Australia’s homelessness problem needs a fix and fast
This year has left no doubt that anyone can become homeless.
While the threat has always been around, in 2020 it was exposed by the bushfires that tore through vulnerable regional communities, and now the COVID-19 pandemic that has cost jobs and increased housing stress.
The government's response to the bushfires and COVID-19 proves what can happen when the government gives priority to looking out for the most vulnerable.
Prior to these devastating events, there were already over 116,000 people homeless in Australia.
In 2018, after appearing in the second season of the SBS documentary series Filthy Rich & Homeless, I called for the government to declare a state of emergency in NSW, given homelessness was up 37 per cent since the last census.
This would have meant a whole of government response to prioritise people in need getting housed and given support, and the fast-tracking of building new social and affordable housing.
Despite securing a renewed focus on homelessness at the beginning of last year, including a plan to halve rough-sleeping, it wasn't until this year that we have seen truly impactful action from state and federal governments towards ending homelessness.
A natural disaster, an international health pandemic, and an economic crisis has sparked significant improvements and changes, including a long overdue increase in income support, which must be maintained in order to hold substantial impact.
In New South Wales, Families, Communities and Disability Services Minister Gareth Ward has overseen a record spend of $34 million to get a safe roof over people's heads and funding for more longer-term accommodation during the pandemic.
There is also advocacy underway to ensure social and community housing is part of the economic stimulus.
The challenge we now face is maintaining this vital work post COVID-19.
For those who say that it's too expensive to house the homeless, the economic reality is that it costs more to keep people homeless; safe shelter is much more cost effective than the expenses associated with rough sleeping, especially the traumatising hospital, jail, and rough sleeping cycle so many experience.
In Finland, they adopted a policy to end homelessness and ensure everyone in need got access to housing and support, and this saved the country $23,000 per homeless person annually.
They replaced 'managing a crisis' with 'ending a crisis' and receive ongoing financial dividends as a result.
Money aside, the confronting reality is people who are homeless are just like you and me, but at some point they suffer a traumatic situation - such as health, economic, relationship or family violence - and it up-ends their world and forces them into desperation.
Despite the challenges of the bush fires and COVID-19 in 2020, we've seen crisis can happen to anyone and proven we can pull people to safety when we work together and extend a helping hand.
Let's turn 2020 from the year anybody could become homeless to the year we commit to ensuring no one is.
If we maintain the investment, support and compassion, the international experience proves this can be done.
Alex Greenwich is a NSW MP.
Season 3 of Filthy Rich & Homeless premieres June 9 on SBS
Originally published as Australia's homelessness problem needs a fix, and fast