You don’t have to look very hard in this prosperous national capital to see people living rough.
They congregate on Northbourne Avenue in the mornings and at the Griffin Centre in the evenings, far beyond caring about the stares of passing commuters.
And the better we do in Canberra the harder it gets for those falling through the cracks – the relatively high incomes in the ACT force up rents, making it extremely difficult for those on marginal incomes to find a place to call home.
‘‘Households on minimum wage or income support can’t find affordable housing in the Canberra private rental market,’’ ACTCOSS director Susan Helyar says.
“The size of the gap between the incomes of people, particularly people who are on income support or in a minimum wage job, and the medium house rentals is just insurmountable.’’
But many homeless people in Canberra prefer to remain invisible, perhaps by living rough on Mount Ainslie. They are the target group for the Vinnies’ Street to Home program.
Co-ordinator Lesley Bonney explains the program has a policy of ‘‘assertive outreach’’.
‘‘We go looking for people who are sleeping rough,’’ she says.
The team offers assistance and tries to build trust with the people, many of whom have mental illness.
‘‘Most of the people we work with are the rough sleepers who have been on the streets between six months and 30 years,’’ Bonney says.
‘‘Rough sleepers are very itinerant – they come from all over Australia to Canberra.’’
The team works with an average 30 people a month.
‘‘We will endeavour to keep them safe on the streets and we work with caravan parks, and may put someone into a tent until we can look for some sort of transitional housing,’’ Bonney says.
‘‘If they haven’t got a tent we would give them a tent, a swag and blankets.
‘‘Out of our 30 people we would have at least half either under tarp on the street or in the bush with the tent or living in their car.’’
It’s often said the uniformity of Canberra’s urban landscape masks the problems of poverty, drugs and homelessness, so some people may be surprised at the extent of these problems.
A Natsem report last year was blunt. ‘‘Something many people don’t realise – in 2011 the ACT had the second highest rate of homelessness (besides the Northern Territory) of all Australian states and territories.’’
The report said life was good in Canberra when you looked at the averages.
‘‘However, there are areas and people in Canberra who are disadvantaged,’’ it said.
‘‘The ACT is a great place to live if you are not suffering disadvantage. In 2013 these disadvantaged people face one of the highest costs of living of all capital cities in Australia.
‘‘This is partly due to high rents paid in the ACT. Households in the ACT faced the highest rent prices of any state or territory in Australia, higher than Sydney or Melbourne rental prices.’’
Workers in the sector are relieved by the announcement this week of further federal funding.
They recall when Kevin Rudd promised to halve the number of homeless people in the nation. (You would forgive them for a bit of nostalgia about Bob Hawke’s pledge that ‘‘no child will live in poverty’’ in Australia.)
No money was included in the budget beyond July this year for the program, prompting the sector to agitate for certainty in funding.
With funding now extended for one year, there remains the question of long-term commitment.
A brief survey returns a gloomy analysis. If you were the glass half-empty type, you might be tempted to say the problem was intractable.
And that’s partly true – some people choose to live on the streets rather than risk violence in a block of units inhabited by drug addicts. Some have mental conditions that render them unable to cope with social interaction or the normal business of washing and cooking.
Workers in the social housing sector say the numbers of homeless people in Canberra appears to be fairly constant, despite the best efforts of the ACT government. But the sector is bracing for another round of cuts, due to an earlier decision to recalculate the ACT’s entitlements of federal money.
The ACT government absorbed some of the cut of millions of dollars over five years, but is now left with the unhappy task of administering the reductions.
With no money for food, our city’s homeless drift into the Early Morning Centre on Northbourne, run by UnitingCare Canberra City.
Manager Chris Stokman says that, on an average day, between 25 to 40 people, mostly men, arrive for breakfast.
‘‘But there are extremes either side of that – I’ve served 70,’’ she says. Serving breakfast is relatively easy compared to dealing with people’s problems at the adjacent drop-in centre which is funded by the ACT and federal governments.
“We have a coffee cart outside over breakfast for a couple of reasons, and one is to help manage numbers – because we only seat 23 people,’’ Stokman says. “A secondary reason is that there are any number of people who may take several weeks before they feel comfortable enough to come inside.
“At the moment we are seeing more new people at breakfast or the drop-in centre.’’
At day’s end, up to 100 people arrive at the Griffin Centre for a hot meal at the Roadhouse, run by the Red Cross three nights a week, with the Masons and Hari Krishna responsible for one night each.
Kristine Flanagan, the Red Cross group services manager for the ACT and south-east NSW, says the project is strongly supported by the community, including sports clubs and the Yellow Van.
