurrence, brief when it does occur and a one-time thing.

This approach has been so important to helping communities rapidly respond to this COVID-19 crisis. This approach, of knowing the names and needs of every person sleeping rough, needs to be rolled out more broadly. We need more investment in the housing and support that our community’s homeless need.

We can’t wait for this crisis to be over, we need governments – local, state and federal – to do it now.

David Pearson

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David Pearson is CEO of the Australian Alliance to End Homelessness (AAEH), Senior Advisor to the Institute of Global Homelessness (IGH) and Industry Adjunct at Uni SA’s The Australian Alliance for Social Enterprise (TAASE).

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