Thursday 9 July 2009

Everything you ever wanted to know about homelessness

Thanks to two articles in the Silly today (two for the price of none!), I now know a lot more about how homelessness is defined in Australia.

As they used to say on Twin Peaks, "The owls are not what they seem".

The articles in the Silly pointed me at this report from the 2006 census. I doubt you want to wade through 95 pages of tables and text, so let me try and summarise some pertinent ideas for you.

For starters, you need to understand how "homelessness" is defined.

Primary homelessness describes the situation of all people without conventional accommodation, such as people living on the streets, sleeping in parks, squatting in derelict buildings, living in improvised dwellings (such as sheds, garages or cabins), and using cars or railway carriages for temporary shelter.
OK, I can understand that. I've seen a number of them in my time. Most of them were drunk, getting drunk, or sleeping off being drunk.
Secondary homelessness describes the situation of people who move frequently from one form of temporary shelter to another. On census night, all people staying in emergency or transitional accommodation provided under the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program (SAAP) are considered part of this category. Secondary homelessness also includes people residing temporarily with other households because they have no accommodation of their own, and people staying in boarding houses on a short-term basis, operationally defined as 12 weeks or less.
Hmm, been there, done that. What I did not expect to find is that someone who has been in a boarding house for months is classified as homeless. The way I have always envisaged the homeless is those that do not have a fixed roof over their heads - ie, rough sleepers. This is getting interesting.

Tertiary homelessness describes the situation of people who live in boarding houses on a medium to long-term basis, operationally defined as 13 weeks or longer. Residents of private boarding houses are homeless because their accommodation does not have the characteristics identified in the minimum community standard (Chamberlain and MacKenzie 1992): they do not have a separate bedroom and living room; they do not have kitchen and bathroom facilities of their own; their accommodation is not self-contained; and they do not have security of tenure provided by a lease.
I bolded that bit about the "minimum community standard", because that tickled my fancy. Essentially, if you wanted to, you could continually increase the number of homeless by fiddling with that standard. In a decade from now, the way McMansions are being built, the minimum standard may be that if you don't have a separate media room for your 50 inch plasma TV, then you are defined as homeless. Similarly, you could halve the homeless rate overnight by simply saying that living somewhere with a shared bathroom is no longer defined as tertiary homelessness.

I notice that not having a separate bedroom and living room counts as tertiary homelessness. When I was in my 20's, I knew quite a few singles that lived in bedsits in Kings Cross. Some were international flight attendants, who did not spend much time at home, others were professionals and so on. Does owning your own bedsit in the Cross (as they all did) suddenly make you homeless?

Now comes some stats:

  • Boarding houses - 7626 persons, 28% of total
  • SAAP accommodation - 5110 persons, 19%
  • Friends and relatives - 10,923 persons, 40%
  • Sleeping rough - 3715 persons, 13%
Total of 27,374 in NSW, or 104,676 across Australia.

If you ask me, if you have a place to stay for the night, then you are not homeless. If you have shelter from the elements, so that you can stay dry if it rains, and you have access to lighting and heat and water, then you are not homeless. Dossing in a public park with no tent and no fire obviously equates to a fairly miserable situation - but not one that I am unacquainted with, having spent months sleeping like that out bush during my time in the Reserves.

There was many a warm night when I could not be bothered raising my hootchie, and I slept in my clothes wrapped in a large garbage bag - I didn't take a sleeping bag at times to avoid the extra weight and bulk in my pack.

You tend to stink after a while - clothes impregnated with days and nights of stale sweat take on an odour not quickly forgotten - but I also know from experience that after a day, you no longer smell yourself. You might stink to high heaven, but your nose simply ignores the experience.

My prejudies aside, it's worth remembering that of the 100,000 or so classified as "homeless", only 13% are sleeping rough, and even then they are probably moving in and out of hostels and shelters on a regular basis. Or, alternatively, you could say that the homeless statistics are inflated by a factor of 8 by those that have a vested interest in fluffing up the numbers - the "homeless-charity complex", to coin a phrase.

The survey divides each city up into regions and finds that:

It is usual to find a higher rate of homelessness in the inner suburbs of capital cities. This is the case in Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Hobart and Brisbane. People often gravitate to the inner city, where services for homeless people have traditionally been located.
I bolded that last bit. I have to ask, why do is the highest density for services for the homeless located in areas that are the most expensive to do anything? Surely, if you have a set budget for homeless services, you want it to stretch as far as possible, so you setup shop where land is cheap - like anywhere but the CBD. Are the homeless gravitating to the CBD in order to tap into existing services, or are the services gravitating to the CBD to serve the homeless? It's a bit chicken and egg, isn't it?

Or are those services, such as charities, simply in or around the CBD because that is where they setup shop back in 1920, when the city was much smaller and there were slums in The Rocks and Redfern etc, and they've stayed there every since our of inertia?

