Homelessness can be ended, but the will to do so is not universal.
In this, the world’s 12th biggest economy, the number of older women who are homeless has doubled in the past four years.
We have among the world’s highest median wages, and the country describes itself as a global social justice warrior but the narratives of its own streets – of the alleyways, squats and traps – are grim.
One-fifth of Australia’s homeless are children aged 12 years and younger.
Sydney is home to one in four of the Australian population and home to a significant proportion of the nation’s rough sleepers.
The street homelessness in Sydney and Melbourne is visible – with the homeless on every street corner of major CBD precincts. However this significant proportion of homelessness is less than 10 per cent of the nation’s homelessness.
Homelessness is increasing. Australia has registered nearly 110,000 of its population as homeless but the real number is nearly three times that, around 300,000. The Australian Bureau of Statistics underestimates the homeless toll.
Migrants make up one in three of the homeless and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (the First Peoples) make up one in four of the homeless.
By 2040, one in two of the homeless will be migrants, with an increasing trend to homeless migrant women couch surfing, sleeping in cars, and sleeping in alleyways.
There is no evidence that they will be accommodated in refuges or transitional accommodation.
Presently, there is a national need for 170,000 public houses but there is no indication that this unmet need will be reduced. In fact by 2040 the number of public houses may increase to nearly half a million.
Instead of investing in adequate levels of public housing, governments invest what little they do in homelessness services but these services which scratch at the surface issues only are so under-resourced that they turn away 100,000 people each year.
Family violence is the most prevalent factor leading to homelessness – the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare says that 40 per cent of people seeking homelessness services reported family violence.
According to the bevy of surveys there appears a five to 10 per cent increase each year in family violence leading to people seeking homelessness support.
In the clash of cultures and in the dawn of meanings and contexts that is multicultural Australia, more migrant persons – and in particular migrant women and children – are seeking out homelessness services or turning to the streets.
The Northern Territory has the nation’s highest official rate of homelessness with seven per cent of the total population homeless.
Most of this homelessness is Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples.
I estimate homelessness in the NT accounts for 12 per cent of the Territory’s Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander population.
This is a humanitarian crisis but one that Australia relentlessly neglects, refuses to honestly explain, and therefore perpetuates.
The majority of the squalid satellite town camps throughout the NT are corrals of human misery and suffering.
They are traps to unproductive lives where the majority of children do not attend school.
In many of these communities no one completes Year 12.
This is racism at its oppressive worst.
In the despicable poverty of these camps, aberrant behaviour is pronounced, family violence ruins lives. The Northern Territory has the highest rate of family violence in Australia.
Many homeless migrants feel stigma in accessing homelessness services.
Almost one in four people who access homelessness services are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders, for many migrants, particularly newly arrived migrants who find themselves destitute, turn to the streets before turning to support services.
Many destitute migrants sleep in cars and never or rarely turn to services.
They will turn up to meals provided by mobile kitchens but do not front any service or counter to tell their story or to seek out face-to-face support.
Migrants from low socio-economic backgrounds or from war-torn or civil strife ridden regions are more likely to seek out homelessness services than those from various cultural norms that demand shame.
Similarly many homeless migrants from former middle class backgrounds are overwhelmed and reduced by shame.
However within a generation the shame will be gone, and more will seek support to relieve their pain and suffering.
Public housing could change all this. But governments do not listen despite one report after another. A recent Mission Australia report describes a crisis, a critical shortage of public housing, and calls for more public housing.
Today, more younger Australians are homeless than older Australians, but by 2040 with 500,000 million Australians I believe will be registered as homeless, this will shift.
Today we have 20,000 children homeless aged 12 years and younger, by 2040 we will have close to 100,000. Half the homelessness will be older Australians.
The rise of poverty in Australia is indisputable, and the unaffordability of life and an increasing accumulation of life stresses will buckle a greater proportion of Australians than ever before into homelessness.
The Age Pension is, for many, unliveable – a maximum of $447 per week for single people and $674 for couples.
For those without adequate superannuation, without their own home by retirement age it will be a diabolical struggle to survive.
The next 20 years will see an alarming spike in the number of older Australians will be facing homelessness.
The private rental market, already age discriminatory, will be vicious to older Australians limited to only the Age Pension.
In previous research and articles, I have estimated that in 20 to 30 years the Age Pension will be worth, in today’s terms, less than $100.
Rents continue to climb and private rentals are not an option for many older Australians.
The future looks dastardly grim for older Australians without savings. Retirees without adequate superannuation will not get a look-in.
In these ‘sub-human lives physical health will quickly deteriorate and cognitive health will be hit hard.
Older women will be at elevated risks and when disaggregated to migrant older women sadly at even higher risks.
Many women who were mothers alone will have little savings, no superannuation, and be left to the streets to support themselves in fleeing family violence.
Housing is argued as a universal right. It should be the battleground for today’s social justice warriors. Housing is the significant response to ending family violence, to improving the lot of the vulnerable, to improving health, to improving society, to reducing the prison population.
But housing must not be the rubbish dished out to the First Peoples of Australia in the town camps and in remote communities.
These are shanty towns, third-world-akin shacks and concrete hotboxes where the functions and objectives of a family cannot be achieved.
Finland has been embarrassing most of the rest of the world by providing permanent housing to the homeless.
Almost 17,000 low cost flats have been provided to homeless people in Finland. They are no longer homeless.
Finland is the one country that lives the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in terms of security of person – a home.
Finland has made a significant inroad to reducing street homelessness. The Finnish strategy is known as Housing First – yes, this is the solution to homelessness and to consequent health and wellbeing: a home.
*Gerry Georgatos is the nation’s most prolific writer on suicide prevention; a suicide prevention and prison reform researcher and advocate with the non-tertiary Institute of Social Justice and Human Rights.
He is a member of national projects to further develop suicide prevention, and well-being and education programs in prisons.
Gerry’s research has a focus on trauma recovery and restorative approaches. He works first-hand with the homeless, impoverished, incarcerated. He is also the National Coordinator Critical Support for the National Indigenous Critical Response Service.