Homelessness is an issue with a high policy profile. The Rudd Government had ambitions for halving its level by 2020. The ABS established a Homelessness Statistics Reference Group (HSRG) with 26 members drawn from academia and welfare agencies and there was support from various state and Commonwealth departments.
Getting a grip on the extent of the problem is difficult. An ABS study suggests that over one million people have suffered homelessness at some time in the past 10 years. This is about 7 per cent of the population. The estimate may be based on a more expansive definition than that commonly used since the last Census placed the number of homeless households on census night at 74,000 (105,000 people or one in 200 Australians). A little under half of these were younger than 25.
Significant numbers of the homeless on the night of the 2006 census actually had jobs earning over $800 per week (8 per cent in boarding houses, 42 per cent living with others and 27 per cent sleeping in tents or improvised dwellings). Presumably most of these would have proved to be temporarily homeless.
The major issue is with the long term (one year plus) homeless, who comprise about half of the total. Of this group about 30 per cent have forms of mental illness (compared to 8 per cent of the population as a whole). Many of these would find difficulties in achieving the goal of “social inclusion”. Around 43 per cent of the long term homeless in one survey were heavily into substance abuse, with methamphetamines (ice) increasingly favoured.
Only about 30 per cent of the long term were estimated to be currently looking for work but overwhelmingly, the 70 per cent of people who are not suffering from mental illness aspire to live what they characterise as a normal life. This fundamentally means their own place to live in and a job.
The welfare agencies campaign for more government money to be spent on homes and transition plans. Given the range of priorities and the chronic budget system, these measures are unlikely to find favour.
But employment and housing are two areas where government policies are inimical to the interests of the unemployed, and in the case of those whose work place skills have not developed or have atrophied, this is especially critical. The minimum wage, especially at Australia’s world record $18 per hour, hits the people on the lowest rung of the productivity ladder particularly hard. Almost every worker rises above the minimum wage once they have acquired skills in the job they are doing and demonstrated sufficient work disciplines. But they have to get the job in the first instance and the high threshold shuts them out.
Similarly with accommodation. The housing land rationing that takes place increases the basic cost of new housing by up to $200,000 per house. This impacts existing housing and rents, adding to the difficulties people at the margin have in ensuring adequate shelter from which they can enter the mainstream.
Efforts to deregulate wages and land are better routes to resolving homelessness than more subsidies and an increase in the number of facilitators.