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STANDING COMMITTEE ON FAMILY, COMMUNITY, HOUSING AND YOUTH
09/09/2009
Homelessness legislation

CHAIR (Ms Annette Ellis) —I declare open this public hearing of the inquiry by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family, Community, Housing and Youth into homelessness legislation. This is the second public hearing for the inquiry. The homelessness legislation inquiry was announced on the 24 June. Written submissions were called for and over 90 have been received to date.

I welcome to the table representatives of Homeless Persons Legal Service. Although the committee does not require you to speak under oath, you should understand that these hearings are formal proceedings of the Commonwealth parliament, and the giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as contempt of the parliament. On behalf of the committee I thank you for the submission that we have received from you and which we all have a copy of. Would you like to make a brief introductory statement before we get into discussion?

Ms Hourigan Ruse —The Homeless Persons Legal Service was established in 2003 by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre and the Public Interest Law Clearing House. HPLS is funded by the New South Wales Public Purpose Fund through the support of New South Wales Attorney-General. HPLS provides free legal advice and ongoing representation to people who are homeless. We currently operate nine clinics in welfare agencies in the greater Sydney area. Since the launch of HPLS, we have provided advice to over 3,000 clients.

The Homeless Persons Legal Service welcomes the opportunity to speak to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family, Community, Housing and Youth inquiry on the proposed new federal legislation on homelessness. HPLS believes that in order for the legislation to address the growing rates of homelessness in Australia, it should be based on a human rights framework. The previous piece of legislation governing the operation of homeless services in Australia, the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act, made only limited and aspirational references to Australia’s international human rights commitments. Most prominently that act detailed in its preamble that homeless people’s ‘universal human rights should not be prejudiced by the manner by which services are provided to them.’ However, it is clear that the intention of government—that the provision of services to homeless people would not impact upon their universal rights—has not translated into practice.

In May this year, in response to the federal government’s National Human Rights Consultation, HPLS held a series of human rights workshops in inner-city Sydney. During these consultations HPLS received considerable feedback from homeless people that their human rights in areas such as housing, social security, discrimination and personal safety were being consistently undermined by the operation of federal, state and territory government policies. In addition, those consulted by HPLS were concerned that SAAP service providers were also failing to adequately protect their human rights in service delivery.

One person consulted during one of these workshops shared the following story:

I was living in a boarding house where the rent had to be paid 4 weeks in advance. It was also $460 a fortnight for a small room and $50 a week for cleaning. It was disgusting: the area was surrounded by drugs and prostitutes. One day I woke up after cockroaches had bitten me. I complained to the owner and was kicked out. When you are homeless you just have to sit back and take it.

On the basis of these consultations with homeless people and our policy and legal work, HPLS believes that a human rights framework in any new piece of homelessness legislation is essential. Unlike with the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act, the new legislation must not contain merely aspirational statements about human rights but detailed standards that must be met by service providers to retain funding and accreditation. Importantly, the federal government must ensure that it provides adequate support and resourcing to the sector to enable the realisation of these rights and standards. In addition, HPLS believes human rights standards in the homelessness legislation must provide individuals with effective remedies for breach of these human rights by government and service providers.

What would a human rights framework in the national legislation look like? HPLS believes that such a framework would protect and promote rights to adequate housing. Currently the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act and SAAP accommodation services fail to provide those experiencing homelessness with a right to housing in a number of key ways, including by turning away over 59 per cent of people initiating new requests for supported accommodation on an average day, by excluding homeless people with complex needs and by failing to provide accessible accommodation options for people with physical disabilities.

HPLS believes that new federal homelessness legislation should seek to overcome these rights violations by incorporating a right to adequate housing. The submission of the Homeless Persons Legal Service and the Homeless Persons Legal Clinic provides detail on jurisdictions such as the UK and Scotland that have sought to incorporate such a right. In addition, a human rights framework would promote the involvement of homeless people in policy and service delivery decisions. Currently, the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act is silent on the rights of homeless people to be involved in government and other decision-making processes that directly affect them.