Or, the CBD usually has the highest concentration of pubs, and some pretty manky pubs at that, who will serve anyone at any time. And if you get thrown out of one for weeing on the bar, it's a short stagger down the road to the next pub. Plus if you need a feed, there are plenty of fast food joints selling fat and salt topped off with plastic cheese - the perfect thing after chundering half digested port all over your shoes.

There are also lots of people in the CBD, so if you spend your days cadging money from pedestrians, you go where the density of pedestrians is highest. I doubt that there are a lot of homeless people in the CBD because of high rents or lack of accommodation - the homeless are there because it is a happy hunting ground. Booze, food and easy marks abound.

The report also includes new information on marginal caravan park dwellers and Indigenous homelessness.
We have a family member who is currently living out of the back of a van up in Queensland. Another member regularly takes to the road and lives out of their van. I would not class either as broke, or even poor. They have the potential to earn good money; they simply choose not to, preferring life on the road. A life without attachments and chattels, where they can "live in the moment". I will now have to tell them that the are homeless vagrants.

They also include living in shipping containers as homeless. My godfather, who was a state MP for decades, lived in a shipping container for months whilst his house was built. I am so going to enjoy telling him that he has been a homeless bum. I don't remember him complaining about it too much at the time.

Hell, my mum grew up in a hessian shack in the bush with a dirt floor. If I rang her tonight to tell her that she grew up officially homeless, she'd laugh her head off. They had a farm and food, they had clothes, they had a Model T ford and pots and pans and furniture and a bible and they went to church every Sunday. Although shoes were an issue - she didn't get her first pair until she started school at age 12, having been home schooled until that point. And sure, if it got a bit hot, her mother improved the ventilation in the kitchen by chopping a window in the hessian wall with a pair of scissors.

From that life of hardship, which was pretty typical of settlers in the wheatbelt back then, and was shared by my father in separate circumstances, they went on to great and important things. Growing up rough did nothing to hold them back. And whilst the housing was rough as guts at times, and they lacked refrigeration and electricity and telephones and so on, dad says that he never saw his father without a tie and hat. Ever. How many people in similar circumstances today would turn up every day for work in a suit? How many would even turn up for work?

It is common for homeless people to move from one form of temporary shelter to another. It is also common for homeless people to move both within and between states.
It costs money to move interstate, unless you hitch all the time. Is homelessness a result of poverty, or something else?

The minimum community standard is a small rental flat––with a bedroom, living room, kitchen, bathroom and an element of security of tenure––because that is the minimum that most people achieve in the private rental market. However, the minimum is significantly below the culturally desired option of an owner-occupied house.

....there are a number of institutional settings where people do not have the minimal level of accommodation identified by the community standard, but in cultural terms they are not considered part of the homeless population. They include, inter alia, people living in seminaries, elderly people in nursing homes, students in university halls of residence and prisoners.
Drat. I was going to say that this standard equates to the sort of accommodation I had at uni, and some of my student mates lived that way for 4 or 5 years, depending on the type of degree they were doing. I don't remember it ever doing any of them any harm - except perhaps to their livers. I don't understand why a uni student, who may be working part time and studying and so on, can live a "normal" existance in a university college, whilst a non-student in the same standard of accommodation is somehow seen as being terribly disadvantaged.
In some communities, local SAAP workers send homeless people to the local caravan park if there is no alternative accommodation available. Caravan parks may also house some people on a longer-term basis who are unable to re-enter the private rental market.
Shearers, fencing contractors, miners all live in caravans. My sister bought a Coaster bus from a shearer's cook, and the cook lived in it for years as she travelled from farm to station to farm. What's so bad about living in a caravan? A mate of mine, who has been a millionaire and lost it all a few times, and is now running his own multi-million dollar business again, spent a few years living in a caravan whilst he poured every cent he had into a business venture.

Living in a caravan should not preclude anyone from holding down a job, saving money and living a normal, albeit different, life. His caravan had a shower, hot water, a nice bed, a place to eat and a kitchen where simple but good meals could be prepared. What more do you need in order to live life?

Local informants talked about ‘makeshift cabins and metal sheds’ and people buying blocks of land, but being ‘unable to build a house because they could not find work’. There were few households with someone in full-time work and a household income of $1000 or more. The number of blockies was low.
Ah. Some people have scraped up enough money to buy a few acres of land, but are struggling to find the money to build a house on that land. Gee, how did it come to pass that someone sitting on say a $100,000 block of land, which they own outright, is considered homeless? Sure, they might be living in a tin shed on that block, but what is wrong with that? I helped build a house on a farm once, and the family moved in once the roof was on. No walls were put up until it started getting cold, and even then, the windows were made of clear plastic fertiliser bags. The floor was paving blocks loosely deposited on top of compacted sand. It was a great house for a family of four, who were also putting everything they had into getting a business up and running. If you ask me, your house does not dictate your circumstances.
The Australian Government’s White Paper on homelessness has proposed two ambitious goals: ‘to halve homelessness by 2020’ and to provide ‘supported accommodation to all rough sleepers who need it’, along with interim targets for 2013.
It's never going to happen. I will predict now what will happen. Some people who are currently renting privately, but who are on low incomes, will see a huge amount of new public housing being built. They will engineer their circumstances in order to take advantage of that new housing. They will reduce the amount of rent they pay by going on the public tit. Demand will outstrip supply, and the number of homeless will continue to grow.

