Sunday 19 July 2009

Housing the homeless - for how long?

If you dig through my recent posts, you'll find my summary of a recent report on homelessness. The federal government is intent on building 20,000 more units of public housing in order to combat homelessness.

Well, that sounds good, you say.

But I ask this question - to what end are we building more public housing?

Close reading of the report shows that only 1 in 8 of those classified as "homeless" are sleeping rough in parks and under bridges - most are either living in hostels, or renting where they do not have security of tenure.

I'm not sure what the big deal is about living in a hostel. I've spent months of my life moving from hostel to hostel on a daily basis. Part of that was during a 3 month tour of Europe, and another was a sojourn across the US. Hostels range from the execrable to first class, and my fellow travellers ranged from fantastic funny people who I loved having a beer with, to low class thieves and rip-off merchants.

We slept on bunk beds in barracks that held anywhere from 4 to 40 snoring people (men and women), and we definitely didn't have en suite bathrooms. The food served up at breakfast was highly variable, as were the quality of the beds and the temperature of the water in the showers (some featured cold showers only).

I shared dorms with drunks, Jesus-freaks, jumbo jet level snorers, itinerant salesmen, old people, young people and people from just about every country you can name. I even slept on trains, memorably waking up one morning in the wrong country (having overslept my stop). One train was rather full, and required bedding down in the corridor on the carpet.

I never imagined that staying in a hostel made me a different class of person. I got a good nights sleep most nights, there were facilities for washing clothes, I started every day clean and scrubbed, and I could have ironed my shirt if I felt like it. The food was generally not to my taste, but I hit the road with a full stomach and a sense of purpose, even on those days when I had indulged in too much cheap French plonk.

Living in a hostel is not every one's cup of tea, but you can carry on a reasonably regular life whilst living there. People like fruit pickers manage to live in hostels for months on end and work every day. If you look carefully in many a country town, you'll find a hostel or two dedicated to housing these sorts of workers, who travel the countryside following the work.

One of my grandfathers was a train driver, and he spent most of his life sleeping in a room at the pub in a country town before starting the following days shift. A great uncle was a travelling salesman, who lived most of his life on the road, staying at commercial pubs. Ever wondered why many towns have a pub called the "Commercial"? That's where all the commercial travellers stayed. Even judges and lawyers did that when the circuit courts actually moved around, doing a "circuit" of the area. Geologists may spend weeks on end sleeping in a swag under the stars next to their Landcruiser, camped in the middle of nowhere.

Hell, we've even had the case of a federal politician who chose to sleep in his car on some nights in order to pocket his travel expenses.

My point is this - you don't necessarily need to have a permanent roof over your head to lead a happy and fulfilling life. You can work, socialise and even study whilst being officially "homeless".

So to what end are we, the taxpayer, paying for all this new public housing?

I am sure that if I make the above points to someone in the "charity-homeless complex", they will say, "Oh, but these people have drug and alcohol and mental health issues".


So what you are saying is that you're going to take someone who is a meth-freak, completely incapable of managing their life, and you're going to build them a nice, shiny house with all mod-cons and put them in it.

Then what?


Then what?

Well, they have a roof over their head and security of tenure, so that should solve all their problems.

Hmm. I don't buy that argument.

For starters, our meth-freak had to come from somewhere. People are not born homeless, spend their youth homeless, then their teenage years homeless, and continue on into their 20's and 30's as homeless. We all start with a roof over our heads to some degree. At some point, something happens to trigger homelessness. A drug habit or drink habit that spirals out of control, a messy divorce, a mental breakdown - perhaps triggered by a bad drug habit. Whatever. Perhaps we should be treating the disease rather than the outcomes.

Theoretically though, using the official measures of homelessness, I became homeless at 8, when I went to boarding school. I spent the next 9 years sleeping in open dorms with 15 or so other kids, showering in open bathrooms and eating collectively in a dining hall. I then spent a year being officially homeless in a university college until finally becoming housed at 19 in a flat with two other drunks. During my time at uni, I served in the Army Reserve, and spent at least 3 months over a number of years sleeping rough on the ground in a, military training ground.

I've lived in demountable homes for months on end, whilst working at wheat bins. I've spent gawd-knows how many nights sleeping in cars at music festivals, B&S's, or just after a big night at the pub. I've even slept in a rose garden in a park, after trying unsuccessfully to walk home from the pub one night.

