AS the weather turns to winter, and I’ve been complaining about the rising cost of heating our house, my daughter started her first post-university job at a women’s refuge in Kings Cross.
She regularly tells me about the hardships endured by the women clients of the refuge, sleeping in parks with absolutely no home to complain about the cost of heating.
Lugging multiple suitcases, their total assets with them, these women range in age from 18 to 76. How could this be happening in a first-world economy?
Data reported by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare for the 2011-12 year, indicated more than 230,000 people used homeless services last year.
The report showed that about a third were women fleeing violent homes and 99,000 were children or young people aged under 24 years.
Alarmingly, 17per cent of people classified as homeless were children under 12 years of age, representing the second largest age group after those in the 25- 34-years group at 18per cent.
The response by the then federal Housing and Homelessness Minister, Brendan O’Connor, was that the government was on track to halve homelessness by 2020.
On current figures, this leaves at least 115,000 people in some form of house limbo and a growing number of these people are women and children, who are striving to stay as a family unit.
The homeless problem is compounded by the lack of investment in housing that can accommodate families.
According to a study, Homelessness and the Next Generation, released in May by the Wesley Mission: “Discussions with stakeholders indicate that much of the housing stock in NSW is single or partnered in nature (studio or one-bedroom). This is believed to be the result of a focus on the ageing population and predicted social housing needs for singles.
‘‘Most felt that there were very few options for medium- to large-sized families. Wesley Mission staff have seen a seismic shift in the face of homelessness – from an experience largely defined by single, older men to one where women, families and children are now a sizeable representation.
‘‘It is vitally important that homeless families get speedy and easy access to stable housing.”
This view contrasts greatly with the findings for Newcastle reported by the Samaritans’ Rental Affordability Snapshot in April this year.
According to the snapshot “in Newcastle there were only 32 affordable and appropriate properties, out of 516 properties, and there was nothing for rent for a couple with two children on Newstart, a single parent on parenting payment or on a minimum wage, a person with a disability, or a young or single person on a benefit”.
At the time the report was released, the chief executive of the Samaritans. Cec Shevels, said: ‘‘This is worrying but something that certainly isn’t a new problem. As a community we should really be concerned by this lack of accessible infrastructure for our young people. ‘‘Also of concern is that in Lake Macquarie we found that since our snapshot in 2012, the number of affordable homes in the region had reduced by half. We know housing is an issue both in the city and in surrounding regions.”
When the Health and Welfare Institute’s report was released last December, chief executive of Homelessness Australia Nicole Lawder said: “It’s concerning that thousands of people seeking shelter – around 12per cent in NSW – are not getting the services they need.
‘‘We need to secure investment in new social housing and support services so we remain on track to halve by 2020.’’
So with the current debate about the possible redevelopment of Hunter Street and the city centre, the need for an investment in family-oriented public housing needs to be squarely on the agenda.
It’s time to address this as a mainstream infrastructure issue and ensure plans include integrated public homes.
While city councillors argue about whether we should as a community support the $21million expansion of an art gallery, the real focus should be on addressing this critical issue; critical to the future of our community, and the social obligations of all levels of government.
What would the equivalent of the gallery expansion get us in public housing and programs to support these homeless families?
As a community, this should be front of mind in the redevelopment of our cities, towns and suburbs.
Scott Holmes is professor of public policy at the University of Newcastle. In lieu of payment for this fortnightly column, the Herald will make a donation to the Heal For Life Foundation.