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Monday, 20 August 2012
Page: 9336

Mrs MARKUS (Macquarie) (21:07): While so many Australians struggle to afford the rising costs of living that affect their most basic comforts, such as heating their homes, tens of thousands of Australians do not even have a home to heat, with families living in tents and children forced to sleep rough. Across Australia and particularly in greater Western Sydney there is a severe lack of affordable housing, which is pushing families out of the rental market and onto endless public housing waiting lists.

Homelessness, however, goes beyond whether Australians can afford to rent a roof over their heads, with domestic and family violence and family or relationship breakdown leading to around a third of Australia's homelessness. Such issues are not easy to address. The question is how we as a society can ensure that those who slip through the cracks are taken care of.

To emphasise how widespread this crisis is, I want to highlight some key figures that were released this year by Homelessness Australia. There is estimated to be 105,000 Australians who are homeless every night. That is one in every 200 Australians without safe, secure or affordable housing. In 2011, 220,000 Australians received support from specialist homelessness services. This equated to one in every 100 people. One in every 38 Australian children under the age of four spent time in a homelessness service over the course of 2009 to 2010. Every day more than half the people who request immediate accommodation from homelessness services are turned away. Two in every three children who need support are also turned away, as are almost 80 per cent of families.

Prior to being a member of parliament I worked for more than 25 years as a social worker. I am very much aware of the conditions that the homeless endure and I have a strong understanding that, once homeless, it can be challenging to re-establish the resources and overcome the barriers to again become a part of mainstream society.

In fact, a survey released this month by Journeys Home found that people who first become homeless at a young age are more likely to experience persistent homelessness later in life.

Not only is one of the key challenges breaking the cycle; it is also increasingly challenging to get support, as shelters and providers are struggling to meet the demand. For this reason, I was touched when I met Cassidy Strickland and her mother, Linda. Cassidy is just 10 years old, and is an inspired example that anyone can make a difference. Cassidy told me, and I think it is a good lesson for everyone:

Everybody has strengths and weaknesses but everybody can make a difference. You just have to focus on what you can do, not what you can't do. Think about how it can be done and not how it can't be done.

When Cassidy was just eight years old, she saw a man going through her family's garbage bin. Cassidy was confused and concerned that someone could be that hungry and desperate for food. Cassidy thought long and hard about how she could help this man. He needed food and all Cassidy had was her pocket money. Cassidy went to her mum and asked if she could go and buy some food to give to the homeless man. Cassidy's mum was reluctant. She did not think they would be able to find the man and had no idea where to start.

Cassidy's mum, Linda, suggested another idea: volunteering at the local community kitchen, and that is what they did every Wednesday night. After months of helping out, Cassidy learned that the community kitchen was closed on weekends. 'What would they eat?' Cassidy thought and asked, approaching her mother again. 'Mum,' Cassidy said, 'We have food; we should feed everyone on the weekends.' Cassidy's mum was reluctant. The job seemed just too large. Again, Cassidy reminded her mum, 'Think about what we can do, not what we can't.' Since September 2011, every Saturday night, Cassidy and her mother have met the homeless in the park at Richmond, and they feed a growing number of people. Over the holiday season, when the community kitchen is closed, they meet the homeless three nights a week, sacrificing holiday activities to use that money to support the homeless. Cassidy said that the youngest person who comes is just two months old and the oldest is 86. Some live in cars, some live in storage boxes, and one man lives in a grandstand. It is amazing and inspiring what a 10-year-old girl has accomplished. Cassidy told me:

In every community there is work to be done and in every heart there is the power to do it, because everyone has a heart and everyone has the ability to make a difference. You just need to focus on what you can do and not what you can't do.

How inspiring. Cassidy and Linda Strickland, I think you are both amazing. I think Cassidy has a wonderful future ahead of her.

There is no easy answer to homelessness, as almost every case is unique. Their presence and our response is a test of our compassion as a society. I think everyone would agree that Cassidy and her mother set a shining example to everyone here that anyone can make a difference, that as a community there is more that we can do to support the sector. As Linda said to me, 'Feeding the homeless is just the tip of the iceberg; there is so much more that can be done'—much more, in fact.

In May this year a team of volunteers collected data for the homelessness vulnerability index survey in the Upper Blue Mountains. The results revealed an alarmingly high rate of life-threatening diseases and untreated injuries. Sadly, a staggering 45 per cent of those surveyed were living rough in cars and squats, and 42 per cent were considered to be at greater risk of early death due to having multiple risk factors associated with long-term homelessness. These are not unique figures. They are representative of a national crisis, but this can be tackled with strategic planning and appropriate resourcing. With the right kind of support, people can overcome barriers and again enter mainstream society.

In August the Australian Council of Social Service released its annual Australian Community Sector Survey. Within this survey 81 per cent of agencies said they could not meet the demand for services. More startling is that, with regard to the concerns facing the sector, more than half of the organisations highlighted funding as the key issue, stating that funding was too little and not certain enough.

In 2008, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd declared homelessness was a 'national obscenity' and promised a 12-year plan that would cut homelessness in half. Yet, in 2012, in the Gillard government's attempt to stay afloat financially, the Minister for Housing has confirmed the worries of the sector by stating that he would have to find savings to provide any further funding to extend the Rudd agreement beyond June 2013.

As a result, there are now reports that some organisations may close earlier rather than face an uncertain future without government support. I echo the concerns raised by the shadow minister for housing and call upon Minister O'Connor to make clear whether the government will continue to fund programs for the homeless after June 2013 and to urgently work with the states and territories rather than dictate to them.

In addition to the uncertainty imposed by the Gillard government, services addressing the issues and the needs of the homeless are also under increasing financial pressure as a result of higher levels of demand, insurance premiums, wage indexation and reporting requirements. As a result, Homelessness Australia has reported that service providers have been forced to restructure to minimise staffing costs and are unfortunately losing skilled and experienced workers. It is clear that this government continues to let down the least fortunate Australians and those people who dedicate their working lives to providing these vital services. It is apparent that the current funding arrangements that the Rudd government was so proud of do not come anywhere close to meeting the demand.

I truly believe that the parliament can endeavour to do more for this often forgotten sector. A coalition government would work to reverse the trend of unaffordable housing, one of the driving factors pushing people into homelessness. Following that we would then address the non-financial causes of homelessness, working with the states and territories to deliver more targeted programs. The coalition recognises that we need to do more than give the homeless a meal and a bed for the night. Not to take away from the significance and importance of that, but we need to give the homeless a pathway out, one step at a time, finding solutions for the challenges that they need to overcome. The efforts need to be urgent and they need to be sustained.

I know from my experience of more than 25 years working in the sector that there are opportunities and Australians can step out of homelessness and become significant contributing members of society. This will require us to work with the states and territories to develop strategies to make a practical difference on the ground and give people the opportunities that they deserve.