Matters of Public Importance- Homelessness

14 Aug 2019

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Last week Victorians shivered through a week of severe cold. It also happened to be Homelessness Week. Just think what that week would have been like for people who do not have safe places to call home. The Greens put forward this matter of public importance today to debate the homelessness crisis because homelessness is the number one social justice issue facing Victoria today. Homelessness is on the rise. We see it in the streets, with people sleeping rough, but it is more than that; that is just the tip of the iceberg.

So many people are living in unsafe or insecure accommodation, in emergency accommodation or boarding houses that are simply unfit to live in. Over 24 000 Victorians are homeless on any given night, and in a wealthy society like ours—a wealthy state where just today the Treasurer was out trumpeting how good Victoria is performing economically—to have homelessness that continues to rise, where the people in our society who are most in need are not getting the help they need, is absolutely outrageous. Homelessness can be fixed. When any other place around the world has had success in reducing homelessness, they have built houses for people. Victoria does need a Big Build—a big build of social housing, both public and community, to end homelessness and get people off the public housing waiting list, which now stands at over 82 000, including adults and children, with the ultimate goal of universal social housing allocated on the basis of need, with security of tenure for life.

This is about more than houses of course. At its heart this is about people. And quite often it is people helping people. Last week I visited organisations that help people in my electorate, as many members would have done during Homelessness Week. I visited the UnitingCare Prahran Mission and Sacred Heart Mission, which were providing hot meals to people who needed them, many of them experiencing homelessness. They do great work. And last year I hosted a homelessness action forum in the Prahran electorate which included people who had experienced homelessness and those who worked in the sector. It was very well attended, showing that we are a community that cares about people in need. We heard about the power of community and making sure that people who are experiencing homelessness are seen as part of our community, not separate from our community, making sure that we are building those important connections to support each other, which local services do so well. And we heard about the importance not just of housing but ensuring that once a person is housed they have the help and support and the community connections that they need to maintain their tenancy.

The causes of homelessness are many: family violence, financial difficulties and the housing affordability crisis, which is pushing affordable housing out of people’s reach. There are next to no properties that are affordable in Melbourne for people who are on Newstart. You have got relationship and family breakdown, discrimination still exists today—there are still LGBTI young people getting kicked out of home after coming out to their parents—and you have got people coming straight out of prison into homelessness, which of course is only going to get worse. And the experiences of people seeking help in this system show this is a system that is completely broken. The main problem, as it has been for many years from when I worked in social services, is there are just not enough houses for people. When a person accesses a housing service— Mr Pearson interjected.

The SPEAKER: Order! Member for Essendon!

Mr HIBBINS: If there is not a place for them—and we know that almost 40 per cent of people who were homeless or at risk of homelessness in Victoria were unable to get help—they could spend a few nights in emergency accommodation, of which there is very little in Melbourne, or more likely in a motel or rooming house where the conditions are often squalid and unsafe. It is degrading and it is dehumanising and, depending on the level of need, it could be over a decade before a person is allocated public housing. It is clearly unsustainable for a person or members of a family to be taken out of their community and put in distant, unsupported accommodation which will just result in them being back on the streets and slipping through the cracks. It is an ineffective and expensive system. The Greens took to the last election their policy of building 80 000 new social housing homes, both public and community housing, over the next 12 years.

That would be at a cost of around $30 billion, which is a significant investment. But when we think about infrastructure, we also need to think about housing for people, and the federal government should get involved as well. You just have to look at what housing and homeless organisations were saying during Homelessness Week. The single most important factor in preventing and solving homelessness is increasing the supply of social housing. We can help people in need by building more social housing. Housing ends homelessness; the message is pretty clear. But this is in stark contrast to what governments have been doing in Victoria for decades. Victoria spends the least on social housing of any state in Australia. What an appalling record, especially from a state that is supposed to pride itself on being the most progressive state in Australia. The policies of successive governments in Victoria towards public housing have been the same.

They are a case study in neoliberal economics—underinvest and run down an essential public asset and then claim privatisation and selling it off is the only way they can afford to fix it. The conditions in some of our public housing estates are unacceptable—bed bugs, windows covered in pigeon crap that is never cleaned, lack of maintenance and security—and the government’s privatisation agenda has reached our public housing estates. The public housing renewal program is a sell-off plan that will privatise public housing estates, only slightly increase the number of units and actually reduce capacity by reducing the number of bedrooms and forever limit the amount of public housing that can be put on these estates by making them majority private housing. The real value of the land that our public housing estates sit on is not the monetary value that can be gained from selling it off or doing a deal with private developers. It comes from the fact that public housing tenants can live in the inner city, close to public transport, close to services, close to jobs and close to communities that they care about.

