Social Justice & Homelessness

Not only is homelessness the most basic, enduring cause of exclusion, deprivation and discrimination, in our prosperous nation this social injustice is an emphatic political disgrace.

Firstly 3 key points:
(a)  Having an affordable, safe, secure place to call home is an intrinsic part of our lives and a key foundation on which to nurture the well being of our families.

(b)  The notion of ‘home’ is about belonging somewhere, being a part of something with other people in a local community. In contrast, homelessness is about disconnection, alienation and inferiority.

(c)  Homelessness isn’t only about a few scruffy men in grimy trench-coats curled-up on park- benches hugging their bottles of grog. It’s about ordinary individuals like you and me, and families like yours and mine, under extraordinary pressure in dreadful circumstances.

When people learn that across Australia on any given night, over 105,000 persons (plus over 1000 more each year) are denied a place to call ‘home’, they’re usually torn between astonishment and disbelief!

On one side there’s a conviction that safe, secure, affordable housing – adequate for a person or family’s health and well-being – is a right not a privilege.  On the other side, there is a belief, just as strong, that people, homeless or not, must take responsibility for their own housing needs. Consequently many argue that, homeless people are the cause of their condition and deserving of ridicule and exclusion.

This common misconception goes like this:

The homeless are weak and lazy.

How do we know they’re weak and lazy?

 Because they’re homeless!

This is called – ‘blame the victim’ cycle!

This perception fails to acknowledge there are many factors outside of their control that push people into being homeless.  They have lost jobs or they can’t afford rising rents or they suffer serious physical or mental illness or they have fled sexual abuse/domestic violence – the single biggest cause of homelessness in Australia.

The question is – do these individuals and families have a right to safe, secure affordable housing?

To answer this question I want to focus on the challenges which more than ever before are confronting an increasing number of low-income families.

Because housing prices have soared 147% in the last 10 years, many low-income families are denied any opportunity of home-ownership as they’re simply ineligible for a housing loan.

As a result they’re pushed into the private rental market which on average devours between 35% and a crushing 75% of their weekly income. This leaves very little to spend on basic necessities – good nutrition, adequate health care, clothing, warmth and transport.

They have no other option but to apply for government-supported-housing known as social or public housing. This means the government supplies low-rental housing for those who are in most need and unable to purchase housing or afford private rental housing.

In Victoria, public housing has been promoted by the Liberal and Labor parties as ‘a safety net’.

Unfortunately there’s an excessive waiting list for public housing (over 40,000 people in Victoria) and families usually have to wait in line for many years.

Such is the lack of public housing in Victoria today!

So, for those unable to find long-term shelter with relatives or friends, what’s next?

They have no option but to scramble for emergency accommodation. This is a temporary or short-term-only accommodation in response to a current crisis. It’s organised by the Department of Human Services or community service agencies and usually made available in a variety of places such as hotels and motels.

However emergency accommodation is full to the brim and overrun with demand.

To recap:

  • Many low-income families are ineligible for a housing loan
  • They can’t afford rental housing
  • They fall through the holes in the government’s safety net because of the long waiting list.
  • Emergency accommodation is overrun with demand.

For many low income families sinking to this point is the end result of a long line of events and circumstances ending perhaps with a crippling feeling deep inside of emptiness and powerlessness.

There is a last resort, which is just one step away from living on the streets or in derelict buildings, and it’s in boarding houses springing up everywhere. Boarding houses are a form of shared accommodation, in which residents occupy 1 or for families 2 rooms and share cooking, bathing and toilet facilities. Often unscrupulous landlords rent out each room, including the garage, for between $180-$400 per week of a typical 2 bedroom suburban house or a large boarding house.

Not so long ago, in response to the public outcry about the hideous condition of boarding houses, both the Liberal and Labor parties “pledged ourselves” (Lib) and “committed ourselves”(Lab) to ensure basic standards for the humane treatment of residents and the accountability of landlords.

What’s happened? What’s happened? Nothing much! There are national standards for the production of plastic chairs but there are still no regulations to protect the wellbeing of residents in boarding houses. It seems that funding to supply more public housing is being heavily slashed. And there are plans in the pipeline for a major redevelopment of larger public housing estates around Victoria into an equal mixture of public and private housing and the establishment of commercial outlets. This will undoubtedly be very lucrative for the government and developers.

But what will happen to many of the 130,000 residents currently living in public housing? Where will those, for whom public housing is changing from “my home for life” into “my home for now”, go? And what happens to our most vulnerable Victorians such as low-income families, desperate elderly people and individuals suffering from a serious physical or intellectual disability or mental illness? Don’t forget they are ineligible for a housing loan, can’t afford private rental housing and many are way down on the waiting list of 40,000 people for public housing.

Basically they’ll probably have 3 choices.
(1)  To live in a room in a boarding house where their dignity is ignored and where they’ll have to reside with persons whose behavior could be odd, confused, bizarre and frightening because of their addiction or mental illness.

(2)  To live in a caravan park which will probably force them to travel long distances to jobs or job hunting, suitable schools, community services and house hunting.

(3)  To be trapped in a living hell of brutality and destitution on the  streets and in derelict buildings.

Whichever impossible choice they make they’re sure to be branded by many as social outcasts deserving of ridicule and exclusion and ignored by political leaders because the wellbeing of the homeless and poor aren’t vote-catching issues.

Why can’t political leaders be instruments of justice and compassion? They sometimes use words to create the language of justice but their words remain nothing more than reminders of promises that should be. Their reprehensible indifference can be the worst of crimes. Like many people in the community they too treat homeless people as if they have no faces?

The solution to the most vulnerable individuals and families being without a place to call ‘home’ is for the State and Federal Governments to review their priorities and provide an adequate supply of suitable, affordable, secure and safe public housing they can call ‘home’. In other words Improve housing affordability, improve rental assistance, increase the supply of affordable rental housing.

Homelessness is repugnant for many reasons not the least of which because it undermines people’s right to and the value of social justice. The resulting loss of dignity and feeling they don’t belong anywhere sabotages their involvement in education, work and local community interaction.

It’s hard to appreciate how profoundly inadequate and powerless living with homelessness must feel.  It’s the horrifying crushing weight of poverty of spirit, alienation and inferiority that shoves all of the hope and dreams out of people’s lives. So often they’re imprisoned in the darkness of despair, with many becoming entrenched in the homeless subculture.

Why should we care? You and I and every other person and every family have an indisputable right – which is fundamental to any understanding of social justice – to feel they belong somewhere and are part of something with other people in a local community. This is ‘home’ and it’s the key to understanding what homelessness is like.

God’s message is simple, clear and there’s no escaping it.

We are at our best when we give to another every right we claim for ourselves.