The first week of August is Homelessness Week. This year, as I have researched the current state of homelessness in Australia I have been struck by 3 themes:
- The importance of home during COVID-19.
- Homelessness as a human rights issue.
- Solutions to homelessness do exist – this is an issue that can be solved in our lifetime.
What is homelessness?
The people you see sleeping rough make up only 6% of Australia’s homeless population. The other 94% includes those who find themselves couch surfing, individuals and families in crowded boarding houses, and women and children escaping an abusive home and moving into short-term safe housing. Interestingly, Australia and New Zealand are two of the only countries that include boarding houses and severe overcrowding in estimating homelessness.
The importance of home during COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought attention to the issue of housing insecurity and homelessness. The pandemic, and resultant economic downturn, has made more people susceptible to homelessness. Some of the drivers include:
Domestic & Family Violence
Family, sexual and domestic violence is the leading cause of homelessness across Australia. Conflict may be exacerbated by increased confinement at home.
AHURI research suggests if unemployment rates rise by 1%, this would increase likelihood of homelessness of those previously employed and housed by 2%.
Experiencing financial difficulty can set the wheels in motion for a person to suddenly find themselves no longer able to afford living costs.
Social distancing might restrict access to housing. Some accommodation services have had to reduce capacity to comply with social distancing requirements.
COVID-19 has highlighted the crucial link between housing and health. People experiencing homelessness are more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19 as it may be difficult for them to comply with social distancing, stay-at-home directives and other measures.
Homelessness as a human rights issue
Access to safe and secure housing is one of the most basic human rights. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
However, homelessness is not just about housing. A person experiencing homelessness may also face violations of the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to education, the right to privacy, the right to social security, the right to liberty and security of the person, the right to freedom from discrimination, the right to vote, and more.
Recognising that homelessness impacts on a person’s ability to enjoy basic rights and freedoms has important consequences for the way that we view and treat people experiencing homelessness. They are not just people seeking human kindness. Like all Australians, they are individuals who are entitled under international law to protection and promotion of their human rights.
We should not conceive of ending homelessness as a charitable gesture to be made or not. It should be seen to be an act of justice based upon the equal right of all people including the homeless to lead a dignified life. It should be seen in terms of housing as a human right. –Professor the Hon Kevin Bell AM QC, Director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law
Solutions to homelessness do exist
Following the onset of COVID-19, governments at all levels in Australia announced funding, legislation and policy changes that sought to, directly and indirectly, address homelessness, by providing temporary financial and other forms of support to households at risk. These government interventions – such as hotel housing for homeless people and eviction bans – have shown that action is possible.
A human rights approach acknowledges that homelessness is more than just a housing issue. Addressing homelessness requires a comprehensive and integrated approach that takes into account its many and varied causes and effects. Addressing homelessness requires long-term solutions both in terms of increasing the supply of suitable housing and in addressing the drivers of homelessness.
The Everybody’s Home campaign is calling for a better, fairer housing system for everyone, including a national action plan to end homelessness by 2030, that:
- Addresses all the drivers of homelessness, including the lack of affordable housing, poverty and family violence.
- Rapidly rehouses people who are homeless and helps them stay there.
- Addresses the over-representation of Aboriginal people in the homeless service system.
- Commits to ending homelessness by 2030 by taking action to prevent homelessness and delivering rapid access to the housing and support people need if they do lose their own home.
As we look to build a better future for Australia post-COVID-19, housing insecurity and homelessness should be front and centre. There is now an opportunity to take the learnings from the past 18 months to create long-term solutions.
- Building a Better Future: Housing and Homelessness
- COVID19 and Human Rights in Australia: Part 3, Prof the Hon Kevin Bell AM QC
- Shelter in the storm – COVID19 and homelessness, Interim report of the inquiry into homelessness in Australia, October 2020
- Homelessness is a Human Rights Issue, Australian Human Rights Commission, 1 January 2008
- Everybody’s Home Campaign