Thursday, 8 October 2020
Social Policy and Legal Affairs Committee; Report
I rise to give my thanks to the Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs for their work and for their interim report into homelessness in Australia during this COVID pandemic. The interim report brings together many of the themes and trends that I'm seeing at a local level in the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury area, in my electorate of Macquarie. I want to reflect on some of those: firstly, the impact on local services in my community and, secondly, what we do going forward. The report really replicates the things that I'm hearing: services are being stretched; there's been an increase in demand. Mission Australia sums it up well, because they note that not only do communities like mine deal with COVID but the precursor was bushfires. That created a whole other level of need in the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury area and put pressure on rental accommodation, and that's with only 40 homes lost in my wider community. Of course, other areas suffered hundreds of housing losses. Those areas in particular will be feeling this. Mission Australia also noted during the inquiry that there was not just the sudden increase in demand for housing services but people sought assistance for utility bills and food, and that is absolutely what we're seeing.
We have fantastic local organisations who are providing assistance. The Winmalee Neighbourhood Centre is now based in my office, using a meeting room one morning a week, on Wednesdays, to be able to facilitate some distribution of vouchers and assistance to pay utility bills. Every single service has seen an increase in uptake. I note the comment by Sacred Heart Mission, who said, 'What we're seeing is people turning up who are not our typical clients. We're seeing people who are on visas or are students or, for whatever reason, are not eligible for JobSeeker or JobKeeper. People who have fallen through the gaps come to have meals from our programs.' Again, that is the experience that we're having. When I visited Hawkesbury's Helping Hands in South Windsor, there were international students who had travelled really long distances. The facility in South Windsor is not on a railway line or a bus route. Young people who were left bereft of any support by the government were so desperate that they travelled huge distances from other parts of Greater Western Sydney to get basics. They were very modest in what they were taking. I stood there with Linda, from Hawkesbury's Helping Hands, saying, 'Take more. You need a bit more to keep you going.' Services around the electorate are experiencing that, perhaps in different ways. The Salvation Army told the committee that it's difficult to predict when services are going to peak but that we perhaps haven't seen the peak yet, and that is very concerning.
I want to commend some of the services in my community. There are many, and I won't get to all of them. In particular, I note the efforts of Central Blue Mountains Rotary Club, which noticed and identified a need and collaborated with an existing service, Earth Recovery, in Katoomba to make a difference there. Well done to the Rotarians, who are always willing to step up when they see a need. Equally, the Hawkesbury Community Kitchen has had to expand what it does—and, of course, as the committee identified, it isn't just about additional services; these providers have had to do something different; they've had to have COVID plans. Hawkesbury Community Kitchen has outgrown the space it's in and is desperately looking for another location. In the meantime, though, it's had to close facilities such as showers and washing services. It's had to manage very small rooms and try and provide social distancing yet still provide essential meals for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. That Windsor based organisation, which has been there for decades, underpins the support in that community. Lynda Dries's 'Living Room' in Richmond is another necessary service that is open to members of the local community to pop in, have something to eat and also get food hampers. The Central Villages Anglican Church in Lawson has food hampers going out every week. These are services that have seen the need, and, if they weren't already doing it, have stepped up to do more. What's been a bit disappointing, and what I've heard from some of these services, is the lack of additional support for them. Yes, funding has flowed through to the very big people like Foodbank and the very large providers who distribute things to smaller organisations, but a tiny little bit of money for these organisations goes so far. These are volunteer-run organisations. They do a lot with a little, and I think we could have seen a little bit more for these organisations, which would have made a big difference for them.
The second thing I'd note is that there was a loss of volunteers, and the committee's interim report picked this up. Many of the volunteers in my community are older. They were the people considered to be most at risk. If we're thinking about how we manage the situation going forward and any future pandemics, we do need to think about the reliance of so many local services on volunteers who are doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. It applies to op-shops. It applies to cooking and serving meals. It applies to those who, in the course of their day, do small things to support those who are homeless in our communities.
Another key issue in the interim report is social housing. I think many of us are disappointed not to have seen a commitment from the government to inject funds into this sector. This report identifies the massive gap there is in social housing. These are not unknown things. Anglicare Australia is quoted as saying:
Ending our affordable housing shortfall would be the most powerful way to tackle the homelessness crisis and boost regional economies.
I couldn't agree more. The shadow minister for housing, Jason Clare, and I visited Wentworth Community Housing, which provides many social housing properties in my electorate. We were in Lapstone last week looking at what could be done with upgrade money. For not much more than $10,000, $20,000 or $25,000 you can transform an ageing, rundown property and make it somewhere where someone's proud to live. Having secure housing changes people's lives and having decent secure housing is absolutely transformational. Twenty-five per cent of Australia's social housing is in need of urgent repairs and maintenance. That's about 100,000 homes. It's not an inconceivable number. Some of the homes have mould, leaking roofs, water damage. Others are just run down and falling apart. I saw kitchens that predate anything that I probably grew up in. There are really old houses that need an update. And the beauty of this, if we're thinking in pandemic context, is not just to give people a better chance at a decent life, to give them a chance to get on top of their health issues, to tackle education, to provide their children stability—aside from those things, which should be enough to make governments want to invest in social housing—but to obviously think about economic stimulus.
The repairs on social housing could start almost immediately. There's a backlog. Within a few months, you could have new housing construction starting. It's just a no-brainer. In much the same way that the absolute genius of the BER during the GFC was that schools were scattered all over the country in little towns and small communities so is social housing, so you could really disburse the stimulus. I think it's a lost opportunity, and I really welcome Labor's commitment to provide an immediate $500 million contribution from the Commonwealth, were we in government, and form the partnership with the states with the expectation that they contribute the same amount in new funding. This would be the real kickstart that many communities need. It would help tradies—from plumbers, chippies, sparkies, plasterers, painters, all the people who could do these small jobs and a series of small jobs. I want to thank David from Wentworth Community Housing, who took us through one of their properties in Lapstone. Stephen McIntyre, the CEO, talked us through the big picture, but David showed us the detail. That's the sort of detail that can change people's lives, so I thank the committee for their report.