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Victorian homelessness inquiry chair Fiona Patten: ‘We need to be smarter about where we direct our efforts.’ James Ross/AAP

Homeless numbers set to rise again, but inquiry can be a turning point if we get smarter about housing people

Australian parliaments produce many committee reports, but only occasionally does one deserve to be described as a “landmark report”. The Legal and Social Issues Committee report Inquiry into homelessness in Victoria, released this month, may be just such a report that makes a difference, if its recommendations are followed. The report has advanced a bold reform agenda, proposing measures that would be the most significant response to homelessness in Australian history.

Homelessness is set to increase following the end of moratoriums on evictions and rent increases in Victoria, New South Wales and Western Australia this month. JobKeeper payments and the Coronavirus Supplement to JobSeeker payments also ended this week. The combined effect will be to increase housing stress and thus the risk of people becoming homeless.

Read more: 2.6 million face poverty when COVID payments end, rental stress soars

Moving beyond crisis management

More crisis accommodation is already needed in some places, as the report notes. But it cautions: “Such an investment in crisis accommodation is not intended to increase the emphasis on the provision of crisis accommodation in Victoria’s homelessness system.”

Instead, the inquiry has produced a strongly argued case for providing more affordable and social housing. Its report states:

“The provision of affordable, stable, long-term housing is key to reducing the number of people at risk of, or experiencing, homelessness in Victoria.”

To advance this agenda, a significant investment is now eminently possible. The Victorian government has announced a A$5 billion program to build 9,300 new social housing dwellings over the next four years. Even with this 10% increase in dwellings at below-market rents, the report notes, Victoria will still be below the national average for social housing as a proportion of all housing.

Read more: Victoria's $5.4bn Big Housing Build: it is big, but the social housing challenge is even bigger

The committee did its work under the difficult conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet the inquiry received more than 450 formal submissions and held 18 in-person and online hearings in Melbourne and regional Victoria. The committee reminds us:

“Homelessness is one of the most complex and distressing expressions of disadvantage and social exclusion in our society and requires immediate attention by government.”

Victoria can solve the problem of homelessness, the parliamentary inquiry says in its recent report.

Media coverage of homelessness often focuses on stories about people sleeping rough. The default response is often to call for more crisis accommodation.

The inquiry found that “Victoria’s homelessness system is overwhelmed with those in need”. However, the report warns: “There is significant risk in treating immediate problems in isolation.”

Read more: States housed 40,000 people for the COVID emergency. Now rough sleeper numbers are back on the up

Putting the focus on early intervention and prevention

The report’s focus on early interventions and preventing homelessness in the first place stands out as a notable contribution to public policy discussion about homelessness. It eschews conservative thinking about funding that simply builds on the status quo – i.e more crisis accommodation – on the grounds that “early intervention is crucial to ending homelessness”.

“Early intervention involves the homelessness sector and other related sectors intervening as early as possible to prevent people becoming homeless. This is achieved through addressing risk factors which may cause a person to become homeless and to give a person the opportunity to build personal, social and economic resilience.”

The two largest cohorts who become homeless are families with children and young people on their own. Families, mainly women with children, typically become homeless when fleeing domestic and family violence. Adolescents typically become homeless because of intolerable problems at home.

Once homeless, and where a return home is not an option, finding housing as quickly as possible is the imperative.

Prevention and intervening early are particularly important for young people, the report says, “to ensure that experiences of homelessness and disadvantage at a young age do not affect the life chances of an individual and increase the likelihood of ongoing homelessness into adulthood”.

Read more: If we realised the true cost of homelessness, we'd fix it overnight

Identifying programs that work

The innovative “community of schools and services” (COSS) model of early intervention, pioneered in Geelong, was examined in detail. The report concludes:

“[…] the COSS model should be expanded to other parts of the state. The evidence presented suggests that it will have substantial benefits, including reducing the incidence of youth homelessness and providing overall cost savings.”

It recommends a minimum expansion to seven pilot sites.

Pioneered by the Geelong Project, the success of the COSS model has attracted global attention.

Read more: 6 steps towards remaking the homelessness system so it works for young people

The Kids Under Cover model of providing one- or two-bedroom studios (with bathroom) on the properties of families where a young person is at risk of becoming homeless was also found to be successful. Not every family situation has space for a studio, nor is it always appropriate for a young person to remain. Increased funding was recommended.

Kids Under Cover focuses on keeping young people connected to home, education and community.

The Education First Youth Foyers model for people aged 16-24 who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless was identified as promising. The model provides accommodation co-located with a TAFE to make it easier for residents of the foyer to study. Notwithstanding criticism of the model’s intake criteria and effectiveness, the report recommends the Victorian government assess its suitability for other metropolitan and regional areas.

Committee chair Fiona Patten, speaking on behalf of her multiparty committee, summed up what must be done:

“We need to be smarter about where we direct our efforts. The two best things we can do are strengthen early intervention services and provide more secure, long-term housing for the homeless.”

It’s now a matter of whether the government heeds the report’s findings and implements its key recommendations. If that happens, this will prove to be a landmark report.

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