Monday, 13 February 2017
Last Friday, I stood in Rundle Mall with Steve, a vendor for The Big Issue, to help him sell this fortnight's edition of the magazine. It was 38 degrees that day, but you would not have known it by looking at Steve. With a damp towel draped around his neck, he was upbeat and definitely up for a chat. Truth be told, we only sold one copy of the magazine in the 45 minutes I shared with him, and that sale was to my chief of staff. In hindsight, I think there were a couple of reasons why we did not break any sales records that afternoon.
One possible explanation was the fact that Steve was very keen on having the ear of a politician. The other reason was the invisibility effect the bright yellow vests we were wearing had—and I will return to that second reason shortly. Of all the things that Steve and I chatted about that day, it was the very first thing he said to me that struck me. After shaking my hand, Steve took me directly in the eye and said, 'Please do all you can to help the homeless.' His plea was as sincere as it was moving. It came from a deeply personal place. That is because Steve knew what it meant to face homelessness.
Steve and his twin brother were born with cerebral palsy. Tragically, he lost his mother and his brother to suicide. He endured a deep depression, surviving his own suicide attempt. But, with the help of a support worker and carers, he now has his own apartment, is studying and is a vendor for TheBig Issue, which he loves. Some days Steve sells The Big Issue for more than eight hours straight, and some days he does not even make a sale. His work ethic and his attitude should be an example to us all.
I did not ask him. but I am sure Steve does not care whether our Prime Minister called the Leader of the Opposition a sycophant last week. And he probably would be gobsmacked to hear a senator essentially claim, 'Won't someone think of the politicians?' when it comes to losing gold card entitlements. And Steve probably could not fathom how the CEO of Australia Post, just one man, could pocket more than $5 million a year.
Steve's plea to me about helping the homeless echoed in my mind as we stood together in the mall. He had been so open with me. And do you know what? That made me feel guilty, because there was something I did not want to tell him—something, quite frankly, I did not have the heart to tell him. That was that, according to a news report that day, the National Affordable Housing Agreement—the agreement that is meant to increase social housing, reduce homelessness and help alleviate rental stress—is rumoured to be being scrapped by the federal government in the upcoming May budget.
In South Australia, more than 70 non-government organisations in metropolitan and country areas receive a share of this funding. All up, more than a billion dollars is injected into homelessness services and affordable housing by the federal government each year through this agreement and the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness. Should these devastating cuts go ahead, crisis accommodation services, outreach programs and domestic violence support services will be in jeopardy. National Shelter has described the move as 'absolutely crippling' for homelessness services, predicting that the cuts would result in 'unmitigated disaster'. Reasons cited for cutting homelessness funding include that it has not achieved certain targets, such as improving affordable housing stocks and reducing homelessness.
Now, I will be the first to say that there is a lack of transparency in the spending of these funds. After questioning the Department of Social Services during Senate estimates in October last year, their answers made it abundantly clear that this lack of transparency must be addressed. Being a COAG agreement, these funds are handed to the states and territories with little oversight of how they are spent.
In fact, the department and minister admitted to me that they have known for years that there needs to be a review of the National Affordable Housing Agreement, also known as the NAHA. But, in reviewing whether these priorities of the NAHA are being addressed, the baby must not be thrown out with the bathwater. The mother and her children fleeing a violent household would not say the support services that put a roof over their heads that are funded by the NAHA have not met their target—nor would the young person suffering mental health issues who found themselves in crisis accommodation after being kicked out of their rental, not having been able to hold down a job and afford to pay rent.
The government needs to commit to the NAHA funding. A review should aim to improve service delivery and outcomes, particularly in priority areas such as domestic violence, and not justify the removal of billions of dollars because targets allegedly are not being met.
Looking back on my afternoon with Steve, something that will stay with me is the way we practically disappeared when we put on our bright yellow vests. This was quite confronting. When I spoke to one of the other Big Issue representatives that day, they said this kind of thing happens all the time. In fact, the representative told me that when the CEO of a major company in Adelaide stood in the foyer of his own building selling The Big Issue and wearing the bright yellow vest, many of his employees did not recognise him. They walked past, only stopping when their boss called them out. Well-known sports personalities had similar experiences.
For some vendors of The Big Issue, this kind of invisibility is a daily occurrence. When I stood with Steve, passers-by avoided eye contact. Others pulled out their phones to look busy. Some just looked the other way. It seemed the prospect of interacting with someone who was potentially homeless was unsettling to the mallgoers that day.
But as MPs and senators we cannot look the other way when it comes to addressing homelessness, and what the public should really find unsettling is the prospect of the government ripping funding away from essential homelessness services on the basis that it does not know whether they are achieving value for money. Improved transparency, clearer targets and better communication between the Commonwealth and state and territory governments will determine whether this much-needed funding is achieving its stated aims; simply tearing up these funding arrangements will not. We must do all we can to help the homeless and those at risk of finding themselves without a safe and secure place to sleep. As elected members we must listen to our constituents. I listened to Steve and, on his behalf, I hope the government hears his plea. And to anyone else listening tonight, if all you can do is buy a copy of this month's The Big Issue and help improve on the sales that Steve and I didn't make, then please do.
Senate adjourned at 22 : 08