Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Homelessness 4- Interim Solutions

Homeless on bench
Homeless on a Bench  

Image by Tomas Castelazo, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Obviously we need long term solutions for homelessness. We need to address structural factors such as unemployment and commodification of housing which are making housing unaffordable for many.  As well as creating affordable housing we need to prevent people becoming homeless in the first place. We also need to end criminalisation of the homeless and provide support for those who are on the streets because of mental illness or addiction.  The immediate rewards for communities which take action include reduction in crime, the costs of law enforcement and hospital costs and fewer unsightly and unsafe neighbourhoods. However, since the wheels of government turn slowly, many places and organisations are working to make life safer and more bearable for those already on our streets. I am mentioning some of them here for inspiration but most would also appreciate any support you can give whether by way of donation or as a volunteer.



Interim help for the homeless

Here in Hobart for example, we have a mobile medical service and Louie’s Food Van which collects surplus food from food outlets at the end of the day and delivers it to the homeless. One of the more original services is A Paw Up which has monthly popup clinics in the park for the pets of the homeless and disadvantaged. It also provides emergency food and boarding for those unable to care for their pets.  Another is Orange Sky Laundry begun in 2014 and which provides mobile laundry services and showers in 35 locations around Australia and New Zealand.This not dissimilar to Lava Mae which has been providing showers and sanitation for California's homeless since 2014.


Several companies are making portable shelters to provide privacy and protection from the weather. These range from tentlike arrangements such as the Aussie- made Streetswags or the EPWR Coat which doubles as a sleeping bag to the tiny homes being produced by a Canadian man and the weatherproof  Pods being used in Germany. Top of the range is most probably the CITYSPACE MicroPAD (USA) -  a furnished modular self -contained prefab and portable unit with its own bathroom.  [Perhaps Australia could invest in some as instant quarantine facilities].

In London, retired double -decker buses are being converted by Bus4Homeless into mobile shelters by Some become mobile dining rooms while others have spaces for activities such as Yoga or learning cooking or business skills. Elsewhere in the UK 11 homeless hubs have been established which provided shelter for rough sleepers and access to a range of  specialist services. 

Beddown is an Australian innovation started by Norm Millivrai in Brisbane in 2019. Millivrai whose own father died on the streets of London in his 40’s, transforms empty spaces such as deserted parking garages into pop up accommodation for the homeless at night. As well as providing a safe place to sleep, Beddown has medical services and hairdressers on hand to prevent the physical and mental deterioration which are often part of the homeless experience and to which sleep deprivation itself often contributes.

Employment and training

  •  On the subject of training a London based Coffee Company Change Please, trains and employs baristas to run coffee vans  for street –side sales or at events. 
  • The production of the EPWR coat (see above) also provides employment and training for homeless parents. 
  • In Los Angeles homeless people are being employed to guard empty homes and construction sites

Technology to the rescue

At night when the temperature drops below 7oC in Stockholm, Clear Channel, a Swedish company which has thousands of electronic billboards around the city, switches them to show the location of the nearest shelter. Several companies have also produced apps  such as GiveSafe  or WeCount (see below)  or the Helping Heart Jacket by N= 2  (Amsterdam) which enable the homeless to obtain donations or goods they need without having to beg overtly which is illegal in many places. See Mashable for more on these. 





Wonderful as these ideas are - and I’m sure there are many more, we should also keep in mind the bigger picture. Even if countries manage to solve their own homelessness problem, we still need to look out for our neighbours. Otherwise we will be in the same situation as Salt Lake City, with people flooding in from surrounding regions. If we do not raise their living standards we will continue to have more and more economic migrants. Similarly, if we do not concern ourselves with climate change we will continue to have not only internally displaced people due to fire, flood and increasing cyclone activity and so on, but also those who are fleeing even worse conditions in other countries such as sea level rise, famine, prolonged drought or conflict due to same. While the first claim for asylum due to climate change - a man from Kiribati, has been dismissed, the case has opened the way for future claims. The UN estimates that there will be in the order of 150 million people being dislocated in coming years if we do not make a concerted effort now not only to prevent climate change but prepare for its ongoing effects so that people can remain where they are, rather than adding to the homeless populations elsewhere.






