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Homelessness on the rise -

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MARK COLVIN: The Federal Government has another massive challenge on its hands with the revelation today that the rate of homelessness has risen by 8 per cent since 2006. Governments and welfare agencies have expressed disappointment in the results released today by the Bureau of Statistics.

Billions have been spent since the former prime minister, Kevin Rudd, pledged to halve homelessness by 2020. The Government says it remains committed to that promise but concedes that its interim target of reducing homelessness by 20 per cent by next year will be hard to achieve.

From Canberra, Alexandra Kirk reports.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: The latest snapshot shows 105,000 people were homeless on census night last year. That's an increase of 17 per cent in five years, and because Australia's population also increased, the rate of homelessness is up 8 per cent since 2006.

'Disappointed' is how all those involved in trying to reduce homelessness view today's news. Toby Hall from Mission Australia says the one bright spot is the 13.5 per cent drop in the rate of rough sleepers.

TOBY HALL: However, it is quite clear that there is a crisis in terms of the issue of general homelessness in Australia.

And what's really sad within those numbers is the increase of young people that are homeless, but more importantly the increasing number of people who are in dangerous, substandard, overcrowded housing.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Look, the headline figure is disappointing, but there are some promising signs as well.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Brendan O'Connor, the Federal Minister for Homelessness, is heartened too by the 42 per cent fall in those at risk of being homeless. But cutting the homelessness rate remains the big challenge.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: We need to continue to do more with state and territory governments, with the not-for-profit sector, and indeed even with the corporate sector.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Is Labor still committed to Kevin Rudd's pledge to halve the rate of homelessness by 2020?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: We are committed. I think it's also fair to say that when you look at the data between 2006 and 2011, you must take into account that for the first three years of that data, there was no investment whatsoever. And then there was a lag time from the investment commencing in 2009.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Do you think you will meet your target of reducing the rate of homelessness by 20 per cent by next year?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: I think that's more challenging, and I think that's again, because of the lag time between investment and outcomes. The consensus within the sector at least is there's a certain way you invest that brings about the right outcomes.

We've seen it with rough sleepers, in using more supported accommodation. We've seen it in terms of social housing, but I think that for me the obvious point is we need a greater level of collaboration with states and territories to provide greater levels of housing, affordable housing, for people.

PRU GOWARD: These figures are 2011 figures and they tell you the sad story of what happens when you just do the same old, same old.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: The New South Wales Minister, Pru Goward, is arguing for a new approach, saying just providing people with three months' accommodation doesn't work.

PRU GOWARD: When you think about the huge number of people who are homeless who have mental illness, drug and alcohol addictions, or are formerly prison inmates, it's pretty obvious that you're not going to get the homelessness rate down unless you address some of the reasons why they are homeless.

AMBER CLARKE: One day, things had escalated so badly to the point where he was hanging me out of my bathroom window by my throat until I passed out. He was kicking me, spitting on me, dragging me around by my hair, smashing chairs over my back.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Amber Clarke was helped into emergency accommodation under a program funded by the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness which runs out in July. Federal and state minsters meet again on Friday to try and sort out their differences and cut a new deal.

Amber says a lot of people are depending on that.

AMBER CLARKE: Honestly, I can't thank them enough for what they've done. They've provided me with the key and that step up that I needed to get a new life.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: But there's still a big gap to be bridged, as evidenced by the Ministers Pru Goward and Brendan O'Connor.

PRU GOWARD: It's crazy to think that you can address homelessness and reduce the rates with a four-year partnership. It really needs to be recurrent, it has to be ongoing, and it has to be a partnership of reform.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well that's an interesting thing coming from a minister who is yet to say that she'd spend one cent on any new agreement, so let's see how the New South Wales Government goes on Friday when I put to them our position.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: The Federal Minister wants the states to do more about the problem of severe overcrowding and is also demanding they sign up to greater financial accountability.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: At the moment, under the National Affordable Housing Agreement, they do not have to account to me, they don't have to account specifically to the public. I think we need a far more transparent arrangement so we know exactly where the money's spent.

PRU GOWARD: We just want to get this right and we do hope that Minister O'Connor and the Federal Government stop flip-flopping and playing a game with this issue and commit to ongoing recurrent funding at a decent level.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: I think if there's good will among the nine jurisdictions, we'll reach that agreement, and I say to those who work so hard, passionately, compassionately, for our most vulnerable Australians that the Federal Government supports their efforts and will do everything we can to have a federal agreement.

MARK COLVIN: The Federal Minister for Homelessness, Brendon O'Connor, speaking to Alexandra Kirk.