I'll be interested to see what happens when all that new accommodation is built for rough sleepers - whether they will take it up. By 2013, can this mob guarantee that I will never have to step over a drunken bum and a huge puddle of piss to step into my office? I doubt it.
Since the White Paper, the government has announced a further $6.6 billion to be spent on the construction of 20 000 homes for public housing, the largest expansion of public housing for many years.
Will this induce more people to seek public housing, as it is cheaper than private housing? Why pay rent if the government will give you something for next to nothing?

It is known that some groups are particularly vulnerable to homelessness, such as young people who have been through the care and protection system
Let me get this straight - government fucks these kids up via the "care and protection" system, and then we think that the solution is for the government to get even more involved in their lives via the provision of housing?

Second, it is important to recognise that most people do not sleep rough on a permanent basis. .... only two per cent... was consistently without shelter, but 49 per cent of the sample had slept rough occasionally.
If that is the case, why do people make such a big deal out of it? Is sleeping under the stars from time to time the end of the world?

Most commonly, families become homeless because of a housing crisis or domestic violence. Adults in families experiencing a housing crisis are typically unemployed or outside of the labour force. These families are usually poor and often have accumulated debts. In most cases, the family is facing eviction because of rent arrears.
Looking after this group invites moral hazard. What is to stop an unscrupulous mob from renting a house privately, then refusing to pay rent over an extended period, using every wheeze to delay eviction, and then sponging off the state once they are evicted and suddenly "in crisis", running to Today Tonight with a sob story worth of tabloid television air time.

Some families become homeless as a result of family breakdown involving domestic violence. .... One form of early intervention is family counselling to help couples work through their relationship issues, and another form of intervention is to remove the perpetrator of violence from the family home.
If you ask me, if a bloke thumps a woman, it's lockup time for the bloke. I'm talking a few months in prison at least. I see no reason for a woman with kids to be out on the street after taking a bashing from a bloke - he should be behind bars, and that's it.

If the woman takes it that far though, the court should make an order that she is never to hook up with him again - possibly on pain of her being locked up. I am sick to death of these mental females that get their face punched in, then shack up with the bastard again and go through it time after time after time. One chance, that's it.

A significant proportion of the people with a long-term housing problem have substance abuse issues and/or mental health issues, which complicates their exit from homelessness
That presumably means that they have totally fried their brains on cheap plonk or drugs, and are essentially incapable of living a "normal" existence. I have a solution for them, and we used to call them looney bins. If someone is so far gone that they are pooing in their pants, then putting them in a nicely furnished apartment is not much of a solution. The sad fact is that they probably need to be put into a mental institution of some sort for the rest of their life. Those brain cells are not coming back.

Phew, I am exhausted after doing all that. time to open a bottle of metho and have a drink.


Anonymous said...

A fine rant BOAB. I just want to add (probably on the same side of the moral ledger) of the circumstance that teen brat who chooses not longer to live under his (or her) parents roof because of the rules. Unable to rationalise, and less able to retreat in an argument they head for the nearest bridge (to sleep under).

Parenting in the early years to prevent children loosing respect for their parents is vital. At 14 or 15 they will not make a rational decision over emotion. As soon as it reaches confrontation it is hard to back away. This is where authority and respect come in. Teach children this, and hopefully they will not go head to head and run away.


kae said...

They WILL do it.

They'll just change the parameters so that the 50% of people included in the stats as homeless but who really do have a roof over their head or some kind of accommodation will suddenly not be counted as homeless.

Too easy!

WV: subso

There ya go. Their stats are subso.

Mick said...

Gooday Boy

My son is in the Army and posted at Enoggera.

Let's see.
No separate bedroom living room
No bathroom/kitchen of their own
No lease

Well bugger me if he isn't homeless.

Wait until these statisticians realise there is the best part of two battalions they can add to their lists.

1735099 said...

Homelessness has little to do with where you live, and everything to do with family. As a consequence, it's an insoluble problem - unless someone can wave a magic wand and repair all the broken relationships.
Better solution - the homeless should all move up to Port Douglas. You can sleep both warm and rough up there all year round.

daddy dave said...

awesome. You nailed it, BOAB.

similar trickery abounds in claims about the number of people "below the poverty line", as I'm sure you're aware.