Friday, April 23, 2021

Lessons from Melbourne

This article by  Kevin Bell, Professor, Law Resources, director, Castan Centre for Human Rights Law and Associate Professor, School of Social Sciences, Steven Roberts is reprinted with kind permission from The Monash University's Lens project. Professor Bell's concluding remarks are especially telling.

The COVID-19 pandemic opens the door to solving the homelessness problem

Homelessness and the COVID-19 pandemic are deeply entwined. In Melbourne – the COVID capital of Australia – we've seen not only the homeless, among many vulnerable communities, hit hard from multiple angles. Public housing, aged care, migrant communities and transient workers in industries such as meat processing have all been pinpointed as contagion trigger points. The homeless are stuck in the middle of all this.

Professor Kevin Bell AM, QC, a former Victorian Supreme Court justice, is director of Monash University’s Castan Centre for Human Rights Law. He's a leading voice in human rights in Australia, and globally. To him, the pandemic spotlights homelessness in Australia in full glare, and offers a chance to make good.

In Melbourne, the state government has supported the homeless since March, when it started paying for 2000 people to stay in hotels. The shelter program has been extended until next April. The $150 million funding also includes leasing 1100 properties on the private rental market. Those properties may become permanent homes for people who leave emergency accommodation.

As a result of the pandemic, Australian governments have more information than ever about the homeless demographic and should use it to address historical "under-investment in social housing".

“The human right to equality and non-discrimination requires that homeless people be equally protected, especially because of their greater vulnerability,” Professor Bell writes in a new series of articles for the Castan Centre on COVID, human rights and governance.

“More than that, it requires positive action to ensure substantive equality.”

"Homelessness is not an unsolvable welfare problem for which the homeless are to be stigmatised and blamed – it's a human rights breach for which our governments are responsible and, we now know, they can resolve and must resolve." – Kevin Bell

He says a person under the wide banner of "homeless" may have trouble adhering to public health regulations, and pandemic lockdowns have been linked to more domestic violence, which has fuelled homelessness.

But he says basic human rights have largely been adhered to.

“Rightly, the stay-at-home directives have not been applied to people without a home,” he writes, in the third of his series of pieces, titled "Building back better and ending homelessness".

“It would have been discriminatory to do otherwise.

“Millions of dollars of government funding have been made available to ensure that homeless people have shelter where they can have protection from COVID-19 like most other people. This has been vital for ensuring substantive equality as far as possible. It may have taken a pandemic, but Australia has very few people without a roof over their head in [at time of writing] June 2020.”

"People sleeping rough have been offered shelter, but much more needs to be done, and it needs to be sustained." – Steven Roberts

Dr Steven Roberts is Associate Professor of Sociology at Monash University. He says the pandemic and the current stage four lockdown with nightly curfew is a “profound, multi-faceted, multi-directional problem” in housing policy and homelessness. The biggest issue, he says, is that any measures to help the homeless during the pandemic will only probably be temporary.

“It's sad that it takes the pandemic to raise the prospect of properly tackling homelessness as a policy objective,” he says.

Associate Professor Roberts cites the example of Finland, which currently is the only European country where homelessness is falling after implementing policy 11 years ago to mandate secure housing. It's about political will, he says.

“That will has been shown in this [Melbourne] context, where people sleeping rough have been offered shelter, but much more needs to be done, and it needs to be sustained. It's long been recognised that the best way to end homelessness is quite simple – give people homes. Finland again shows the way here, ensuring that everyone has a permanent home without first requiring they meet certain conditions.”

Professor Bell’s message of fundamental human rights is crucial, he says.

“The starting point here is that housing is an inalienable human right. The next part of making sure all people have a home is a strong and sustained commitment to affordable, social housing. And bound up with all this is the need for a massive public education campaign. For far too long, people experiencing homelessness have been stigmatised.”

Messaging disregards the homeless

Associate Professor Roberts points out that even the core messaging around the pandemic – one of "stay home" – disregards the homeless, because they don’t have a home.

