A lot has happened in the last few months – good and bad. One of the positives is that at least one third of homelessness people sleeping rough in Australia, have been temporarily sheltered in response to COVID-19.
This phenomenal response represents one of the most significant homelessness responses Australia has seen since the Rudd Government’s unprecedented investment and attention to housing and homelessness.
What this first step shows is that rapid progress is possible, if the will is there, and what the broader crisis has shown is that despite the common misconception to the contrary, the scale of homelessness in Australia is both preventable and solvable.
In fact, there has never been a more important time to seek to end street homelessness. If my time as a staffer for multiple South Australian Premiers and Commonwealth Ministers tough me anything about politics, it was to never let a good crisis go to waste. It was former US President Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel who once said that in a crisis there is the opportunity to do things you thought you never thought possible before.
Ending rough sleeping homelessness is possible – in fact this crisis has shown that it’s a necessity. What we can’t do is temporarily shelter this group of highly vulnerable people and when the crisis is over, just tip them back onto the streets. We need a sustainable response.
Shadow Treasurer Jim Chalmers recently wrote, it is not too early to be talking about Australia after the crisis. This crisis has a long way to go yet, but Jim is right, it’s not too early to think about what kind of country we want to be on the other side. Jim poignantly explained that it was Labor wartime leaders John Curtin and Ben Chifley who planed for “victory in war” and “victory in peace” by establishing the Department of Post War Reconstruction at a time when most of Europe was still occupied by the Nazis and Japanese bombs were still falling on northern Australia.
In order to effectively respond to our generation’s crisis, we need to, and we are providing rapid shelter to people who have no place to call home. But we need to take the next step. As Australian’s we have set a standard that says when you present to an emergency department you get treatment free of charge, that is the minimum standard of health care you can expect in this country. It is a standard that took time to define and create and was in fact born out of the desire to provide better health care for veterans returning from the Second World War.
We ought to set a similar standard when it comes to housing when this ‘war like’ crisis is over. No one should have to sleep rough, not before this crisis, not during it, and certainly not after it.
Now of course there are multiple types of homelessness; rough sleeping is but one, but it is the type that costs the most in terms of taxpayers expenditure, in terms of reduced life expectancy for those sleeping rough, and, as this pandemic has proven, places us all at risk if left unaddressed.
We must set a new standard that should be upheld when this crisis is over. At the Australian Alliance to End Homelessness we have done a lot of work on how you set that standard, how you measure it and define it. We believe that an end to rough sleeping homelessness a community must ensure, and demonstrate through data, that homelessness is a rare occurrence, brief when it does occur and a one-time thing.
This approach has been so important to helping communities rapidly respond to this COVID-19 crisis. This approach, of knowing the names and needs of every person sleeping rough, needs to be rolled out nationally, we can’t wait for this crisis to be over, we need do it now!
David Pearson is CEO of the Australian Alliance to End Homelessness (AAEH), Senior Advisor to the Institute of Global Homelessness (IGH) and Industry Adjunct at Uni SA’s The Australian Alliance for Social Enterprise (TAASE).