New homelessness legislation could protect and promote this right in a number of ways, including financing new homeless consumer bodies and providing ongoing resourcing for already existing bodies such as Street Care. New homelessness legislation should require government departments and agencies, such as Housing NSW, Centrelink and FaHCSIA, to engage such consumer groups before making substantive policy and legislative reforms. It is also essential that national legislation promote the role of homeless people in service delivery by making consumer involvement a prerequisite to service accreditation. There are a number of other human rights that should be protected by the new homelessness legislation. For details of these I direct the committee to the HPLS submission.

HPLS also believes that new national homelessness legislation should promote the delivery of services to homeless people that are based on individual need not on the need of support agencies. Too often homeless people with complex needs are denied adequate support and treatment because of inappropriate exclusion and service policies. An example of this is the prominence of short-term support services in Sydney that provide limited three-month support for individuals with complex and long-term needs. HPLS believes homeless support services must stop telling their clients what their needs are and actually stop and listen and then plan services around what homeless people are telling them they need. HPLS believes that support must be individually tailored for as long as necessary to ensure lasting positive outcomes.

This committee’s inquiry into homelessness legislation provides for a real opportunity to recognise the considerable role that violations of human rights play in causing and further exacerbating homelessness and in preventing people from permanently exiting homelessness. New homelessness legislation should not simply pay lip service to the protection of human rights as does the current Supported Accommodation Assistance Act but should provide concrete standards of practice that are enforceable against service providers and federal, state and territory governments. Recognition, promotion and fulfilment of the human rights of homeless people in new national legislation will go a long way towards ensuring the ambitious targets of reducing homelessness contained in the white paper The road home can be realised.

CHAIR —Thank you both for being here. Your very first recommendation in your report is the need for the legislation to protect the human right of homeless people to adequate housing by incorporating an enforceable right based on international models such as the Homelessness Act in Scotland. Could you discuss briefly with us how these models operate in practice. Because you are making a direct reference to a particular model in Scotland, I would like you to talk to us about how that would apply and why you believe that that model is the best thing for us to look at here.

Mr Hartley —I think our submission makes reference to two models. One is the Homelessness etc (Scotland) Act and the other is the Homelessness Act 2002 in the UK. The UK act does impose an obligation to provide housing, but there are some limitations within the UK act. For example, you need to establish that you are in priority need and also that you have not caused your own homeless situation. So we would recommend the Scotland act, which does not necessarily provide a right to housing, but that within 10 years that all homeless people will be offered housing in Scotland.

CHAIR —Can you explain to me the difference? I find it interesting that you are saying that UK one says ‘whether or not you have caused your own homelessness’. That is a very problematic angle, isn’t it?

Ms Hourigan Ruse —They use a phrase called ‘intentional homelessness’.

CHAIR —Do you want to discuss that a little bit more?

Mr Hartley —Yes. It is that you have not deliberately lost your accommodation. So if there are issues around the payment of rent—there is a wide variety of narrow definitions of why you could be excluded from right to adequate housing. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of another concrete example, but it is very limited.

CHAIR —You could have not paid your rent because you might have broken your neck or had a mental breakdown.

Mr Hartley —Absolutely.

Ms Hourigan Ruse —And an issue that our clients often face is they have to make the decision between paying their rent and paying for their medication in a week or a fortnight. It has that catch 22: if you do not pay your rent, your tenancy is at risk; if you are unwell and you are not having your medication regularly, then your tenancy is also at risk but for different reasons.

Mr Hartley —The other benefit of the Scotland act is that it places people around their support services in their community. That is often a problem for our clients—that is, they are placed by the housing department, Housing New South Wales, in areas where they just do not have support at all. So often it is in rural locations or out of Sydney. That is another benefit of the act.

CHAIR —Kirsten, do you want to come in here?

Ms LIVERMORE —I want to expand further on the Scottish experience.

CHAIR —So we are going down the same track. Do you want to add any more to what you have already said about the Scottish example?

Mr Hartley —No, but our colleagues at the Homeless Persons Legal Clinic who are here have done some substantive research on that, so I might pass to them.

