Homelessness blow-out threatens to put target out of reach

A BID to halve the number of homeless Australians by the end of the decade is in tatters, with the number of people without a permanent roof over the heads climbing by nearly 16,000 over the past five years.

The problem is particularly bad in rural and regional Australia, where, despite perceptions to the contrary, more people are found sleeping on the street than in capital cities.

A comprehensive report released today by the Australian Bureau of Statistics has found despite a recent billion-dollar effort by state and federal governments, 105,237 people were homeless in 2011 – up from 89,728 in 2006.

The homelessness rate rose 20 per cent or more in NSW, Victoria, Tasmania and the ACT but fell sharply in a traditional trouble spot, the Northern Territory. It remained stable in Western Australia and South Australia.

Most of the 16,000 new homeless people were found living in overcrowded houses and units rather than on the streets.

Homelessness Australia policy and research officer Travis Gilbert said today’s report was more proof housing affordability had reached “crisis point”, especially on the fringes of capital cities and in regional areas affected by mining.

Most ‘rough sleepers’ – people who live in tents, on the streets or in makeshift structures, do so in rural and regional towns and cities. About two-thirds of Australia’s population live in capital cities but only 26 per cent of rough sleepers are found there.

“I think that reflects that there is much less public housing outside our major cities, a lot less low-cost housing in general and the general decline in infrastructure and services in rural and regional Australia,” Mr Gilbert said.

Mr Gilbert said the nation was also still feeling the shockwaves of the global financial crisis and people who were kicked out of their home or defaulting on a mortgage then could still be struggling to recover.

He said about half the 19,500 social housing properties created via the federal government’s controversial economic stimulus package had been allocated to people who were homeless or had experienced domestic violence issues.

“If we hadn’t had that social housing initiative, how much worse would these numbers have been?” Mr Gilbert said.

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd promised to halve the number of homeless Australians by 2020 during a major pledge in 2008. A multi-billion dollar war plan was then established by state and federal governments.

But the social services sector is growing increasingly doubtful the target will be reached, despite record funding injections. Today’s figures are further confirmation of their fears.

“I’d like to hope we can halve homeless by 2020 but in order to do so we really do need some serious and urgent action to address the housing affordability problem that has built up over the past two decades,” Mr Gilbert said.

The federal Housing and Homelessness Minister, Brendan O'Connor, is expected to respond to the ABS report later today.

Domestic violence, unemployment, mental illness, family breakdowns and drug and alcohol abuse are other leading causes of homelessness.

The ABS will release more detailed information about the link between homelessness and remoteness later this month.