Thursday, 8 October 2020
Social Policy and Legal Affairs Committee; Report
It's a real pleasure to rise and speak on this topic. I want to thank the committee for the Shelter in the storm—COVID-19 and homelessness interim report and for the inquiry that they've done, the evidence they took and their interest as a committee in homelessness. As the Morrison government's Assistant Minister for Community Housing, Homelessness and Community Services, it's something that I have taken a keen interest in since being sworn in. Over the last 12 months I have met with some 300 stakeholders around the country, and I want to thank all of them for the work that they do. It's very, very much appreciated.
In the face of this crisis, Australia's strong community services continue to help vulnerable Australians experiencing homelessness. Again, thank you. Communities are rallying, helping neighbours and making sure that we reach out to someone in need who may be doing it tough. If I were to ask you, 'What does homelessness look like in 2020,' what would you say? I suspect that many Australians—in fact, many members of parliament—wouldn't know what homelessness looks like in Australia. It's not just rough sleeping. Ninety per cent of homeless people in Australia actually do have a roof over their head. Having a safe and secure home to isolate in and reduce the spread of COVID-19 was crucial for all of us. There have been heartening responses and modest gains in moving people from the streets into hotels—thousands of people experiencing homelessness during the height of the crisis, possibly as many as 10,000 people.
It also showed us that more can be done, and I as the assistant minister continue to put party politics aside and try to work across all levels of government in a bipartisan way to have supports in place for all experiences of homelessness. At this stage, I want to particularly thank the housing ministers from the six states and the two territories, all of which I believe I have a good relationship with. I want to thank them for the work that they have done helping in particular rough sleepers and people couch surfing into hotels during this crisis. I want to particularly thank the states—New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania—that did head leasing after the hotels had been exhausted. They've moved people into private rentals—in some cases for two years. They are providing a housing-first approach, making sure that wraparound services are available in those states to help people with their mental health needs, to help people with their addictions and to help people get back to work and back on their feet.
Through the work of states like South Australia we have put a name on homelessness, listening to the lived experiences and providing supports to help the individual situation that person is facing. Tackling homelessness is more than just putting a roof over someone's head, because a home is more than just walls and a roof. A home is about a space of your own, having a sense of security and stability. The Morrison government's $60 million Safe Places, which was announced last week in Adelaide by Senator Ruston and myself, has delivered—or will deliver, I should say, as construction will now start—40 successful projects to construct, repurpose, renovate or purchase new buildings to deliver nearly 700 new safe places, in particular for women and children.
We have had two people speak this morning from the Labor side. The member for Solomon is about to speak next. The member for Macquarie spoke. Both of those electorates have received grants from Safe Places. In Darwin, in the member for Solomon's area, there's $4 million of that $60 million going into Darwin to help women and children escaping DV. The great thing about that program is that we have managed to not just have the $60 million federal funding; we have also secured $40 million worth of land or additional funds from the not-for-profit sector. That's not state government money; that's the not-for-profit sector putting in funds to make that a $100 million contribution. That's fantastic. In my own electorate of Petrie I would like to acknowledge and circle Chameleon Housing, who Minister Ruston and I visited last week, for the work that they do; the Breakfast Club, who do a lot; and SANDBAG in the nearby electorate for helping homeless people in particular with food relief and other resources that they need. I want to thank the residents of Petrie, schools and other community groups. Particularly with Chameleon Housing, I know down in Pelican Park in my electorate there have been people rough sleeping there, and they've helped people get housed. Projects across remote and regional communities as well received 51 per cent of the funding through Safe Places. So we're not just investing in capital cities but right around the country.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government has provided $257 billion in direct economic support to cushion the blow and strengthen the recovery. The 2020-21 budget commits a further $98 billion, including $25 billion in direct COVID-19 response measures and $74 billion in new job creation measures. States have announced—and this is important—a combined new spend on refurbished and upgraded social housing dwellings of at least $2.1 billion. I want to say thank you to those states and territories.
I have working closely with the states, as I said before. Boarding houses—I'll come to the census stats in a minute—at the last census made up 17,503 people homeless in Australia. One of the things I was able to do, working in a bipartisan way, was to do a joint letter with the Queensland housing minister. We have written to over 300 boarding houses in Queensland and said, 'Thank you for what you're doing, but you may not realise that there are a whole lot of people that are considered homeless in your boarding houses. If you were able to give people better tenure, at least three months tenure, rather than a week-by-week arrangement where they can be kicked out of the house week by week, and if you're able to improve the boarding house so there's more security outside their own room, that would have a big impact on those people's lives and would actually move people from homelessness to housed.'
I'll just quickly talk about the census stats, which I think are important. The previous speaker touched on them. There were 116,000 people homeless at the last census in 2016. The next census will be in 2021. The previous speaker spoke about the stimulus measures which the Rudd-Gillard government provided during the GFC. They were great, and I'm sure the sector appreciates that. But what they didn't mention is that there was still a 14.11 per cent increase in homelessness from the 2006 census to the 2011 census. I think part of the reason is that many members, and even previous social services ministers, haven't drilled down into those homelessness stats. Out of the 116,000, only 8,200 were actually rough sleepers. We want every one of those 8,200 people housed. Fifty-one thousand people were living in severely overcrowded conditions. Some 21,235 people were in supported accommodation—and I think the ABS could do a better job reporting on supported accommodation. The way it works at the moment with states and the federal government is that, whenever we do supported accommodation, if people aren't there for three months, you're just continually adding to the homelessness numbers. You could have a brand new house with ensuites and privacy, but if they don't get a lease for at least three months then they're considered homeless, and I think that's unacceptable going forward. Governments of all persuasions should invest more in supported accommodation. There were also the couch surfers, of course, and I want to thank the Reconnect providers around the country.
I want to quickly touch on a few things: I want to thank the Australian Alliance to End Homelessness—I think they've got a great model around better statistics that could be supported; life skills online—if we could help educate people to have a better understanding of key life issues before they enter homelessness, that would be helpful; private sector homes—we can't discount the private sector, given that they provide 90 per cent of the housing in this country; we need incentives to help people, particularly with low rents, to improve their housing for tenants—that's important; and state governments could also do a lot more around recycling their assets, because out of the $1.6 billion that we put in each year a lot of that is spent on maintenance. We also spend an additional $5 billion on Commonwealth Rent Assistance.
I thank the members for their report and all members that have spoken today. I look forward to working with them.