Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard   

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Tuesday, 7 May 1985
Page: 1444

Senator ZAKHAROV(4.59) —I believe that there are few people in the Australian community who are in greater need than those who are homeless. Imagine what it must be like to face a night, perhaps in the sub-zero temperatures of Canberra or Hobart, with nowhere to sleep, nowhere to secure one's belongings and no family or friends to call on for help. Everyone was shocked when, I think last year, a man was crushed to death in a garbage hopper in Melbourne after he fell asleep, having been unable to gain a bed in a refuge. Most people do not realise how many people are in that sort of situation-people who every night sleep, if they can sleep, in places such as abandoned cars and condemned buildings or on benches. In some cases children sleep even in collecting bins for donated clothing.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Supported Accommodation Assistance Bill, which legislates for the establishment of a supported accommodation assistance program. The program will be administered by the Department of Community Services at the Federal level and by equivalent departments at the State level. It is needed to provide continuity of funding for projects which were previously assisted under the Homeless Persons Assistance Act, which was repealed at the end of last year. It is also needed to broaden the range of services which can be subsidised to provide for the needs of the homeless. The main aim of the new supported accommodation assistance program is as stated in the guidelines:

The provision of a range of supported accommodation and related support services to assist men, women and young people and their dependants, who are either permanently homeless or temporarily homeless as a result of crisis, and who need such assistance to move towards independent living where possible and appropriate.

Recurrent funds will be provided for items such as furniture, equipment and wages, and capital funds for housing are available within the program under the recently renegotiated Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement. The Bill aims to provide improved and more equitable funding of services, to fund new services in areas of high need, and to fund improved wages and conditions for workers in those services. Several speakers have referred to the great need for those people to be paid reasonable wages. Another major objective of the program is to enable the involvement of the service providers on program needs and priorities. For example, those who work with homeless young people will have the opportunity to advise on their particular needs which obviously will be different from those of older groups in the population.

In many ways this program is an innovative program. It is one that embodies many important aspects of a whole changed philosophy of government administration in the social welfare field. The old homeless persons assistance program, which was replaced by the supported accommodation assistance program, reflected the outmoded attitude of the previous Government and many previous governments towards assistance to welfare organisations, clearly perceived by many of those people as charity. Its function was to allow subsidies to be paid to what were, and in many cases still are, charitable organisations, in the worst sense of that word, with connotations of dependency and philanthropy, connotations of giving something to the 'deserving poor'. Subsidies were paid to ensure that those welfare organisations could continue to carry out on the Government's behalf activities that the Government could not fully fund. The reasons for this were partly that in the past church and charity groups had been primarily concerned with these tasks. Also, it was apparent that if a government tried to meet the full cost of running what in many cases were large institutional types of homeless people's accommodation at an acceptable standard and to pay full award wages, the costs would be astronomical. Even under this new program the Government will be providing only a partial subsidy towards the costs of running these centres. Senator Peter Baume referred to some of the ways in which the community has an input here. The Government will probably continue to be able to do no more than this in the foreseeable future.

The contribution of voluntary labour which maintains and allows such places to exist is very difficult to calculate. In addition, many hours of work of a most unpleasant and difficult kind are carried out by very dedicated staff for little or no financial reward. This new program will allow award wages to be paid to staff, in many cases for the first time ever. Assistance to the homeless had not been seen as one of significant importance in the list of government priorities until 1974, when Mr Hayden introduced the Homeless Persons Assistance Bill. However, services to the homeless have been carried out for at least a century or two, originally by the parish or the church. In Australia the only agencies I know of which performed those services were the churches. The Salvation Army, the St Vincent de Paul Society and other churches have had long-established centres for the homeless in every capital city and in many country towns as well. One unfortunate aspect of this continuity of service is that attitudes of staff towards residents as recipients of charity, as I said before, tend to remain in many cases and the effect of these attitudes is to reinforce dependency, with associated lack of self-esteem or the incentive to be able to live independently.

Under the previous program there was no requirement and little scope for agencies to consider altering the services they provided. There was no attempt to fit the services to the changed needs of the clients, whose characteristics have also changed markedly over time, especially in the last two decades. For example, at a time of high unemployment, the average age of the homeless has dropped dramatically. The previous program's stated aim was as follows:

. . . provide a reasonable standard of support and increased opportunities for homeless people enabling them to obtain a place of dignity in the fabric of Australian society.

The new Bill has moved on from this idea of providing simply a reasonable standard of support. The supported accommodation assistance program provides assistance for homeless people to enable them 'to move towards independent living wherever possible and appropriate'. I think that is a very big step forward.

