Homeless week: crisis must be solved with creative solutions

There’s a scene in the famous Frank Capra movie It’s a Wonderful Life where James Stewart is explaining to Potter why his father’s “cheap, penny-ante” building and loans company is important despite not making bundles of money.

“Just remember this, Mr Potter, that this rabble you're talking about ... they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?”

Maybe this is sentimental drivel from a Christmas movie that I force my family to watch every year so I can shed a few tears and feel my life has some value beyond its daily toil. But certainly it is true to the extent that housing is a human right and as such, surely it isn’t too much for people to expect to live in a dwelling that is affordable so that after paying rent or mortgage they have enough left over for basics such as food, clothing, utilities and entertainment? Or that such housing should provide them with a sense of safety and security?

This week is Homeless Persons’ Week – and it would be good to feel that as Canberrans we are doing our best in this regard – that no-one is homeless (unless they choose to be) and that everyone has somewhere safe and secure to rest at night. But this is not the case.


According to the last Census data, there are 1785 homeless people experiencing homelessness in the ACT but most community organisations estimate that this figure is much higher, with some cohorts – such as older women and Indigenous people ­– experiencing extremely high rates of secondary homelessness. (Indigenous people are thought to experience over-crowding to a greater extent than non-Indigenous people, and women often respond to homelessness in ways that are hidden and fall under the statistics radar).

And on top of that there are 9000 families in the ACT who are struggling to pay rents and mortgages to the extent that they often have to forgo such basics as food.

Each month, around 200 people seeking emergency accommodation through the centralised call centre – First Point – are turned away. This includes single women, women with children as well as families and single men – and youth. Where do these people go? Cars many of them. Others sleep on friend’s couches or in their spare rooms – until their welcome is worn out. It is a fair guess that many women either stay in or take up new inappropriate relationships just so that they can have a roof over their heads for themselves and their children.

Why is this so in a territory that boasts higher than average incomes and general standards of living? The answer to this question is complex, and while the ACT is certainly not alone in its unaffordable housing, it can be argued that housing choices in the territory at the lower end of the market are limited. Housing is a continuum and while increasing supply is certainly one aspect of keeping affordability in check – it does not actually solve the issue of housing for people on low incomes – and arguably only has minor impact on housing for people on moderate incomes.

In a report released this week by ACT Shelter into older women’s homelessness, we highlighted the plight of 11,431 single women of 45 years of age and older on low to moderate incomes, who do not own their own home outright in the ACT and who, because of the territory’s extremely high levels of unaffordable housing, will be struggling in coming years to maintain a roof over their heads.

So what is the answer, and whose responsibility it to ensure that everyone – no matter what their income – has access to housing?

Yes, governments have traditionally taken some responsibility for such provision through public housing. But as the need for subsidised housing becomes greater (as a direct correlation to un-affordability), governments are saying that they can no longer afford to maintain this response at levels needed, generally citing un-sustainability of such provision.

Yet governments still see their role in provision of education and health services – which are arguably less economically sustainable than housing where tenants, depending on their circumstances at least pay varying levels of rent for this service. So why shouldn’t governments also take responsibility for housing where, with innovative, creative solutions, it could be provided for those who can’t afford to access the private housing market – which no one could argue has seriously failed.

After all – to again quote James Stewart in It’s a wonderful life ... 

“Doesn't it make them better citizens? Doesn't it make them better customers?”

 Leigh Watson is the executive officer of ACT Shelter.