Homelessness State Emergency

(Private Members Statement, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament) 

Homelessness has reached epidemic levels. Around 38,000 people in New South Wales don’t have a home; we have Australia’s highest proportion of people who are homeless and our 37 per cent rise in homelessness since 2011 is double the national rate.

Seven per cent of people who are homeless are sleeping rough, 16 per cent are in crisis services, 18 per cent are in boarding houses, 14 per cent are couch surfing, nine per cent are in temporary lodgings and 45 per cent are in severely overcrowded dwellings.  

All of these scenarios pose significant threats to life, safety, health and wellbeing. Without secure housing medical issues including mental health conditions can’t be treated and degenerate, and new health problems emerge. People are at risk of violence and intimidation and are more likely to enter the criminal justice system. Getting and keeping a job become near impossible.

As a participant in the SBS Filthy Rich and Famous reality series – which airs tonight – I experienced firsthand what it was to be homeless. I stayed in boarding houses and crisis accommodation where facilities are run down, security is low and costs are high. I heard from couch surfers who were forced to trade sex for a roof over their head.

People do not choose to be homeless; the causes are out of their control and include domestic and family violence, health and mental health issues, trauma, job loss and poverty. Almost a third of people accessing homelessness services are women and children escaping domestic violence.

People experiencing homelessness are the same as the rest of us only they have had a series of bad luck. Because the social housing waiting list is so long – 60,000 tenancies long – and less than one per cent of private rentals are affordable for people on low incomes, they simply have no safe housing options.

Unless we take urgent action, homelessness will only escalate further. 

Disasters that threaten life on a large scale are often declared state emergencies, initiating urgent action to make people safe and help them recover. Homelessness is putting tens of thousands of lives at risk and there is no reason not to invoke a similar response. Just like a bushfire, homelessness can burn through a person’s entire life, and like a flood it can wash away all hope.

This year Los Angeles declared a “shelter crisis” and put in place emergency measures to house its 28,000 city residents who are homeless. In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern committed to getting rough sleepers off the street before winter with a $100 million emergency housing package.

If we give homelessness the priority it needs, we can solve problem. The ‘Everybody’s Home’ campaign identifies immediate and long term measures to solve this crisis.

Examples of action include providing emergency housing in empty and unused government properties such as Sirius in The Rocks, which has sat largely empty for over a year. When people who are homeless are housed they should be given access to drug, alcohol and mental health services so they get any help they need early on. Homelessness services should have access to prisons to prevent homelessness on release. Charges for government services like getting ID should be waived and incomplete housing applications should be permitted for people who are homeless.

Most importantly we must expand social and affordable housing stock. We need to build 5,000 new social housing properties each year until 2026 to meet need and we must mandate for at least 15 per cent of housing in major redevelopment projects to be social and affordable rental housing.

In my electorate I’ve seen the success that Family and Community Services and non-government organisations have had with assertive housing outreach, and the Homelessness Strategy includes a much needed focus on whole of government coordination, but we are still only tinkering at the edges. If we want to end homelessness by 2030, as the Premier said in response to my question, we must build many more new social and affordable homes.

The policy of selling off inner city public housing to build more homes on the city fringes is a proven failure. Not only did it cause significant distress and loss of social support for former Millers Point tenants, but data from the University of New South Wales’s City Futures Research Centre shows sales are having little impact on the social housing waiting list because most homes built are only replacement stock.

If we don’t get homes for the people who need them, homelessness will continue to surge, and we will have bigger social and economic problems to deal with.

New South Wales is Australia’s largest economy and we don’t want it to become the country’s most morally bankrupt state. We have the money and a committed sector. I call on the government to treat homelessness as a state of emergency and take immediate action to get everyone safely housed.