“This form of mass quarantine is not about the health and safety of homeless people, per se, but about controlling the risk of contagion, about protecting the rest of 'us'. That 'them and us' duality is problematic and unwelcome, and without question the social stigma and isolation experienced by those who are homeless will have been amplified.”

The pandemic also drives homelessness through job cuts and rent stress, the voluntary nature of landlord discounts, and the ineffectiveness of JobKeeper to young, transient, casual workers. It also affects foreign citizens and international students.

Rates of domestic violence have risen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Also, he says, “as we know from the work of colleagues at Monash, the pandemic has increased the risk of men's violence against women in the family home. Such violence is a driver of women's homelessness, so this situation can be amplified, and then paradoxically, the virus might also leave women with no choice but to stay in living arrangements where they are exposed to violence.”

Read more: COVID-19: The bystander role has never been more critical in calling out family violence

Planning beyond COVID-19 hotels

Victoria’s peak body for homelessness, the Council to Homeless Persons, agrees. CEO Jenny Smith said in late July that 2000 people were in hotels, including 220 children and more than 500 women.

“People staying in hotels have been worried about their future, not knowing when or where they could move into a real home. The government will fund leases on rental housing that can be made almost immediately available for more than 1000 households, and is also investing in the support needed to help people make the transition into a home and to stay housed. That is exactly what is needed to end homelessness for those households.”

However, she said the crisis identified the need for permanent housing for people who won’t be able to sustain private rental beyond the period of these rental leases.

Professor Bell writes that governments have – as a by-product of the pandemic – obtained “invaluable” information about the homeless demographic, and about how people became and remain homeless, extending to “how well they have fared in temporary shelter and why; their health, social and other needs; and how they may be transitioned to a real home, and to where. This should be the subject of careful research.”

A Victorian parliamentary Legal and Social Issues Committee is conducting an inquiry into the state of homelessness in Victoria, he writes, which “has received many submissions, and has been conducting impressive hearings which (is) due to report this November”.

“The inquiry will include findings about COVID-19’s impact on homeless persons, and provide a clearer road map for the Victorian government’s response to ending homelessness.”

Exclusion of the homeless, he writes, should not be repeated, because “participation is their right – they have so much to contribute, and we need their help”.

“Then we must address our appalling historical under-investment in social housing, including housing for the homeless, which is a national problem that is especially severe in Victoria."

“Homelessness is not an unsolvable welfare problem for which the homeless are to be stigmatised and blamed – it is a human rights breach for which our governments are responsible and, we now know, they can resolve and must resolve.”

This article was first published on Monash Lens. Read the original article

Monday, April 19, 2021

Homelessness 3 - Ways Forward

-Image by -LewiZ per Pixabay

Despite the terrible toll which the pandemic has taken, there were two positive things to emerge from it with respect to the homeless. In Australia homeless people were housed in hotels and motels to prevent the spread of Covid.  Having stable housing, sanitation and a reasonable income meant that many were rehabilitated into society and some were even able to get jobs, despite widespread job losses generally. In the process, state governments learned that it was far cheaper to house the homeless than to spend money on interventions such as police callouts, health and emergency services and court appearances. A University of Queensland study found the state spent an average of $13,000 a year per person or $15 million over its 1000 homeless clients. The state of Victoria is now taking up leases on 1100 rental properties in order to house people permanently. See the next post for more detail.

The high cost of doing nothing

 Other countries have also observed the cost of doing nothing. In the UK for example, a 2015 report estimated that one rough sleeper costs the UK government approximately £20,128 ($US 27613) per annum whereas successful intervention costs only around £1,416 ($US 1956) per person. In the US with its high medical costs, the cost of treating a single homeless person amounted to around $1 million per year, far more than it would have cost to house the person and provide them with health care. 

The toll on the homeless themselves is obviously worse, leaving them open to violence, discrimination, exploitation, hunger and other adverse consequences such as inability to access healthcare and education. A 2019 report from France  found that 612 homeless people had died in the streets, either from exposure, from existing health conditions or due to suicide, a 19% increase on 2018 -2017. While the average age at death for males was 48.7, the age for women was 46 because they were more likely to become victims of violence.  Although 90% of the dead were men, some were mothers with children and thirteen of the deceased were under the age of 18. Both the UK and Denmark have noted similar falls in life expectancy among the homeless. Dozens of homeless people froze to death in Europe in 2018  as did many in the UK and the the USA. In the US an estimated 688 of 5800 deaths among the homeless in 2018 were the result of hypothermia.

