By Dustin Halse

07 August 2020

My opinion piece published on Eureka Street.

This week is Homelessness Week and it gives us an opportunity to pause and reflect upon the circumstances of some of the most vulnerable individuals within our society. It also affords us a moment to consider what more we can do to overcome what has been dubbed a 'national disgrace' by numerous social welfare agencies.

The statistics are stark. Tonight, approximately 116,000 Australians and 24,000 Victorians will go without access to a safe, stable and secure place to sleep. In my electorate of Ringwood, 236 people will be experiencing homelessness — sleeping rough, couching surfing, or residing in crisis or short-term accommodation.

The crises that lead people into homelessness are numerous, complex and tragic. Some individuals will find themselves suddenly homeless because of a relationship breakdown. Others are victims of abuse, trauma or family violence. Many will be suffering from health complications, addiction and mental illness. Still more will be thrust into homelessness after losing a job and being priced out of an expensive housing and rental market.

All of these people are deserving of our respect, dignity and assistance — and all are deserving of a place to call home.

Much public discussion of homelessness centres on the economic viability of housing solutions. Indeed, many politicians, like myself, will spend hours arguing for or against investment in public, social or affordable housing. Yet the idea of 'home' transcends debates about the base economic unit of housing.

Whether it's the words of Darryl Kerrigan in the classic Australian film The Castle reminding us that 'it's not a house — it's a home'; or those of German philosopher Martin Heidegger in his work Being and Time describing the intermingling of place and self; where we live contains a part of who we are.

What is clear is that people without access to secure and safe housing are not just experiencing a housing crisis — they are locked in a crisis of identity at the same time. A home is a foundation upon which a secure life can be built.

That's why the Andrews Victorian Labor government has started to invest in a solution. Our homelessness and rough sleeping action plan has seen record investments in preventative measures and in supported housing for women and children fleeing domestic violence. In addition, the most recent state budget included an extra $200 million for public housing.

This is a good start — and there is no doubt that these policies are saving lives and will assist people in to housing. But this alone cannot solve the crisis. It is now a time to re-evaluate our priorities: to re-imagine our solutions, and re-commit ourselves to addressing the challenge of eradicating homelessness in Victoria.

This task is not easy but neither is it impossible. When we look abroad we observe that achievable and practical solutions are working to reduce homelessness right now. Perhaps the best example comes from the Finnish city of Helsinki, which has largely eliminated rough sleeping in just ten years. The bold Housing First policy has resulted in the rate of homelessness falling by 35 per cent across the whole country.

Some will point out the differences between the Finnish setting and a state like Victoria. And they are right — Finland is much smaller than Australia, in both demographic and economic indicators. Yet when we compare the state of Victoria to the nation of Finland, we start to see similarities. Finland has a GDP of approximately AUD $420 billion and a population of around 5.5 million people. In Victoria, Gross State Product (the state equivalent of GDP) measures just over AUD $400 billion and the state has a population of just over 6.4 million people.

So how did Finland manage to achieve such radical success in their homelessness policy? The answer is disturbingly simple. It built houses. It built 3500 new or renovated housing units and provided these units unconditionally. Tenants sign a contract and pay a sliding scale rent commensurate with their income.

Most importantly, these houses are not just living quarters but are connected to essential service professionals like social workers, drug and alcohol counsellors, medical and mental health workers. They provide a foundation upon which tenants are connected to employment services and other programs that offer a helping hand when it is needed.

The strength of this program is that it provides both independence and interconnectedness for those in need. It is an approach that focuses on the place and function of home in order to give some of the most vulnerable the tools to secure self-identity and purpose.

During this Homelessness Week, we would do well to reflect on this example and others like it if we are committed to seriously addressing the issue of homelessness. Because all Australians and all Victorians should have a place to call home.

Article originally published here.

Dr Dustin Halse is the State Labor Member for Ringwood in the Victorian Parliament. He has held positions in academia and the union movement prior to his election to office. Dustin has a strong interest in industrial, environmental and social welfare policy.