Common myths about homelessness and housing
Homelessness in Australia affects more than 100,000 individuals and families every day of the year. It creates extreme stress and damages people's physical and mental health due to the fear, anxiety and violence that people who are homeless often experience.
Many of us do not really understand what it means to live without a safe place to call home and this means many of us misunderstand what homelessness and housing crisis is and imagine it is a problem that can't be solved.
We know from our day to day experience that homelessness can be solved. No-one is beyond help and the solutions are common sense, practical and cost effective. Trauma can be averted and lives can be transformed with the right combination of housing, support and health support.
During August we will be presenting some of the biggest myths that we've heard about homelessness and housing in Australia. Please share these on social media and join the debate on www.facebook.com/homegroundservices to have your say.
Myth #1: All homeless people sleep on the street
Fact: Only 1 in 5 people who are homeless sleep outside
It is a common misconception that only those who sleep on the streets, or sleep rough, are “really” homeless. The last census recorded that over 105,000 people were homeless.
Of this figure around 20,000 people were sleeping on the streets or in a makeshift shelter. The remaining 85,000 were sleeping in rooming houses, crisis accommodation or sleeping on the floors or couches of friends.
These people are also homeless because they do not have access to safe and adequate housing (ABS, 2006). They are also more 'invisible' because they are not sleeping in public places.
If we are going to be successful in ending homelessness then we need to provide housing and support options for everyone who is homeless - not just those who are sleeping on the streets
The three kinds of homelessness defined by the ABS are:
1. Primary homelessness describes those people who are without conventional accommodation. They sleep rough or in an improvised dwelling.
2. Secondary homelessness is experienced by people who frequently move from one temporary shelter to another. This can include staying in emergency accommodation, youth refuges, or couch-surfing with friends.
3. Tertiary homelessness refers to those people whose accommodation falls below minimum community standards. This often includes rooming houses and caravan parks.
(Chamberlain and McKenzie, 2003)
Myth #2: Public housing is free
Fact: Public housing rent is set at 25% of a person’s income
Every person living in public housing pays rent. The Victorian Department of Human Services states that “rent is…25 per cent of your total household income, for household member 18 years of age of over”.
Household income includes all of the following income sources:
- Lump sum payments
- Interest from savings
- Income from investments
Public Housing is a safety net for people on low-incomes who can not afford to pay full, market-priced, rent and are most in need of secure, affordable housing.
It is widely accepted around the world that affordable housing is characterised by paying no more than 30% of household income on rent.
For more informtaiton, please go to the DHS website: http://www.dhs.vic.gov.au/for-individuals/housing-and-accommodation/public-housing/living-in-housing/rent-in-public-housing/public-housing-how-rent-is-calculated
Myth #3: Homeless people are all old men.
Fact: Anyone can become homeless.
HomeGround helps 9,000 people with housing issues each year.
40% are women, around 14% have children, 44% are under 35. Less than 6% are men over 55.
On census night 2006:
- 58% of homeless people counted in Australia were aged 34 or younger
- 21% were teenagers aged 12 – 18 years
- 12% were children aged under 12, with one or more parents
- 10% were young adults aged 19-24 years
- 15% were between 24 and 34 years old
- 44% of homeless people in Victoria were women
For more information, please go to http://www.ausstats.abs.gov.au/ausstats/subscriber.nsf/0/57393A13387C425DCA2574B900162DF0/$File/20500-2008Reissue.pdf
Myth #4: Housing is a priviledge
Fact: Housing is a human right
While is it often argued that people who live in public housing do not deserve it as they have not worked for the ‘privilege’, it is recognised though the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living and, therefore, housing.
“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond their control” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25)
Housing has also been recognized in the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which recognized the right of everyone to adequate housing. That is, there is a right to have more than just shelter. Rather, each person has ‘the right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity’ which take into account indictors such as tenure and affordability. The ICESCR also state that forced evictions are a violation of their covenant and should not leave a person homeless.
Other countries, such at the UK and Canada, have introduced a charter of rights which, while not directly recognized the right to adequate housing, have established a platform to argue for a right to housing. Australia, however, lags behind and continues to violate its international housing rights obligations.