Studies have found that only about one-third of the present residents of homeless persons hostels would be incapable of living independently. The reasons why the other two-thirds remain in hostels are a reflection of wider social and economic conditions. For example, in Victoria half-way houses for patients discharged from psychiatric centres were closed by the previous Liberal State Government. These people are now forced to use night shelters intended for short term homeless while alternatives are developed. Obviously this creates problems for the other residents of the centres and for staff, who are not trained to cope with people with psychiatric problems. Overall, the number of people using shelters and hostels has been increased by the lack of low cost accommodation. High levels of unemployment have meant that many people are unable to afford even the cheapest type of rental accommodation. The process referred to as gentrification of the inner city areas, whereby homes built for workers are now bought for renovation by the affluent, has had the effect of forcing low income earners out of those areas. Traditionally the inner city areas have provided the majority of boarding house accommodation for single, itinerant people.

There is a range of reasons why people become homeless. These include long term illness, accident, crisis situations and sometimes unsuccessful travel in search of employment. When an isolated person does not have his or her own dwelling, some savings, or a family to provide assistance, particularly when he or she goes on to a pension or benefit, it is probable that that person will become one of the chronically homeless in a very short time. It is likely to be impossible even to rent a room without assistance for bond money and rent. The problem consists of a need for accommodation, lack of the usual networks for social support, and lack of social skills. Part of the solution is to teach those social skills or provide the supervision necessary to enable independent living. Not only are the homeless financially poor, they are usually also 'information poor'. They lack the information and resources the majority of the community takes for granted. Many of them have never really been a part of the society they may appear to have rejected. Often they have started fairly young in an institution and have continued to be outside the mainstream of society. Society has rejected them as being inadequate and unable to meet common standards of social behaviour.

The new Bill allows for full consultation with those involved in the provision of crisis and supported accommodation, and I believe the Department will encourage this process. The advice of agencies will be sought on the program and its priorities. When the Ministerial Homeless Persons Advisory Committee was dismissed by the Fraser Government in a misguided cost-cutting exercise in 1981, a valuable source of expertise was lost to the Department of Social Security. That Committee was made up of people with knowledge and years of practical experience in the homeless persons field. The contribution they made to the functioning of the program before it was abolished was in part responsible for the changes and improvements that are incorporated in this Bill.

Provision has been made throughout the development of this program for a great deal of consultation with non-government organisations-I will come back later to the question of women's organisations-and also with other levels of government throughout Australia. Here again, the program is innovative in that the Commonwealth is passing on functions to the State level of government, and allowance has been made also for the involvement of local government in the provision of emergency housing for the homeless. I urge local councils to look at their present range of services to the community and see whether housing is one which might be added or further developed, at least in some areas of Australia.

This legislation allows financial assistance to local government for emergency accommodation and for low cost housing schemes which can then be developed with State and Commonwealth co-operation. The inner Melbourne municipality of Fitzroy is one I know about which has commendably involved itself in the provision of lodging house accommodation and rental assistance for residents on low incomes. Other municipalities may wish to follow its example. Fitzroy is one of those areas which have become gentrified, a trend to which I referred before.

Responsible government must be concerned with accountability and it is to be hoped that this will not be overlooked in this new program. In the history of government programs it has been the practice for subsidies to be allocated to community groups with little consideration of the need for those groups to be accountable for the way in which the public moneys were spent. I do not mean just financial accountability. This is in part due to the increased administrative work load that is incurred if government departments involve themselves any further, but it also owes something to the tendencies of governments to trust charitable agencies to carry out their role to the best of their ability in ways they see fit. There has been little requirement for any detailed statements of how money has been spent or even of the types of programs being carried out or the standards of services provided.

Government today is more accountable to the public than it has been in the past, as is witnessed by the freedom of information provisions. In turn it should be a duty of governments to ensure that public money is spent responsibly on the project for which it was granted. There is a need for departments such as the Department of Social Security, the Department of Health and the Department of Community Services to become more involved in the accountability and service delivery aspects of all the programs they administer. This will ensure that the philosophy behind the new supported accommodation assistance program is advanced by the projects funded under it. The principles behind programs must be spelt out clearly in program guidelines so that there is not a hidden agenda of which agencies may be unaware. Unless agencies and organisations are aware of the aims of the program it is unlikely that they will attempt to redirect their activities to accord with government policies.

Priority will be given to community groups providing accommodation services in a community setting; that is, providing the least restrictive alternative, which is in accordance with this Government's priorities. The old Dickensian style of homeless men's shelters with their huge dormitories and lack of privacy will in time be phased out, as has happened already in most States in accommodation for children in care. In their place it is intended to ensure that the majority of occupants will be accommodated within houses in the community which are indistinguishable from others in the street.