What’s being done?

Housing First

This year the EU, fearing a further spike in homelessness as a result of the pandemic, has urged member states to make tackling homelessness and urgent priority. As well as working on affordable and inclusive housing, it is calling for equal access to healthcare, education and social services and integration into the labour market.  It wants members to follow the “Housing First” principle pioneered by Finland over the last thirty years. That is, housing must be unconditional and not require the homeless to be drug and alcohol free first. Finland which now has almost no -one on its streets, found that it was far easier to help people to overcome their addictions if they had a stable home. It also did away with shelters and built purpose built permanent accommodation as well as providing work and learning opportunities.



Many cities since have followed Finland’s lead, for example in the USA,  Salt Lake City in Utah, and Columbus Ohio, have managed to reduce homelessness by 91% and 70% respectively between 2005 and 2015. Similar programs are also being trialled in parts of the UK. 

How "Housing First" works



Since this video was made in 2016, Salt Lake City has unfortunately been inundated with large numbers of homeless people from surrounding states creating problems for local residents and authorities alike and proving that homelessness needs to be addressed at national scale to be effective. Fortunately, President Biden has just announced  a package of new housing policies for communities to build affordable housing rather than shelters (to prevent crime, the spread of disease and drug use) or to purchase existing accommodation, to accommodate the approximately 580,000 people who are homeless. There are also plans to increase rent subsidies and one time grants to first home buyers 

Curbing investor enthusiasm

New Zealand has bravely taken on the speculators. It is calling for an end to negative gearing – i.e. the tax offsets given to investors rather than those buying a home to live in. It has also increased the time a property must be held to avoid a capital gains tax from five years to ten.

Capping rents

In Berlin, where 85% of the population rents and rents have gone up 44% in the last five years, the state housing authority has launched an online rent calculator to force landlords to reduce rents if they are more than 20% above similar dwellings in an area. Berlin also sold off its public housing and became a haven for speculators sparking rent strikes, street protests and housing occupations. While it is feared that that the rent cap might discourage investors (according to the real estate industry), 70% of Berliners are in favour. Ireland is also contemplating rent freezes and plans to build 400,000 homes. I presume they mean affordable homes because it already has an oversupply of investment property.

Unoccupied Dwellings

In 2014 Europe was found to have 11 million unoccupied homes,” enough to house the continent’s homeless twice over.” Spain had 3.4 million empty homes, France had 2 million, Germany 1.8 million, Greece 30,000, Portugal 735,000 and the UK an estimated 7000,000. Many were built during the credit boom which ended with the GFC.  Ireland was left with 1300 unfinished dwellings and has already razed around 40 new housing estates. Deutsche Bank estimated that it would take 43 years to fill the oversupply.

The pandemic -inspired downturn in tourism has also led many European cities to consider appropriating empty short term rentals to accommodate their homeless populations, especially in Lisbon and Barcelona.  Spain has also threatened to fine banks 1000 Euro if repossessed homes remain empty for more than two years. 

Taxing vacant property

Paris apparently has long had a tax on vacant property – 12.5% on properties empty for more than twelve months and rising to 25% after two years. An interesting story in that regard comes from Canada which had a homeless population of 235, 000 in 2016 after ending its social housing program in 1993. 

Vancouver, which found itself with 25,445 empty dwellings in 2016, implemented an empty homes tax of 1% on the asessed value of the home if empty for more than a certain period of time. Anecdotal evidence has it that you now see the strange sight of well –dressed landlords begging, even offering money to the homeless to please, please stay in their property for a time so that they are not liable for the tax.  

In 2018 Canada also announced that it was spending $40 million on affordable housing. A good chunk will go on rent subsidies to 30,000 households and to enable some 385,000 people to keep their affordable homes. It also plans to provide more help to women, especially those fleeing domestic violence.