Ms LIVERMORE —If we have finished up on that point, then it becomes a question of expressing that right within the legislation and how that is enforced. Do you want to talk about how you would see the enforcement of those rights?

Mr Hartley —There are a few different mechanisms. It could involve a right to enforce that at a court level. There are some strengths and limitations to that. There are also things like promoting a resolution process, where if there is a breach of that particular right, that a homeless person can go to a particular agency and discuss it—I suppose a kind of dispute resolution approach instead of it being a court focused enforcement.

Mr TREVOR —You speak of the homeless being more involved in future policy design. Could you elaborate on that for us, what ideas you might have in relation to that aspect of your submission?

Ms Hourigan Ruse —We have recently set up a consumer advocacy group called Street Care. The role of that group is to assist government agencies and non-government agencies to consult with homeless people. A recurring theme through the work of HPLS from our clients is that before you complain about a service or to a service, you need to decide whether you can live without that service. There are very limited complaint mechanisms around services as they are currently structured, and homeless people are often barred from services. They are seen as ungrateful if they raise any issues about the way services are provided. In an employment situation or in any situation there are opportunities for redress. Homeless people currently do not feel that they have that.

Mr TREVOR —They do not have an ADR or a mediation type process?

Ms Hourigan Ruse —Yes.

Mr Hartley —I think that, on a systemic level, for things like the green or white paper there was some limited consultation with homeless people, but a lot of that came from agencies like ours and the Homeless Persons Legal Clinic, who did the majority of consumer consultations. If there is a major policy that will affect homeless people being decided by state and federal governments, we would like to see them defer to established homeless consumer groups, such as Street Care, which are supported and provided with assistance so that they can comment on the policies.

Mr TREVOR —What about tribunals in the event of conflict resolution?

Mr Hartley —Are you talking about the involvement of homeless people?

Mr TREVOR —Yes.

Mr Hartley —At the moment, as Julie was saying, the complaint procedure is really given over to the services. I do not want to criticise all services, but most homeless people’s rights really do not get respected in that process. So for there to be an ongoing role for homeless people in that process would be really good.

Mr TREVOR —And community legal services, such as yours, could facilitate the representation of homeless people before the tribunal.

Mr Hartley —Yes. I would like to stress that consultation can be done in a really poor and abusive way. Actually using dedicated consumer groups like Street Care is great because they are supported and structured in a way that allows that feedback.

Ms Hourigan Ruse —I think another important thing is that if homeless people feel that they can complain with impunity then issues probably would not escalate to a tribunal. They would not escalate to that level. I think that, if homeless people had greater participation in the way services were structured and provided, a lot of issues could be resolved at the ground level without them being escalated at all.

Ms COLLINS —We heard from some departmental officials last week about this enforcement and regulation side, and one of the questions we have heard is how far you go with the regulation—whether you go to the aged-care model, where there is very heavy regulation, or whether we just have a little bit. Obviously we do not want to dry up the number of beds for homeless people, but we want them to be of a reasonable standard. I wonder if you have any comments on how far you think we should go and what sort of standard you think would give people enforceable human rights? What level of standards do you think there should be?

Ms Hourigan Ruse —An adequate standard! I think part of the problem with the standards is the way a lot of the services are currently funded. There is one service in the Illawarra that has to go through three separate accreditation processes, and that is just silly. It is an enormous burden on services, particularly small services, to go through accreditation processes. If they get funding from different sources, they have different requirements. That is labour intensive and diverts their time from doing good work. There should be accreditation standards but, if you are accredited for one type of funding, surely that should just apply across the board. There should be more uniform standards that apply, rather than different funding providers having different standards.

Linked in with accreditation is SAAP services, which currently have their standards, but you also have unlicensed boarding houses and caravan parks—that is, you have these accommodation providers that have no regulation at all and where people are turfed out at will. That is a serious problem that needs to be addressed. How you do that without drying up the number of beds, I do not know. I wish I did have the answer to that, but there needs to be some uniform standards that apply across all of the accommodation providers.