Research studies of the long term residents of homeless persons centres have shown that in most ways they are little different from the rest of the population in their aspirations for a home of their own. Most of them began with nothing and as a result of lack of opportunity, ill health or accident have never had a chance of achieving better living conditions. Technological change too has meant a massive drop in the number of unskilled labouring jobs and in seasonal work. Such seemingly progressive changes as the containerisation of cargo and the mechanisation of crop harvesting have left many unskilled people without hope of employment. Retraining schemes have often been inappropriate for the needs of some of these people. The itinerant lifestyles led by many in the past have been made more difficult or impossible and low cost, independent accommodation, which was once available, has disappeared.

The question of whether the homeless make a deliberate choice to pursue that lifestyle or whether it has been forced upon them by circumstances beyond their control was one which was being studied by a Melbourne University lecturer, Dr Alan Hughes, who unfortunately died last year before completing his findings. He had interviewed many homeless people in this study and was remarkable for his compassion and understanding of their problems. The study of homelessness is diminished by the curtailment of his work and it is to be hoped that someone else will be able to complete it.

In Victoria the facilities provided for the homeless by the Hanover Welfare Services at Gordon House in Melbourne are at the forefront of developments in homeless persons' services. They encourage independent living and autonomy for those who use their services, without the paternalistic and religious pressures sometimes brought to bear in other centres. They provide self-contained accommodation within the building and encourage residents to maintain their own financial arrangements. This does not always apply in some of the other large centres.

The new SAAP program has three separate sub-programs for youth, women and the general category of homeless people. Each has been allocated specific and separate amounts of funds which can be spent according to the guidelines of each sub-program. Until now I have been speaking about the area which will come under the general program of SAAP. I come now to the other two sub-programs and, firstly, to the women's emergency services sub-program. This sub-program arose out of a recognition that the needs of women for emergency accommodation were in danger of being overlooked if they remained as an unspecified group competing for funds within the homeless persons accommodation program. Over the years homeless men seem to have made themselves more obvious in society than homeless women. Shelters catering exclusively for men have been in existence for almost a century in Australia, but only one or two in each capital city-less in some cases-have provided for the comparatively small number of women who are in need of emergency or long term shelter. So the early women's refuges were set up with little government support. Women have had a long battle for recognition of the needs of women and children, particularly those who are the victims of domestic violence.

The funding which has been approved for the women's emergency services sub-program is available over the next 4 1/2 years. The obvious advantage of this is that funding allocation has been removed from the annual budgetary context. As we are well aware, in most government programs battle has to be done between departments and programs before Budget time each year, with a consequent lack of continuity. In the case of the women's emergency services program matching amounts will be paid by the Commonwealth equal to the contribution of each State. No State will receive less than it did in 1984 and is guaranteed to receive more progressively in each year of the program.

Some of the women who have spoken to me on this issue would like to see a department set up specifically to deal with women's affairs. The reality is that the Office of the Status of Women-this is one of the ideas that have been put to me-cannot become a funding department. It exists to act in an advisory capacity only. Not all Federal departments are empowered to allocate finance. SAAP is the only available avenue through which women's services can be funded at present. All government allocations can be made only within a program which has been devised to function within the terms of an Act of Parliament. The Supported Accommodation Assistance Bill, in replacing the Homeless Persons Assistance Act, provides the only legislative means by which the Government can provide funds for women's refuges. The Department of Social Security, from which the Department of Community Services has developed, is the largest funding department on the Federal level. It has had more experience of making payments of subsidies to service providers than has any other department. I believe it is the appropriate department, if not the only one, to administer this sub-program.

The women's emergency services program is possibly unique in the history of public service in this country, if not the world, as it has been devised and staffed entirely by women. They are women who have been extremely sympathetic to the cause of improving women's services in all areas, not just accommodation. This is reflected in the wide-ranging nature of the program and the projects it can fund. I am sure that once the guidelines of the new SAAP and the women's program within it have been read carefully most women's groups will agree that it allows for a very broad range of services to be provided. These guidelines have not been devised by a distant government department in isolation from the community, as has been the case with many other government programs in history. Instead, in accordance with this Government's wish to assist each group and to reflect the recognition of the differing needs of each group, a program of extensive consultation has been conducted over the last 18 months. Every effort, I believe, has been made to reach those providing and those using the services, even in remote country districts all over Australia where funding was provided for people to come in to centres to consult.