 With Tasmania is about to have a state election, both major parties and the Greens have pledged to do something to improve housing affordability. As well as promising to build more houses and granting concessions for local people trying to buy homes, the Greens are considering rent caps and improvements to tenancy laws, and both Liberal and Labor are planning a surcharge on foreign buyers. Our main competition for housing however, seems to be from mainland residents fleeing higher house prices there or selling more expensive homes in order to retire here.

In other more encouraging news the UK is presently reviewing its 1824 Vagrancy ACT, hoping to do away with it Scotland did in 1982, so that being homeless is no longer a crime. Since the wheels of government turn slowly many places and organisations are also working to make life on the streets safer and better for the homeless.  This will be the subject of  my final post on this topic along with a a few concluding comments. However, in between I will add a post from the Conversation about what happened in the state of Victoria. The last paragraph is particularly telling.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Homelessness – 2 How did we get here?

The right to a secure home is enshrined in the UN declaration of Human Rights which has been ratified by nearly all nations – at least 177 of them in 1977. The necessity of having a home is also at the very base of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. Maslow argued that we cannot develop as human beings, much less fulfil our potential or contribute to society if our most basic needs for food, shelter and safety are not met.  If having a home is a basic human need, why are so many people homeless?

Though homeless people speak about personal tragedies such as job loss, marital breakdown, chronic health or mental health problems including substance abuse, there are also structural problems such as under employment and the lack of affordable housing which have affected most advanced economies to varying degrees. Of necessity this will be a very brief snapshot, but see for example “Fair Shares,” (Stephen Bell and Michael Keating, Melbourne University Press, 2018) for a more detailed discussion. 

Rising unemployment and austerity measures

Homelessness was virtually unknown in developed countries prior to the 1980s. Since then globalisation, technological advances and automation have all caused people to lose their jobs. In the mid-1990s the IMF, fearing spiralling debt as countries sought to support displaced workers, urged OECD countries to rein in welfare spending. Several countries including the USA, Australia and Canada, followed this up with tax cuts to encourage investment. This meant that many already marginalised groups such as single parents and those with mental health or substance abuse problems lost many of the support services that they had and people with addictions of any kind were generally refused admission to shelters.  Investment in public housing for low income earners was an early casualty. While we applaud “the lifting out of poverty of billions of people” in emerging economies this did not happen without huge dislocation in other countries.    

 The Global Financial Crisis in 2007-2009 hit the USA particularly hard. More than three million people lost their jobs and 1.2 million lost their homes. By 2017, 537,000 people were homeless, 40 million lived in poverty and 18.5 million of them were in extreme poverty and just "one or two pay checks away from being homeless." Stricter lending regulations afterwards made it more difficult to obtain a home loan but the price of housing didn’t rise very much in the US compared to other countries. The US expects post pandemic homeless numbers to reach 630,000. 

Rising house prices

 According to the Swiss -based Bank of International Settlements which studied house prices across 47 economies, with the exception of  Germany, Portugal and Switzerland, they have risen by at least 7% per year in 20 advanced economies.  In Canada for example, house prices rose 109% between 2005 and 2016 and housing debt accounted for 100% of the increase in total debt and had almost doubled by 2016. Though Spain, New Zealand, Italy, the UK and Ireland experienced even steeper price hikes, house prices in Australia have risen  412% over the last 25 years  and more than 6000% since the golden years of the 1960s. Despite slight falls due to the pandemic, a modest house in Sydney still costs around $1,211,488 and rental on a unit remains at around $540per week. Just a deposit on a home is now over $100,000 in most capital cities. Unsurprisingly, homelessness in NSW of which Sydney is the capital, increased by 70% between 2006 and 2016, despite a rise in housing stock. I just read a report (abc,14/4/2021) that the median house price in Melbourne has just topped one million as well.

