Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

What Do the Published Figures Tell Us about Homelessness in Australia?

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

What Do the Published Figures Tell Us about Homelessness in Australia?

Article excerpt

The housing market

In response to the release of the Australian Bureau of Statistics' figures on the wealth of Australian households, a regular columnist in the Sydney. Morning Herald wrote: 'You are a member of the wealthiest community that has ever existed in this country ... Ordinary people in the cosmopolitan capitals of Western society enjoy a standard of living that would be mind-boggling to the average person of 200 years ago'. The figures he quoted demonstrating the wealth of 'ordinary people' in Australia included '$1285 billion in cash, shares and superannuation' and '$2700 billion in housing assets' (Sheehan, 2004).

What this commentator failed to mention in his haste to extol the virtues of the economic management of the Howard government, was the unequal distribution of the wealth. There are many ordinary Australians who don't share in it. He also failed to perceive that the wealth of some is the cause of the poverty of others, especially in the case of housing. Increases in housing prices mean more wealth for homeowners, but they also mean less access to housing for those on low incomes.

It has been argued that homelessness is a more complex and multi-dimensional phenomenon than simply the lack of an appropriate dwelling, and that posing homelessness only as a housing supply issue fails to capture the full scale of the problem. It is true that there are many other factors that could be taken into consideration when discussing homelessness--an increasing recognition that domestic violence in intolerable, with more women and children leaving abusive homes; the de-institutionalisation of the care of the mentally ill, combined with the policy, failure to provide an adequate supply of alternative resources for community living; the decline in unskilled employment accessible to young people leaving home at early ages, together with a decrease in the boarding house accommodation they used to be able to live in; and increased levels of drug- and alcohol-addiction.

But it is important to emphasise the centrality to homelessness of the lack of affordable dwellings, whatever else might be contributing as well, because too often the central importance of that original lack gets lost in the complexity. The housing supply issue can get ignored or sidelined in discussions of homelessness, vide the concepts of 'careers' and 'pathways' that frame much of the debate (see below). It's not that (lack of) housing supply is ignored altogether. In fact, it is mentioned frequently, especially in relation to 'exit points' from services for the homeless. But it tends to be reduced to one factor among many instead of being given the crucial importance it deserves. People can't house themselves, or be housed if for whatever reason they are incapable of doing it for themselves, if there is no affordable housing, whatever their 'pathways' into homelessness. And whatever other reasons there are for homelessness, being unable to pay for accommodation is common to them all.

There is a tendency, in the literature on homelessness to eschew discussion of 'causes'. Instead, it is described in terms of 'careers' and 'pathways' (MacKenzie and Chamberlain, 2003), or 'factors that lead to a person becoming homeless'. A typical list of these would include the following: 'poverty; accumulation of debt; unemployment; failure to provide affordable homes to people on low incomes; mental and physical illness; family breakdown and domestic violence; and drug and alcohol addictions' (Healy et al, undated). Domestic violence is mentioned often--women and children escaping the violence in their own homes comprising one of the largest category, of users of homelessness services, while de-institutionalisation of the mentally ill has also had its part to play in contributing to the homeless population.

Australia's leading researchers into homelessness have defined it in terms of 'careers'. There is a 'youth homelessness career' as well as three 'careers' for adults: 'housing crisis', 'family breakdown' and 'youth to adult homelessness' (MacKenzie and Chamberlain, 2003). …

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