Tuesday, 25 June 2013
Vinnies CEO Sleepout, Homelessness
Last Thursday I spent the night in a sleeping bag on three sheets of cardboard on the streets of Canberra with several hundred others as part of the Vinnies CEO Sleepout. This was to raise funds and awareness of what it must be like for the nearly 7,000 Australians who have to do this every night. In terms of raising funds, it was an extraordinary success and nearly $5 million was raised by those who participated. In terms of raising awareness, I think it did its job very well also, but it is not enough to simply raise awareness if people then just turn the channel and move on to something else.
This contribution tonight is not just going to be about numbers and statistics, apart from the three that I will mention now that I simply cannot reconcile. The first is the figure of 105,000 Australians experiencing homelessness now, and that that number went up between the census of 2006 and 2011. The second is the number of households on the social housing waiting list—240,000, or nearly a quarter of a million, families and individuals waiting and waiting. In my home state of WA, the average wait on the priority list is 63 weeks—well over a year—and it is anywhere from two to seven years on the regular list. The third number that I want us to keep in mind is the gap of affordable and available private rental homes in the private rental market. That number is more than half a million. Anybody can tell you that these figures have gotten worse over the years—I have raised each of these numbers year after year in this place, in estimates committees and elsewhere—unless, of course, you are an investor or you are already well and truly into your own home, and I will come back to that in a moment.
Tonight, though, my point is this: we have been in a housing crisis for a decade. I have urged the government and the opposition to acknowledge the gaps, to take action and to return the sense of urgency that we had in 2008. I have done this many, many times, and I am sick of it. So tonight, instead of statistics, I rise to tell you of stories—stories that I imagine all of us, on some level, have already been touched by, stories about homelessness and a housing crisis that has stretched across the entire spectrum, across many years.
Homelessness effects one in 200 of us, as Australians. It has touched me and members of my staff personally. Since briefly sleeping rough last Thursday night and then having the opportunity to launch the Greens homelessness initiative—which proposes to double existing services to people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness and, at the same time, to provide a roof over the head of every current rough sleeper—I have been contacted by people who have directly experienced this tragic condition.
I have been contacted by people like Simon, in Adelaide, who has been homeless himself but wanted to share a short story about a young man who was homeless in his village and died from exposure as a result. Simon told us: 'None of us knew him or that he was there. But to this day, 20 years later, his story still draws a sense of guilt and responsibility from the community. We failed to help one among us and we are the lesser for it.'
I have been contacted by people like Luke, who wrote to us from Perth. He was 19 when he became homeless, turned out of his mum's home quite suddenly. For six months he went to places to find help and everywhere was full. This is what he told us: 'You get to that point where you become ashamed to ask for help. You know that you are on your own and that you have to find a way to survive your situation. Then you have the problem of being clean, fresh and reliable to get a job. I never slept at night when I was homeless; I used to ride the train in day, in the warmth, and then at midnight go to sit in Macca's and drink free coffee refills. Then I would find a nice, sunny protected spot to sleep during the day. I did not even have a blanket when I was homeless. For months, I squatted in an empty house, hiding in the walk-in wardrobe, using carpet remnants to keep warm.' Luke saved his money somehow—he was on a Centrelink payment—over those six months, to buy a cheap car, a phone and some clothes from the op shop. He then got a job delivering pizzas. He lived in his car for another six months after that.
These are just a small sample of the stories behind the numbers. They are about those who are at the very pointy end. Those sudden circumstances can happen to any of us and lead to us to suddenly being without a place to stay.
Paul, in Sydney, wrote to us. Paul has been the full-time carer for his disabled father. They were living together in social housing in New South Wales and they got a bit behind with the rent. Suddenly, a letter turned up saying that the lease had been terminated. Even though he then paid half the arrears and was about to pay the rest, he was told: 'You might as well save your money because we are taking your house whether you pay the full amount or not.' The end result, Paul tells us, is: 'I am couch-surfing and my dad is staying in a mate's granny flat without a carer.'
The Greens realise that it is not just about the bricks and mortar, because a little bit less than half of the people in Australia who use homeless services are actually homeless themselves. Fifty-six per cent use these services because of how close they are to it and how at risk they are of becoming homeless. So it is also about the people providing these vital services in the amazing homelessness and welfare sector—in particular, groups like Anglicare; Homelessness Australia; Community Housing Federation; St Vinnies, who hosted us last week; and many hundreds of others across the country.