Mr Hartley —In terms of human rights specifically, it really needs to be governed and supported by adequate funding. I know some services are quite reluctant for there to be increased accreditation and human rights procedures because they are running on a shoestring budget. They just do not have funds to do this kind of thing. It is one thing to talk about human rights but, if they are not adequately funded, it will not happen in practice.

Ms LIVERMORE —That probably relates to the question I was going to ask. I am trying work out the balance between your recommendation that we have recognition of the right to adequate shelter or housing and the practice at the moment that you talk about in your submission where many services exclude people with complex needs. At what point do we start putting such an onus on housing organisations to meet needs where there are failures in other areas of the social supports for those kinds of clients?

Mr Hartley —Yes, I do think that needs to be acknowledged.

Ms LIVERMORE —Do we set the bar too high for them?

Mr Hartley —Yes. Again, it is having that adequate funding. But also, looking at the other side of the coin, especially in terms of physical disabilities, you do have the Disability Discrimination Act, which does apply. But if you are disabled and living on the street, of which there is quite a number of people, you have to sleep rough because services are not available to you. For us, it is actually looking at focussing on the needs of the client first and what can be done to address that. If there were actually adequate funding a lot of these service standards would be implemented, especially around disability.

CHAIR —The whole structure of the new homelessness legislation offers great opportunities and challenges, particularly in relation to all of the issues surrounding homelessness: health, social security, participation, employment and training. It is not just the roof, it is everything that goes with it.

Mr Hartley —Absolutely.

CHAIR —How do you see that as a part of this legislation? What would be your views on how we address the surrounding issues as well? We are not just talking about putting a roof over someone’s head when we address homelessness. It is a very complex area, but we need to knit all of that together—do we?

Ms Hourigan-Ruse —We do, but it is a little ad hoc. It relies on the current SAAP services having the networks to tap into the supports that a client needs. A story that was relayed to us earlier this week was about a client who was escaping a domestic violence situation, but went to a crisis accommodation service and so was not offered support for their domestic violence needs because that was not the service that provider offered.

It comes back to having no wrong doors into service providers and services being tailored, wrapping the services around and listening to what your client needs and then being able to source that support, whether that is through brokerage or whether the services are big enough to provide it. As Chris mentioned, in rural and regional areas it is very difficult to access some of the medical support and the psychiatric support that you need because people are just not there. The trained professionals just are not there.

CHAIR —It is incumbent upon us in this legislation that, somehow, through the human rights structure alone, we try to address that complex network, isn’t it?

Ms LIVERMORE —That is right. I guess what you are saying is that if you look at it from that human rights framework, if you are providing a service in the homeless sector then it is not just about how you administer your service, it is about how you meet the genuine and holistic needs of the clients that you serve.

Ms Hourigan-Ruse —Certainly; and having the networks available so that you know who to contact and the client is not given 10 referrals and told to go to 10 different places to access support. It is about the service provider being able to say, ‘Okay, I can bring 10 people to you to assist you.’

CHAIR —Chris, you represent an electorate that is out in the middle of nowhere?

Mr TREVOR —You are asking?

Ms LIVERMORE —That is a tactful way to say it!

CHAIR —I say that in the nicest possible way. Do you have anything you want to ask or comment about to these folk from your perspective?

Mr TREVOR —No, I think to a large extent it is to do with adequate funding. The issue of human rights can be addressed—to some extent, maybe not totally—by the provision of additional funding to the system. Do you agree with that?

Ms Hourigan-Ruse —To ensure those networks, absolutely.

Mr Hartley —I think additional funding is essential, but actually having those standards is something to aspire to in giving homeless people an option to say, ‘Actually you’ve promised to provide this particular service; this is a standard that you are required to do, but this is not happening.’ Whereas at the moment it is up in the air.

CHAIR —Because of time, we are going to have to draw this to a conclusion and I apologise for that. It has been a very good discussion. I want to thank you again for your submission which is very thorough and gives us a lot of the material that we have been skirting over. Thank you for coming this morning. We may be in touch again.

[10.36 am]