Now, because of community outrage over the sell-offs and of course the persistent advocacy of so many housing and homeless organisations through the Everybody’s Home campaign, we are now seeing some movement by the government with their plan to build 1000 new public housing units over four years. But let us be realistic: this is just a drop in the ocean compared to what is actually needed in Victoria, where we need at least 3000 new social housing homes per year to meet demand. The $209 million they have allocated pales into insignificance when compared with the $1.8 billion they are spending on new prisons. What a failure of social policy to do that instead of spending billions on homes for people, which would actually reduce the need for people to be in prison and reduce the number of people sleeping rough and presenting at emergency departments for physical and mental health reasons and of course presenting to housing services.

Now is the time for a fundamental transformation in how we approach housing and homelessness in Victoria. Homelessness in Victoria needs to be seen as not just a political problem that needs to be closed down or that requires a government to be seen to be doing something so that they can say that they are doing something or providing more than the money provided last year to fix it. It requires that big build of social housing and a move towards the goal of universal housing, with support given to people to address those underlying causes of their homelessness and ensure their long-term tenancy. This is commonly called the Housing First Model and it has been proven time and time again to be successful at ending homelessness. Our public housing estates need to be redeveloped with 100 per cent new public housing, not private development. If we want to get private developers involved, let us look at inclusionary zoning. Let us start by mandating a certain percentage of social housing to be included in new developments. Look at Fishermans Bend.

The potential of Fishermans Bend and other redevelopment areas is massive. All of this will take time. It will take time to build new houses, so I call on the government to take more immediate action and provide immediate and indefinite relief to every person sleeping rough in Melbourne. Homeless people are experiencing a freezing winter. They should not have to experience another. Governments seem to find the cash— A member interjected.

Mr HIBBINS: Let us take a look at every time an Olympics or a Commonwealth Games comes to town. Suddenly governments can find enough money or find the accommodation to get people off the streets. Melbourne, Sydney, Commonwealth Games—we all know— Mr Wynne interjected.

The SPEAKER: Order! The Minister for Planning will come to order!

Mr HIBBINS: This government needs to act now. What I am suggesting is that right now anytime a homeless person accesses a homeless service if they are sleeping rough, they should not get turned away. The government should act and make sure that no person is sleeping rough in Melbourne and Victoria. Mr Pearson interjected.

The SPEAKER: Order! The member for Essendon!

Mr HIBBINS: Let us look at why we should be doing this. Why should we be doing this? It is an absolute affront to the notions of social justice and a fair society that people are experiencing homelessness at the levels they are now. Quite often we will hear from the likes of the member for Essendon whose only justification for public housing is, ‘Oh, well, it’s a market failure. That’s why we should provide public housing’, as if he needs to justify his going all-in on market economics to justify why the state should step in. It is not because it is a market failure that the government needs to step up; it is because it is a fundamental role of government to ensure that every single person has a safe place to call home. That is a simple fact, and the sooner governments embrace this, the sooner we can have that transformational approach to homelessness and housing that we need. A big build, billions of dollars, needs to go into social housing, community housing and public housing— Mr Pearson interjected.

Mr HIBBINS: I take up the interjection. We can start by redeveloping those estates that are earmarked for privatisation and put 100 per cent public housing on those estates. Let us take the Bangs Street estate in Prahran. Here is an estate that has around 120 units on it. The government’s proposal is to put 350 to 450 units on it, with an increase of only 12 public housing units. What they are actually doing is reducing the number of bedrooms available on that estate, reducing the amount of public housing available on that estate. What they should be doing is looking at public housing estates where there is capacity for increasing density and investing in 100 per cent public housing on those sites. The member for Essendon asked, ‘Where?’. I am giving him an answer—in my electorate.

I believe that people who live in public housing, people who need help, people who need housing or are homeless are people who should be living in my electorate because we are an electorate that cares about people in need. We are a community that can support and help these people. Where are the member for Essendon’s ideas for his own electorate? Perhaps he can elucidate them during his contribution. But we do need that big build of social housing here in Victoria. Yes, it will take time. Yes, it will take billions of dollars. Certainly I would urge the federal government to get involved as well because there is really a need for a transformational approach to housing.

The fact that we have homelessness at the rates we do in Victoria is simply outrageous. Every time we have the Treasurer or the Premier get up and tout their economic credentials and the jobs here in Victoria, they are forgetting the rising number of people who are homeless in this state. It is an affront to the principles of social justice, and it is an affront to this self-proclaimed most progressive government in the most progressive state in Australia. Those are the Premier’s own words. For a state to proclaim that yet spend the least on social housing of any state in Australia is absolutely appalling. It is the fundamental job of governments to provide housing for people.

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