This story is also about the structural and systemic problem with our housing market. The homelessness problem has gotten worse not just because of a lack of services but because of the same credit bubble and housing price bubble that is so beloved of the banks and the real estate pages in the newspapers. It is to be expected, as rents soar in reaction to higher house prices, that in turn this squeezes lower income families out onto the street. The same story that you will see being celebrated in the newspapers, as a 'buoyant housing market' is also directly contributing to people being forced out into the streets. State and federal governments are certainly good at generating subsidies for housing demand but have fallen dramatically behind on the supply side. We are not building enough affordable dwellings to cope and we are not funding crisis services to the scale that is demanded. Crisis services are obviously not the answer to the fundamental problems of runaway housing prices, and governments could easily step in here, across a wide range of fronts. There is government owned land throughout our metropolitan areas that could be used, but instead governments prefer to sell off their landholdings to the highest bidder. It is not just bricks and mortar but also services that are so vital in keeping people from becoming homeless.
The figures for being 'at risk' of homelessness are even more startling. One in 97 of us turned to services last year, seeking assistance just to keep us from falling through the gaps, to keep our tenancy, to access help with mental health issues, financial counselling, parenting skills, relationship counselling and drug and alcohol services—the list goes on. It is with great shame that I acknowledge two further things. The first thing is that Aboriginal homelessness rose by three per cent between censuses. Aboriginal people make up 2.5 per cent of the population of Australians, but they represent a quarter of those who are homeless. I commend this government on its 10-year partnership on remote Indigenous housing and also my colleague Senator Rachel Siewert for her hard work in this area. We have a long way to go, but the Greens will work hard with those in government and in opposition when they can find the time to be interested in these matters and to right this wrong.
The second thing—and this absolutely stunned me—is that domestic violence is the greatest single cause of homelessness in Australia. I do not know why that surprised me; it probably says something about me and my background that I find it such an extraordinarily stark statistic. The people who are fleeing situations of domestic violence are mostly young women, with children. They suddenly find themselves the largest cohort of homeless people in this country. These are two of this nation's great shames, and we must do more.
Among the overarching goals identified by Senator Milne when she was first elected unanimously by our party room as leader were a couple of things: one was the need for a new economy to support the new emerging industries and innovation; and the other was that a new guard of voices have been drowned out by the old guard. In terms of the new economy and housing, this means a couple of things. Since the homelessness white paper was released in 2008, Ms Gina Reinhart's wealth has increased from $4.3 billion to $22 billion. Since the homelessness white paper was released, the big banks have made around $20 billion a year, and that is about $400 billion in profits. Each year since the white paper was signed, mining profits have been in the order of $51 billion—vacuumed out of the economy. Australia has experienced an unprecedented boom and is recognised as one of the top performing economies in the world. Yet those disadvantaged before the boom still remain disadvantaged, and it is ironic and no coincidence that in the resource rich states, including WA and Queensland, there has been an increase both in homelessness and in people being turned away from services. In WA the social housing waiting list in a tortured and stressed housing market has doubled since 2007.
What Senator Milne meant in her first contribution as leader of our party room was, why, for example, are we not talking about creating a housing industry that can build houses to sell for between $70,000 and $250,000; creating a green housing industry at scale that showcases Australian exemplary design and that uses the newest, lightest, locally manufactured materials for new construction; employing an army of retrofitters and supporting associated industries to make our existing housing stock more affordable and cheaper to live in; and reducing building costs by simply changing some of the materials that we use to build our houses? As we announced last Friday, I am talking here, in part, about design production and manufacture based on prefabricated modular, lighter sustainable materials, sustainably harvested timber and assembly lines in our great cities and regions. This also means changing the planning systems to fast-track exemplary sustainable developments. This is the so-called 'green dooring', or 'as of right development', which means guaranteeing minimum approval times as long as extremely high predetermined standards are met. It can also turn on its head the way communities are consulted and engaged on developments by engaging with them up-front, as was done in South Australia through the Integrated Design Commission, rather than bringing communities in at the end, after the key decisions have already been made.
The tensions between the new and old voices come in three groups: the lucky versus the locked-out generation. The lucky are simply those who were born at the right time or into the right family who either own their house outright or who are well on their way to doing so. The locked out include the lifetime renters and a whole generation of young people locked out of homeownership and locked into a dysfunctional rental market that is unaffordable and insecure. It is possible to overemphasise the generation gap. I think we have priced an entire generation out of affordable housing. It is also essential that we acknowledge that there are major cohorts of older people, particularly older women—perhaps with very limited superannuation resources to fall back on—who simply will have nowhere to live. It is also the people who are locked out of a pathway out of the social housing system. The Greens believe in an economy that serves people and the environment, not the other way around.
The second contrast between the new voices and the old is the asset rich versus the asset poor. Australia's asset class enjoy the world's most generous subsidies to assist them to collect houses as investment properties. These are then treated effectively—as Professor Julian Disney has pointed out—as tax shelters rather than real shelters. In Australia, asset inequality is between 50 and 400 times worse than income inequality, depending on how it is calculated. The most wealthy are literally getting richer off the backs of the least wealthy—the renters—and the taxpayers who provide the subsidies. Treasury estimated the capital gains tax discount on investment properties will be worth $5.2 billion in 2013-14. These concessions are being paid for by low- and middle-income taxpayers.
