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Wednesday, 19 March 2008
Page: 1351


Senator KIRK (7:20 PM) —I rise this evening to speak in support of Prime Minister Rudd’s commitment to tackling the growing problem of homelessness around Australia. At the beginning I would like to introduce senators to the story of Ben. This is a composite story taken from the stories that are typical of long-term homeless people in our community. Ben is a 41-year-old man with a nine-year history as a rough sleeper. He was taken from his mother as an infant and placed into foster care. He went through many foster placements, boys homes and, later, juvenile detention centres. He has been involved in crime and has had periods of imprisonment. Ben has extremely challenging behaviour, which often brings him to the attention of the police. He is often verbally abusive and threatening. He is alcohol dependent and also uses amphetamines.

We are becoming familiar with the very concerning statistic that 100,000 Australians are homeless. Even more concerning is that the number of homeless people is increasing in Australia. There has been a national increase of 19.1 per cent in the number of people in primary homelessness—that is, sleeping rough—since 2001. In 2005 and 2006 at least one in every 126 Australians received assistance from the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program, or SAAP, the major joint Commonwealth-state response to homelessness which incorporates a huge range of services to assist homeless people.

SAAP agencies accommodate many individuals on a daily basis—in fact, it is said amongst experts that, within the limits of their funding, government and non-government services for the homeless in Australia do a very good job of tackling the problem compared with many other countries, particularly the United States and throughout Europe. However, 2005 and 2006 data for Australia showed that more than half of the people who make a valid request for new immediate accommodation were turned away. Of those who were turned away, 74 per cent were family groups with children, 66 per cent were individuals with children and 47 per cent were individuals who were turned away from emergency accommodation. So, many people cannot get into accommodation when they are in a crisis, but many also cannot get out of temporary accommodation. Affordable accommodation, as we know, is in short supply. A common pattern for homeless people is to move between staying with friends or relatives—known as couch surfing—seeking emergency accommodation in several shelters and sleeping rough in a car or in the open. The proportion of SAAP clients exiting to independent housing and not returning within six months was 45.5 per cent in 2004-05. So this means that over half of those leaving SAAP services are moving on to continue their cycle of homelessness.

Some people think that putting money towards eliminating homelessness is expensive, but we have to consider the hidden costs of not dealing with it. Homeless people are vulnerable to becoming victims of crime, requiring repeated police responses. We know that homelessness leads to deterioration in health and the increased onset or exacerbation of mental health conditions, meaning more frequent ambulance trips to hospital and periods of hospital treatment. Homelessness leads to increased levels of crime, demanding court and jail expenses. There is also the perpetuation of the cycle of homelessness, which leads today’s homeless children to the likelihood of being tomorrow’s chronically homeless adults. Some people believe that homeless people are hopeless and troublesome and that the problem is not capable of a solution. But bold initiatives, not only overseas but also in our own backyard, are yielding exciting results and bringing people out of homelessness and in turn improving all the health, social and employment problems that go with it on a permanent basis.

So what are the initiatives that are helping to fight homelessness? In my home state of South Australia we have bucked the trend of the national 19 per cent increase in rough sleepers to a record 4.8 per cent decrease in numbers between 2001 and 2006. Ben, whose story I introduced you to at the beginning of my speech, was provided services via one of the South Australian government’s rough sleeper programs. After nine years on the streets, Ben was so isolated from the community that, when he was first visited by a worker and asked whether or not he wanted to get some help settling into housing, he politely told her where to go. In fact, it took several weeks of daily visits to Ben before he actually started to realise that these people were really serious about helping him. He had long ago stopped thinking that he had any choice other than homelessness. Several approaches have been trialled to appropriately house Ben. A comprehensive case plan addresses all areas of his life and includes a management plan for his violent behaviour and alcohol and drug taking. Over recent months Ben has had several long periods of sobriety. While Ben was initially resistant to attending day programs, more recently he has participated in activities such as the gym, weekly movies, barbecues, men’s groups and cooking class. He has started to address many of the issues of loss and grief with two of the support workers and, as a result, he has chosen to take some steps towards reconnecting with his family. Since this treatment, he has become noticeably more settled.

The Street to Home program, established in South Australia in 2004, is an assertive rough sleeper program which houses complex homeless people and then provides them with health services and other social services necessary to stay housed. This program has housed 40 of the inner city’s most chronic rough sleepers—including some people who have been sleeping rough for up to 20 years—and helped 120 rough sleepers into long-term accommodation, with a 99.5 per cent retention rate.

Anther project in South Australia that has contributed to the decrease in homelessness throughout metropolitan and regional South Australia is the Private Rental Liaison Project, which assists people who are struggling to find a house in the private rental market to find and sustain a tenancy. These might be people who have a history of difficult tenancies, those who are experiencing discrimination or those who lack basic living or budgeting skills. Since the project’s inception in May 2004, private rental liaison officers have housed over 1,400 households in accommodation in the private rental market, with a 98 per cent success rate in sustaining tenure whilst on the program and with many continuing on after exiting the program.

These success stories are certainly very, very positive, but there is a long way to go. The Rudd government knows it and is beginning the job of seriously tackling homelessness in Australia by establishing a steering committee, led by Tony Nicholson, Executive Director of the Brotherhood of St Laurence. He has been given the task, with his committee, to develop a white paper by August this year on how Australia can systematically reduce homelessness over the next decade. I hope that, in the development of this white paper, the committee will attempt to build on the good work being done in our states, particularly in South Australia, and also by government and non-government organisations and the business sector. Homeless people are not a homogeneous group, so there is no one solution to the problem, but there are some general principles that are emerging as critical to the effectiveness of approaches that are reducing homelessness around the world.

No doubt it would have taken a great deal of courage for someone like Ben, the person I introduced you to during my remarks, to take what would have been a huge step of totally changing his lifestyle. But if Ben can be successful in staying in long-term housing with some assistance, then many others can also be given a hand out of homelessness and into housing stability with new opportunities to rejoin our community.