In her first press conference, the newly elected leader of the NSW Labor Party Jodie McKay expressed her willingness to work alongside Premier Gladys Berejiklian to address the growing rates of homelessness in New South Wales. It’s a small step, but this potential commitment to a bi-partisan, collaborative approach is essential in the face of increasing homelessness in NSW.
In fact, New South Wales has seen the largest rise in the rates of homelessness in Australia, with figures from the 2016 Census revealing a rise of 37.3 percent from 2011 (compared to a national increase of 13.7 percent).
Figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s Specialist Homelessness Services Annual report 2017-2018 reveal that in 2017/18 over 71,000 clients were supported by homelessness services in New South Wales – a 38 percent increase since 2014. This is significantly more clients than the system is designed, and funded, for.
As a result of the considerable number of people seeking support from homelessness services, 2 in 5 clients in New South Wales seeking crisis accommodation are turned away.
In responses to these growing rates of homelessness, the NSW Government has implemented several initiatives. Prior to the 2019 election, the NSW Government signed a global agreement to halve street homelessness across the State by 2025. Alongside of this commitment, the NSW Government and the City of Sydney agreed to support a Sydney office for the Institute of Global Homelessness whose role it will be to support services in Sydney to set goals and strategies to reduce rough sleeping numbers.
The NSW Government’s commitments are on the back of its NSW Homelessness Strategy 2018-2019 and the increased role of the NSW Department of Family and Community Services (FACS) in providing street outreach to rough sleepers. Following the foundation and removal of the Martin Place ‘tent city’, FACS has worked in conjunction with NSW Police to reach out to individuals in homelessness ‘hot-spots’ across inner Sydney. For some, this has been highly beneficial: over 300 rough sleepers have been offered social housing, and FACS has appropriately exercised its discretion to help many of those people overcome barriers to entering social housing, often by reconsidering their own eligibility criteria. However, this approach has not been without controversy, with reports of outreach efforts involving the confiscation or threatened confiscation of tents and other improvised dwellings.
However, the NSW Government’s policy and program responses homelessness are not underpinned by the one thing which make reducing homelessness in NSW achievable: a co‐ordinated and holistic approach to addressing affordability.
The approaches outlined above position the issue of homelessness outside the context of the housing crisis which is impacting across the housing continuum.
As of June 2018, there were close to 53,000 applications for social housing on the waiting list, with waiting times exceeding 10 years in many locations. In the private rental market, Anglicare Australia’s 2019 Rental Affordability Snapshot found that less than one per cent of all properties advertised across greater Sydney and the Illawarra were available to people on income support payments. In Sydney, the overwhelming bulk of these were in the outer suburbs, more than 20 kilometres from the CBD.
A considerable number of people become homelessness after exiting social housing, highlighting the need for greater support to vulnerable tenants including those whom are experience domestic and family violence or in rent arrears.
Similarly in the private rental market, we must strengthen the protection against discrimination and ‘no grounds’ evictions under the Residential Tenancies Act 2010 (NSW) (the RTA). Currently in NSW Sections 84 and 85 of the RTA allow a landlord to issue a ‘no grounds’ eviction notice at the end of a fixed term lease or once the lease is outside of a fixed term. In 2019, the NSW Government made reforms to the RTA to enable tenants to terminate their tenancy immediately and without penalty in circumstances of domestic violence and to limit rent increases to one every 12 months for periodic leases. However the NSW Government has ruled out reforms to the current ‘no grounds evictions’.
An evidence-based approach
In 2018, the Centre for Social Impact (CSI) released the research report, Amplify Insights Housing Affordability and Homelessness which highlighted that without significant reform and investment across the housing continuum (including temporary accommodation, social housing, affordable housing and home ownership, Australia will continue to see rises in the number of people experiencing homelessness.
In the temporary accommodation space, we need government investment in evidence‐based models such as ‘Housing First’ that focus first on attainment of permanent housing, then the provision of wrap around support for surrounding issues to prevent re‐entry into homelessness.
In the area of social housing and affordable housing, research indicates that NSW requires 212,000 new social housing properties over the next 20 years to meet the current shortfall. Achieving this will require tapping into new sources of capital, different finance mechanisms and innovative approaches that maximise the use of capital, including the $1bn held by the National Housing Infrastructure Facility and administered by the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation.
Knowledge into Action
To translate the research findings of Amplify into social change, the Centre for Social Impact has partnered with Mission Australia, the Red Cross and PwC Australia to establish the Constellation Project. The Constellation Project is committed to making Australia a place where everyone has access to a safe, affordable, accessible, appropriate and secure home. Through an innovative Social Labs approach 90 people across the for-profit and for-purpose sectors have been designing solutions that can increase the supply of affordable housing at scale, through a range of avenues including attracting private capital into the affordable housing market. Following this stage, the Constellation Project will begin to address the vast array of social and legislative reforms required to prevent journeys into homelessness and improving pathways out.
Upon signing the global agreement to halve street homelessness NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian vowed to tackle the “root causes” of homelessness. We have the evidence of what these root causes are as well as how to address them. What we need now is both sides of politics to come together to deliver what’s really needed to solve this crisis: homes.
Chris Hartley is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Social Impact at UNSW