I think it can be said that everyone who wished to be consulted was consulted. I would disagree with Senator Haines on that point, after talking to those involved, both from the consulting team on behalf of the Department and from the women in the community. Some groups refused to take part in consultations for ideological reasons, believing the WESSP should not be any part of a general accommodation program. That is their right and their choice. I think that it was a wrong decision, but I do not think that the Government can be held responsible for that. It seems to me and to other Labor women parliamentarians who have been watching the progress of this sub-program with great interest and who have talked to large numbers of women's groups out in the States that the Department of Community Services is prepared to accommodate most of the refuges' wishes on the major areas of disagreement.

Another advantage of the new sub-program is that under it, as with the other two sub-programs, award wages will be paid to refuge workers-in many cases for the first time. As I stated previously about the program in general, it must of course take into consideration the need to be accountable for the expenditure of public money. It must be sure that the money it gives out is being spent for the purpose for which it was intended. That is why statistics are required from refuges-simply to show that there are in fact people using the services. Some refuges have been reluctant to provide any information at all on their services, but they must realise that those statistics can also be used by the agencies themselves to support their claims for increased funding by showing demonstrated need.

Another aspect which worries women's refuges-this matter has been referred to by other speakers in this debate-is that of confidentiality. Some refuges say that they intend to refuse to accept funding, despite the need for it, as they remain unconvinced that addresses of refuges will not be divulged to men. Indeed, if, as was stated by a male in another place, it should be the right of 'every member of parliament' to visit a refuge whenever he wishes, the whole point of refuges is lost. They are places of escape for women and children from intolerable situations of domestic violence. We have heard quite a lot of detail given on that this afternoon. Many instances exist of subterfuge on the part of irate husbands in attempts to find their wives, and many instances exist of centres being located and violent attempts made to remove women, often with disastrous results. Refuges must be considered as safe houses, where women can be free from attack and even attempts on their lives. More funds will be available under this sub-program than have ever been available in the past for women's services, contrary to what many of the women still seem to believe. Commonwealth funds for these programs will increase by more than 100 per cent in the next 12 months.

I come now to the third and very important sub-program dealing with young people. The needs of young people tend to be neglected for several reasons. Young people, by definition, lack experience in making their needs known, and the groups which purport to represent youth sometimes reflect adult views of what they think young people need rather than the reality. Homelessness of young people is often blamed on the young people themselves. There is little recognition of the fact that many young people who leave home are leaving an intolerable family situation. Parents may have a legal as well as a moral responsibility to look after their children to the age of 18, but many do not meet that responsibility. Homeless young people usually have a lower income, if any, than older people seeking accommodation; they also lack information and in many cases any support network, apart from their peers, who have the same lack of experience as themselves. Even if they can afford rent or board, they are often discriminated against, perhaps understandably, on the basis of their age. So I am particularly pleased that the third sub-program is concerned with youth.

The youth supported accommodation program grew out of an increasing awareness of numbers of young people being forced to use the existing homeless persons shelters, which in the past catered for a somewhat older generation. It was feared by the service providers that once the young homeless became entrenched in the lifestyle of the older homeless, it would be impossible for them ever to escape from it. Young people, too, probably show a greater sense of self-worth and a refusal to submit to the regimes which exist in the traditional night shelters. The groups working with young people who have left home know that the overriding problem is one of a lack of accommodation and of low cost permanent or emergency housing. The increasing demands on existing accommodation services for youth in recent years provide evidence of the need for an expansion of those services. The youth supported accommodation sub-program will provide funds for significant increases in the number of facilities available. Some 15,000 young people requested help from existing youth services scheme refuges in 1980-81, but more than half those requests could not be met. So 7,500 young people were turned away from refuges in that year.

The rate of unemployment among young people, together with the lack of low cost accommodation, has led to this increased demand. Young people are often the unfortunate victims of problems which have arisen in other areas, such as the break-up of the family. Even where low cost public housing is available, young people are often ranked very low on lists for priority housing. On the other hand, I point to the Victorian example where the Ministry of Housing makes available a percentage of its accommodation specifically for young people. The year 1985 is International Youth Year and it is appropriate that this new program, designed with the needs of youth in mind, has been established this year. A sum of $830,000 for new services for youth has been allocated in the current financial year, and $1.66m for 1985-86. Under the previous arrangements, youth refuges were funded under at least two different programs. Needs were not being met due to this lack of planning and due to restrictions on the assistance which could be provided under those programs. Groups providing such services will now, under SAAP, make their applications to one department under one program, instead of to a number of funding agencies under a whole range of programs. The legislation that is before us cannot solve the problem of homelessness or the problems of the homeless themselves, but it will give additional help and some additional dignity and self-esteem to a number of those who need somewhere to sleep and some human companionship.