Inquiry into Homelessness

 On behalf of the Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs, I present the committee’s report, incorporating a dissenting report, entitled Final report: inquiry into homelessness in Australia, together with the minutes of proceedings.

Report made a parliamentary paper in accordance with standing order 39(e).

Photo of MPMr WALLACE: by leave—On behalf of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs, I rise today to present the committee’s final report of the inquiry into homelessness in Australia. This week is national Homelessness Week, which is a reminder that homelessness is all too common in Australia. Each night, tens of thousands of Australians are without a place to call home. On the night of the last census, in 2016, the number of homeless people in Australia was over 116,000. Many thousands more are at risk of becoming homeless. This could be because of financial insecurity, relationship or family breakdown, or family, domestic and sexual violence. Homelessness can have profound and long-term impacts on a person’s safety and security, their physical and mental health, their connection to the community and their ability to thrive in school or the workplace. This inquiry commenced in February last year on a referral from Minister Ruston and was an opportunity for the committee to examine Australian governments’ collective response to the problem of homelessness, to understand what is and what is not working and to hear about best practice policies and programs both in Australia and overseas.

It’s appropriate that this morning the Minister for Housing and Minister for Homelessness, Social and Community Housing is at the table, because in my experience in 53 years of walking this earth I’ve not seen a housing minister who has been more engaged in dealing with this issue, coming up with programs like HomeBuilder, the First Home Loan Deposit Scheme, the First Home Super Saver Scheme and, of course, the increases to JobSeeker and youth allowance. All of these things the federal government are stepping up—things like Commonwealth rent assistance—all the while with the acknowledgement that housing and homelessness remain the principal responsibility of the states and territories.

Over the course of this inquiry, the committee received over 200 submissions and held public hearings over five days in July and August 2020. The committee presented an interim report in October, which examined the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on homelessness. Unfortunately, this inquiry was somewhat disjointed because of the impacts of COVID and the committee’s need to address the family, domestic and sexual violence issue, which was very significant at the time. We needed to put that one ahead of getting this one out.

In this final report, the committee makes 35 recommendations which, taken together, propose a renewed approach to preventing and addressing homelessness in Australia. The committee’s report concludes with a significant and overarching recommendation for the establishment of a 10-year national strategy on homelessness. While state and territory governments are primarily responsible for housing and homelessness, a clear and consistent message in evidence given to the committee was that there is a need for a national approach. The committee considers that a national strategy would lead to more cohesive policies, better coordination and more accountability, particularly in relation to the use of Australian government funding by states and territories. A national strategy could also recognise and harness the important roles of local governments, community organisations and the private sector in preventing and addressing homelessness. Most importantly, a national strategy would ensure that all Australian governments have a shared focus on achieving better outcomes for those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

In this regard, the committee identified three main areas for reform. First, prevention and early intervention represent the most cost-effective and cost-efficient measures to address homelessness. While acknowledging the work done to date through integrated place based approaches, the committee calls for further work to support, strengthen and integrate prevention and early intervention programs. Second, the principle of housing first should guide all government’s responses to homelessness. Put simply, this means that housing should be made available to people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness as an immediate priority and a base from which their other needs can be addressed. The committee particularly recognises the importance of providing flexible, wraparound services as part of the housing first strategy to prevent homelessness and associated problems from becoming entrenched. Third, new approaches are needed to address the shortfall in social and affordable housing. While once again noting that states and territories are responsible for the provision of social housing, the committee has identified ways in which the Australian government can work with state, territory and local governments as well as community housing providers, who fulfil such an important role in this space, and other private sector investors to increase the availability of social and affordable housing for those who need it most.

The report includes a range of other observations and recommendations. The committee recognises that certain groups are at greater risk of homelessness than others and that the experience of homelessness can differ from the cities and suburbs to the regional and remote parts of Australia. As such, the committee recommends the design of a new needs based funding model for future funding agreements as well as measures to assist groups such as victims-survivors of family, domestic and sexual violence and Indigenous Australians.

Importantly, the report also makes recommendations to improve data collection and reporting to better inform all Australian governments’ responses to homelessness. This includes a review of how homelessness is defined and how the homeless population is counted in the census. Whilst the committee has not agreed on all of the recommendations, there are many aspects—in fact, all but one, of the recommendations are bipartisan. That recommendation calls on the Australian government to work with state and territory governments towards implementing consistent national legislation, imposing a three-strikes policy for the eviction of social and affordable housing tenants who repeatedly breach their tenancy obligations. It is true that such a policy shift must be approved by the states and territories. However, a housing first principle does not mean housing no matter what.

The vast majority of public and affordable housing tenants are good tenants. Of that, there is no question. But for the very small minority who repeatedly breach obligations, there must be consequences for those breaches. Without such consequences, that very small minority will not only continue to flout their obligations, but they sometimes make the lives of their neighbours and neighbourhood a misery. There must always be consequences for our actions. Public and affordable housing tenants should be no different.

The committee recognises that there is no quick fix to end homelessness in Australia. Nevertheless, the recommendations in this report highlight a range of ways in which Australian governments can work together to reduce the number of people experiencing or at risk of homelessness in this country. The committee expresses its appreciation to the many individuals and organisations who shared their views with the committee and informed the committee’s inquiry. The committee especially thanks those who shared their lived experience of homelessness with the committee.

I’d like to acknowledge the hard work of my fellow committee members on both sides of the aisle. Deputy Chair, whilst we haven’t agreed on all of the recommendations, there continues a good spirit of willingness to work together for the benefit of our country, and, for that, I thank all members of the committee. I’d also like to thank members of the secretariat, Shennia Spillane, Ashley Stephens, Alasdair Nicholson, Kathleen Blunden, Syann Williams and Stephen Sherlock, and my own staff, particularly Alaina Megson and Johanna Cleary. I commend the report to the House.