 The rates of home ownership have declined to 66% from 70% a decade ago and of these, only 32% have no mortgage. Renters now  account for 32% and more than half of Australians aged 18 -24 still live at home compared to 27% in 2006 -2007. Elderly homeless people increased by 38% between 2011 and 2016. The introduction of short term accommodation services such as Air B & B has also added to rental stress and small amounts of rental assistance paid to welfare recipients no longer covers the gap and in a tight market landlords can afford to be very selective about tenants even though overt discrimination is technically illegal. In Canada, although 63% of families owned their own home in 2016, 57% of them had a mortgage while in the USA the share of homeowners with a mortgage in has fallen from 68.4% in 2008 to 62.9% in 2017. In the EU house prices were up 5.2% in the second quarter of 2020, compared to the same quarter the previous year. This meant that renters and low income earners were now spending 38% of their income on housing compared to the 10% being spent by others.

It used to be that a working person in Australia could expect to pay off their house by the time they retired. This is no longer the case with many older people finding themselves homeless when their working life ends. On top of that neither relationships nor jobs are for life any more either and older people are often discriminated against in the labour market or among the first to be made redundant in an economic downturn.These are among the reasons why older people and especially older women who tend to be paid less even when they have jobs, are appearing more among the homeless.

Stagnant wages and loss of job security

I can't speak for other countries here,* but the basic wage in Australia has not improved since 2013 despite productivity increases and has not kept pace with the cost of living let alone houses prices. Furthermore, much of the work is part time and casual and usually insecure which does not enable people to qualify for a home loan or even a rental. Though some states and territories offer small grants to low income First Home Owners, they remain insufficient for a deposit on a home . It should also be noted that the real unemployment rate is much higher than official figures suggest. Working for as little as one hour per week now counts as being employed. According to Jack Derwin, (The Business Insider, July 13,2020)  the real unemployment rate in Australia  is closer to 13.3%. In addition to the 2 million registered unemployed, there are 1.2 million who are under -employed. Together they are competing for 260 K job vacancies. As pandemic income supports, rent and eviction freezes and mortgage deferments end this month, things are also likely to become considerably worse and as we speak the federal government seeks to erode working conditions further. 

*For more on this topic from a global perspective  see the prophetic book “The Precariat” by Guy Standing, Professor of Economic Security, University of Bath (UK), 2018, Bloomsbury Academic, London.

Growing Inequality and commodification

Not everyone has suffered during the last couple of decades or even during the pandemic. While the unemployed and those on low incomes struggled to get or keep a roof over their head, upper and middle income earners were able to increase their wealth and their share of the national income with the top fifth taking home 48% of the national earnings while the bottom fifth took home only 4% between them. By this means they have not only been able to secure their own homes but acquire additional properties as well. According to the Bureau of Statistics in 2017-2018, 1.85 million Australians own property besides the one they are living in. Data from 2011 showed that 10% of investors owned at least three investment properties and 1800 investors owned six or more, even while private home ownership continues to fall.  Similar patterns are evident throughout most developed countries - see Ireland for example, with inequality rising most strikingly in the US.  (Fare Shares, Stephen Bell and Michael Keating, Melbourne University press, 2014: 17 -204).

Bad policies

A further complication in Australia which favours this type of investment over others is that high earners can offset the cost of additional properties against their taxes. A policy to end to Negative Gearing as this is called, was raised by the opposition party at the last election, but due to an effective scare campaign by incumbents, the opposition was defeated by a one –seat majority. The influence of vested interests and lobby groups has also played a role in maintaining the status quo.

Australia also continues to encourage high levels of migration. While its intake of humanitarian refugees is minimal  - only affluent or highly skilled migrants need apply, and it has reduced its intake to 138,000 per year because of the pandemic, newcomers also compete for available housing and contribute to escalating prices of both housing and rental properties. One state, Western Australia has gone so far as to offer a $150,000 bonus to foreign nationals who take up housing there, while ignoring the needs of the existing population. This is not to blame migrants themselves - migrants have been great for Australia, but it is a common practice when economies fracture, as witnessed recently in the USA and predicted by Guy Standing (see above).

To the poor choices we should also add the various tax cuts and large scale tax avoidance which encourage speculative behaviour and prevent adequate provision from the public purse for things like health care, housing and education. Basic needs should not be a tradeable commodity. The economic, political and social costs are too high. we shall talk a bit more about this next time. This post is already much too long and too late. 

Fortunately many countries are beginning to recognise this, the EU being a case in point In the next post we will also talk about things which are being done in various places to tackle homelessness.