“The consistency of numbers may surprise people,’’ she says. “Sometimes our issues aren’t as visible as they are in other states and territories.
“There’s a core group of people we’ve been seeing for many years that are regular, so they are people who are quite entrenched in a particular situation.
“If people are not employed, their ability to rent on the private market is pretty much a no-go situation.
‘‘We’ve had a couple of families living out of their car.’’
Flanagan says a high proportion of people going to the Roadhouse are men over the age of 45.
“We may also run training courses for people to give them a hand up so they can access some skills and be better prepared for work. So there’s a range of activities in addition to the food for a group of people who really do it tough,’’ she says.
Liz Howarth meets homeless people every day in her position as CEO of Contact Canberra in the Griffin Centre.
On the day we speak a homeless woman sits on the footpath nearby and people arrive at the agency, desperate for safe housing.
‘‘We can refer people to support services, but what we can’t provide are accommodation options. We can only send them to First Point, the housing gateway,’’ Howarth says.
During the last recession to hit Canberra, following mass cuts to the public service, she saw people slide from middle-ranking bureaucrats to being on the streets.
Some had taken packages without considering how they would gain employment as an older person.
‘‘We did see people then who had either lost their jobs or given up their jobs and expected to find alternative employment, but at a certain age they found that difficult to carve a new career,’’ she says.
‘‘Some people were tenting at EPIC with their families and some were living in cars.’’
Has she seen any public servants end up on the streets this year? ‘‘Not this time round as yet, but we are expecting to.’’
Howarth says the priority housing list is static. ‘‘It’s not moving – they can’t move it because there are no available properties,’’ she says.
‘‘What happens is people come in and require emergency housing and they go to the top of the queue ... the waiting list for public housing is quite dispiriting.’’
A hidden pocket of homelessness consists of older women.
‘‘Sometimes they have not been able to develop a good career path and have also not been able to own their own property, and as time goes on it just gets harder and harder for them, to the point where they may have to move out of Canberra,’’ Howarth says.
ACT Housing Minister Shane Rattenbury has been handed the irksome job of passing on the cuts in federal funding.
‘‘We’ve spread it over a few years and we’re trying to work with the sector so there is time for people to adjust their programs or consider different operating models,’’ he says.
‘‘I make no bones about the fact that it has been tough for some of the organisations. Obviously that reduction in funding for key community organisations places a stress on the sector.
‘‘We’ve made our best effort to work with the sector so there is no overall loss of bed-nights for homelessness services, nor is there a reduction in the number of providers.’’
Rattenbury welcomes the 12-month extension of the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness, announced this week.
‘‘That is very good news. We were very concerned about the possible end of that program, because it does fund programs like Street to Home,’’ he says.
‘‘This is the second year that there’s been a one-year agreement. What we need is a long-term agreement in the three to five-year range so the sector has some certainty, and we’re not having this annual waiting game around whether the funding would be available or not. So a challenge for the new minister is to sort out a longer-term arrangement.’’
An inquiry into affordable housing being done by a Senate committee has attracted little publicity.
Anglicare Australia this week lodged a submission that warns of the widening chasm between the ‘‘haves’’ and the ‘‘have nots’’ if housing unaffordability remains unaddressed, and says housing affordability is at crisis point.
“Anglicare agencies work with people every day who are excluded from many aspects of life – education, employment, relationships and wellbeing – because they simply cannot afford a roof over their head,” Anglicare executive director Kasy Chambers says.
“Each year our Rental Affordability Snapshot, the latest of which will be released at the end of this month, clearly shows there are people across Australia who either have nowhere safe to live or are locked into paying more than they can afford in rent. It doesn’t have to be this way if this and subsequent governments and community would act boldly.
“We take the view that most Australians and most Australian leaders, at heart, believe that everyone should have a home – but that’s looking less and less likely unless we can act together.”
Many submissions call for an expansion of the National Rental Affordability Scheme which was created to stimulate investment in affordable rental housing, not public housing.
Although the federal government has extended funding for the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness, the sector will continue to agitate for certainty.
Martin Thomas from Mission Australia says it is essential the federal, state and territory governments take the next steps to put a new multi-year agreement in place. ‘‘While the one-year extension provides short term certainty, we can’t afford to let another year go by without a long-term plan,’’ he says.
‘‘The original NPAH was part of a 10-year goal that all governments agreed to when the original partnership was signed – to halve homelessness by 2020. While the Abbott government wasn’t in power when the initial agreement was formed, that doesn’t take away from the importance of this partnership going forward.’’
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.