The third set of voices that I want to draw attention to in terms of the contrast are those in the developer community—those developers who think that real estate markets should simply be about sprawl and for whom the definition of 'affordable' is a three-by-two brick-and-tile cube 60 kilometres from the central business district, where, if you can get into a property like that, 'affordable' by the standard definition, you are then on your own, subject to extraordinary transport costs and basically stranded on the edges of our great cities. Those developers' voices are now quite distinct from those of the innovators in the developer community, those who are interested in and are pioneering work in Australia on transit centred, diverse, affordable housing of all different kinds to suit different family types and people in different circumstances.
I want to take this opportunity to thank the army of new economists—people like Judy Yates, Julie Lawson, Ian Winter, Caryn Kakas—and people everywhere who are working and thinking about how to make the housing economy fairer and to create an asset class for people who want to invest in affordable housing, not through some kind of shelter or some kind of rort but by matching up people who are looking for a stable income with people who are looking for a stable tenancy so that people are not continually being flipped from one insecure rental tenancy to another. I also want to acknowledge the community housing and not-for-profit housing sector, which I think has an enormously important future in this country—people like Carol Croce, Eddy Bourke and Anthony Rizacazza. This is a movement which is growing and should have our strong support.
In this place and in this country, we are all touched by homelessness, directly or indirectly. That is why it was startling to see, earlier in the session, the coalition essentially turning its back on the homeless by refusing to even commit to the ambition, the aim, of halving homelessness by 2020. This is an aim that was adopted by the Australian Labor Party a number of years ago. That commitment was reaffirmed when we took a vote earlier today—or yesterday. My motion earlier in the session called upon the Senate to confirm and commit to two things: firstly, the white paper goal of halving homelessness by 2020 and, secondly, a new agreement by 2020 and beyond to provide the funding and services necessary to help Australians most in need.
When Mr Abbott was asked in 2010 whether he would commit the coalition to that goal, that ambition, acknowledging its extraordinary difficulty and that it would take time and resources and energy to do, he said something remarkable. He said:
But we just can't stop people from being homeless if that's their choice—
'If that's their choice'!—
or if their situation is such that it is just impossible to look after them under certain circumstances so I would rephrase a commitment like that.
What a spectacular bit of rephrasing that was right there. So we do not have cross-party commitment in this parliament, and it was confirmed today, because that quite clearly seems to be the attitude of the Leader of the Opposition: you just have to cop it, and maybe if you are homeless you have chosen it. What a remarkably backward attitude.
In all of the cases, home or, at the very least, shelter is a basic human need. An affordable home and a roof over your head are human rights, not just another asset class, and the consequences of their absence for people wanting to form community bonds, get a job, get back on their feet and get their lives together are extraordinarily severe. The housing crisis can be tackled and homelessness can be ended—not halved, not reduced to a certain rate but actually eliminated from Australian census counts. It is possible. The initiatives that we launched on Friday last week, which were independently costed by the Parliamentary Budget Office, show what it will take. I think it is possible. We are looking for the kind of cross-party support we saw when MPs from all parties and Independents slept rough for just one night with three sheets of cardboard and a sleeping bag in various degrees of weather. It was below zero here in Canberra; I understand it was a bit more balmy in Darwin and other parts of the country. Nonetheless, there needs to be the ambition to say that this can be done, to work out what it will cost and then to commit ourselves to it. No matter how great the privilege of those who get to be here, homelessness can touch all of us; it can strike people at any time. We are all just one bad circumstance, one bad relationship breakup, one loss of a job or an insecure employment situation away from being suddenly not altogether certain where we are going to be staying this time next week. This can touch all of us. We all know people it has touched.
In the boom town of Perth, while we are at the top of the commodity cycle and with money like we have never seen before washing through that city, there are also record numbers of people sleeping in doorways, pushing possessions around in shopping trolleys, laying out a cardboard mat, a blanket or a hat in front of them and simply gazing into the crowd of feet passing them by and hoping that people will occasionally drop a few coins into the hat—and they are wondering how on earth they got there. Something is deeply wrong with the way we have organised our economy if that is occurring right in the middle of the greatest commodity boom that this country has seen.
I want to acknowledge the government for the ambition that was set out by former Prime Minister Rudd in establishing a housing minister for the first time and drawing most of the portfolio into one place for the first time. I also want to thank the bureaucrats with whom we have a contest a couple of times a year at budget estimates. Like the service providers, they really just want to do a job, and they should actually be resourced to do the job that they all want to do. There is a road home and I look forward to cross-party commitment to us all finally taking that road.