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Thursday, 1 March 2018
Page: 2471


Ms O'TOOLE (Herbert) (12:31): I rise to speak on the Treasury Laws Amendment (National Housing and Homelessness Agreement) Bill 2017. Homeless in is a huge issue in my electorate of Herbert. I have never met a person who said one of their life goals was to end up homeless at any point in their life. This is a very complex situation. According to the Queensland Council of Social Service report in 2014, there are more than 1,200 people homeless in Herbert. I'm aware of an elderly woman who lives on Palm Island, on Butler Bay, who has sugar diabetes. She has no water, no electricity, and relies on people to bring her fuel for her generator so that she can keep a small fridge running to keep her insulin cold otherwise it has little to no effect. I have also seen the impact of homelessness in my previous work in mental health. The issue of homelessness linked to mental ill health is a major concern in my community, as is the issue of the growing trend of homelessness for older women. In some cases elder abuse is also a factor.

The organisation that I led before being elected to this place provided support for people living with mental health conditions across north and west Queensland who are at risk of becoming homeless. This state funded program was highly successful. In my current role as the member for Herbert, I have met with numerous people and community organisations, and the outcome of every discussion has made it abundantly clear to me that homelessness is having a devastating impact on my community and that homelessness does not discriminate, because anyone can become homeless at any time. Homelessness isn't just about having a roof over your head. Surely every citizen in our communities around this nation has the right to a place to live that is safe. It is extremely difficult to maintain employment, raise a family, or contribute positively to your community when you don't have a home or a job.

There are many financial and social issues that lead people to a state of homelessness. I know that housing affordability is a huge problem in both Sydney and Melbourne, but housing affordability in the electorate of Herbert is also a huge issue, although the reasons are very different to those in Sydney and Melbourne. The majority of housing in Herbert is not being sold for millions of dollars, like the houses in Sydney; however, Herbert has a huge issue regarding people actually being able to afford to enter the housing market. As I have already mentioned, mental health issues are a problem. Rental stress, financial stress, unemployment, underemployment, low wages and the cost of living are huge burdens for many people and families in Herbert. That is what is preventing a large majority of people in Townsville from entering the housing market.

Just last week, I met with my Townsville defence community reference group, a group that consists of 25 ex-serving personnel organisations. One of them is Veterans off the Streets—VOTSA. The VOTSA coordinator, Floss Foster, shared with the group how the recent Christmas period had been a very busy period for them. During that period alone VOTSA assisted more than 18 people, provided $800 in food provisions, $600 in fuel and $4,806 in accommodation.

Last year my work colleagues, my family, including my grandchildren, and I participated in the VOTSA sleep-out. I don't think the majority of people truly understand what it is like to be homeless. The VOTSA sleep-out provides an opportunity for community members to experience one night of sleeping rough where you are sleeping in exposed conditions—although, I must say, we did have some cover. It is not until you're exposed to sleeping rough that you can comprehend how tough it is. It was raining that night, so none of us got much sleep. The ground was rough and wet, and the glaring street lights certainly didn't help either. But it was the safety of people who live rough or on the streets that was of serious concern to me, because every other night of the year I have the honour and privilege of being safe in my home with my husband, as do my grandchildren with their parents. That is what really hit home to me from that experience.

I have heard the personal stories of how organisations like VOTSA and Wounded Heroes are on the front line, providing emergency assistance for many veterans in need—like the veteran family in Townsville who, the day before Christmas, received an eviction notice. Seriously, why would you give someone an eviction notice the day before Christmas? It seems very cold-hearted to me. But, because of mental health issues and financial stress, this veteran family found themselves, within a few days, with no place to live. If it wasn't for the work of Floss and VOTSA, who provided the emergency assistance that was needed, this family's Christmas would've been a complete disaster. It is a national shame that right now we have veterans who are homeless and living on the streets, that there are people who fought for our country and risked their lives to protect our freedoms who do not have the safety of their own home. It is abhorrent and, frankly, it's a national shame.

Then, of course, we have a youth homelessness issue. A few weeks ago I met with Queensland Youth Services. Do you know how many beds there are currently in Townsville to house youths without a home? Three. There are currently three beds in Townsville for youths who are homeless. This is disgraceful and completely unacceptable. When I hear the stories of how someone as young as 13 is homeless, once again social issues like family violence, drugs and alcohol arise. Children as young as 13 feel that they are safer on the streets than in their own homes. Surely we can do better than this. There are numerous reasons why a person might find himself or herself homeless. No-one should ever be judged for being homeless, because it can happen so quickly. It can happen to anyone at any time, as I have already said.

If we are to truly address this problem and get serious about tackling Australia's homelessness rate then we must get serious about setting targets—and we must be aspirational; we must set good goals. Unfortunately this bill does none of that. It tinkers at the edges, changes the name, and the package is a complete sham. People are fed up with governments that just throw money at problems without having any idea of how, if or when the homelessness problem will either start to decrease or be solved. If we are to do better, we must start doing something. If we're to achieve any hope of success, we must set aspirational targets for ending homelessness in Australia.

There is a need for greater accountability and transparency in the expenditure of Commonwealth housing assistance payments. This has been a longstanding position of Labor. The question that this bill does not answer is: how will we measure accountability and transparency? The Turnbull government does not have the comprehensive housing strategy that is necessary to resolve the country's large and growing crisis of housing affordability and supply for low- and very low income households. Simply putting a roof over someone's head will not resolve homelessness because homelessness has many facets and complexities. This bill does not address the vital wraparound services needed to end homelessness once and for all, and I have seen personally how those services are very effective and do prevent homelessness. It does nothing to address the impact of poor mental health on the issue of homelessness, it does nothing to address financial stress and it does nothing to address rental stress. I believe that Ms Jenny Smith, Chair of Homelessness Australia and CEO of the Council to Homeless Persons, said it best regarding the concerns in the public hearing on this bill:

… the legislation doesn't include … a federal plan, the plan we need to end homelessness. That plan would need to bring together policy on the security and adequacy of welfare payments, family violence and mental health, as well as for specialist homelessness service delivery and social housing provision.

These are the things that this bill must include and address. Until the Turnbull government stops tinkering around the edges and takes our homelessness crisis seriously, nothing will be achieved in addressing this critical social issue that impacts across the generations in our community. Let's set aspirational targets now, and let's end Australia's homelessness.