To find out more, read Dan Nicholson’s report ‘The Human Right to Housing in Australia’: http://www.vcoss.org.au/documents/VCOSS_docs/Housing/Human%20right%20to%20housing_Eb.pdf
‘The Human Right to Housing in Australia’, Dan Nicholson, 2004
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Myth #5: People choose to be homeless
Fact: Given real options, no one chooses homelessness
The causes of homelessness are varied and complex.
Many people who become homeless have experienced extensive disadvantage throughout their lives, including long-term unemployment, poor education, violence, mental health problems, disability and substance use problems. Conversely, homelessness can occur due to a specific event, such a losing a job, domestic violence, being evicted from stable accommodation, suffering a major health condition, or experiencing a high level of financial stress.
There are a number of pathways into homelessness which are commonly recognized as the main reasons why people become homeless. These are:
- Housing Crisis: People who follow this pathway into homelessness often experience a financial crisis which leads to them losing their house. This can be financial hardship where a household can’t afford to pay their bills, the loss of a job or the collapse of a small business.
Recent increases in housing rents in Melbourne have led to a higher number of people becoming homeless due to housing affordability. In some areas, housing affordability had decreased from 10-30% in 2003 to just 1-2% in 2011. In Melbourne, the average weekly rent for a one bedroom property increased from between $120-$140 in 2003 to between $245 and $305 in 2011 (DHS Rental report as cited in the Homeground Annual Report).
- Family Breakdown: There are two typical reasons for family breakdown causing homelessness. They are domestic violence and relationship failure. The domestic violence pathway most often results in women and children leaving the family home, eventually becoming homeless. After a relationship failure, usually one partner leaves the home, resulting in homelessness.
22% of people seeking help from a specialist homelessness service do so because they are escaping violence. Domestic and family violence is the main cause of homelessness for women, with 55% of women with children seeking assistance from homelessness services due to violence.
- Substance Abuse: Many people on this pathway began their drug usage in their early twenties. Initially it is usually recereational use, which then develops into substance abuse. Often it is only when this shift occurs that people become homeless.
- Mental Health: For those living with a mental illness, family support is the key factor to ensuring they do not become homeless. “When people with mental health issues have no family members to support them, then homelessness often follows”.
- Youth to Adult: Adults who became homeless before they were 18 years old have often been in state care and the protection system. Many experience traumatic family upbringings, including sexual and physical abuse, parental drug addiction and family violence.
- Chamberlain and Johnson, ‘Pathways into adult homelessness”, Journal of Sociology, online Nov 2011
- ‘The Road Home. A National Approach to Reducing Homelessness’, Homelessness Taskforce, 2008
For more information: The book ‘On the Outside’ by Johnson, Gronda, and Coutts, explores the pathways into homelessness experienced by 103 homeless households. It provides a detailed look at why and how people become homeless, stay homeless, and exit homelessness.
Myth #6: There will always be homeless people
Fact: Homelessness can be ended
People who work in services that are able to provide safe, secure and affordable housing to people alongside appropriate support know that homelessness can be ended for individuals regardless of their history. It happens every day.
The only thing stopping us doing in across the community is a lack of appropriate access to housing coordinated with tailored support.
Furthermore, while ending homelessness may sound like a daunting and expensive task, it is actually more cost-effective than continuing to provide expensive services to people continually in crisis.
The Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute puts potential whole-of-government savings at at least twice as much as it costs to provide homelessness services.
Providing a single male with homelessness assistance costs $4,562 per year, compared to the average health and justice costs of $10,212 (this number is minus the costs of a single male in the general population).
People experiencing homelessness use four times more health services, primarily emergency department and ambulance use, than the general population. Justice costs, including court and police costs, are also higher.
Providing peope with a homelessness service not only reduces these costs but also leads people to be less dependant on welfare and more likely to gain employment, adding to government savings.
In addition to the economic advantages of homelessness services, the social benefits such as increased quality of life and feelings of safety are overwhelming.
For more information: http://www.ahuri.edu.au/publications/p80306