When I finished uni, I then became homeless again by embarking on a tour of Europe, and on my return, spent a few months camping on a sofa with friends until they kicked me out.

None of that prevented me from eventually settling down, getting a job, starting a career (of sorts) and having a family. I previously mentioned a mate of mine who has started and run several successful businesses whilst living in a caravan.

But back to our meth-freak, who due to his meth habit, has severe mental problems and a predilection for petty crime. He prefers to spend his money on meth, rather than rent, so he has housing issues. And dental issues, and so on. I had a similar problem with beer when I was at uni, although I usually set my priorities this way:
  1. Rent
  2. Food
  3. Petrol
  4. Beer
  5. Sundries
Often as not, I didn't get any sundries. Some weeks, if money was tight and expenses were high, I got no beer. But then I had a small measure of self control. Too many others ordered things this way:

  1. Beer
  2. Sundries
  3. Food
  4. Petrol
  5. Rent
Oops, recipe for becoming homeless. Our meth-freak probably has this list of priorities:
  1. Meth
  2. Grog
  3. Party drugs
  4. Taxi fares (to score drugs)
  5. Food
  6. Rent
His problem is not being homeless. His problem is his drug habit, and how he sets the priorities in his life. Not everyone has a dream of living in a renovated 19th century manor house, or in a newly built McMansion. For some, housing is not a priority. Decorating is not at the top of their list of things to do. They care nought about plumbing, matching tiles with curtains and what sort of dimmer switches they should install. Unfortunately, our public policy appears to be being made by inveterate readers of Vogue Living and House and Garden. They think that just because they want the dream home with the 6 burner stove and the 50 inch plasma in the media room, that's what everyone else wants, and should have.

Anyway, we put our meth-freak into a new house. Then what? What do you suppose happens next?

In some cases, they will treat the place so badly (no cleaning, no maintenance, wild parties), that they will be evicted 6 or 12 months later (ok, maybe 5 years later, when the neighbours can take no more) and they will be back in a hostel, and the taxpayer will be stuck with cleaning a ruined house.

For too many soft heads, they see the problem as this:

"I am homeless, therefore I am a drug addict/junkie/useless loser welfare recipient/mental patient".

I see the problem as this:

"I am a drug addict/junkie/useless loser welfare recipient/mental patient, therefore I am homeless".

You don't cure their problems with housing. You cure their problems by drying them out, or getting them into work, or getting mental health treatment, then you worry about their housing.

In fact, if you treat the problems, you shouldn't have to worry about their housing, because then they will be in a fit state to deal with it themselves.

Instead, the government seems hell bent on creating another generation of the client class. You park someone in government housing, and then what? I expect that they will never leave, that they will sit there until they die. Those who are moving in and out of hostels are transient homeless people - one would hope that they would spend some months in a hostel, then get their act together and find somewhere proper to live. That's my expectation. If you take them out of that and park them in a government supplied house, where is the incentive to get one's act together and find your own place to live? All incentives to behave and move on are removed, and in fact there are incentives to misbehave in order to hang onto your nice, new taxpayer provided house.

I will end with the story of a bloke that I met briefly one day in a dusty paddock in a fruit growing area. He was an Afghan refugee with few words of English. He was sitting in the dirt, making bundles of cuttings of fruit trees. It's the sort of work that I've done a few times in my life. He was living in a hostel in town, and he was picked up and dropped off each day by the farmer. He'd been in the country for 6 months or more, having arrived by leaky boat. He was not supposed to be working, but he was.

I doubt he was down at the pub each night, blowing his wages. I bet he was the richest man living in that hostel. When the fruit season came to an end in that town, he packed up and moved to the next area of work. You can make a reasonable living doing that sort of thing - picking grapes, pruning trees, putting up trellises, digging in irrigation pipes, chipping weeds and so on. The pay is not great, but many pay in cash, and your expenses are low. His sort always find themselves at the front of the queue when it comes to being picked for this sort of work, as they are hard working, selfless and dependable. They do not view this sort of work as beneath them, and work as something only to be indulged in when they feel like it.

It would not surprise me if that bloke, who I will call Abdul the Afghan, is now living with his family in a nice house in an outer suburban area somewhere, and he is steadily paying off his mortgage like so many others. He came here with nothing, unable to speak the lingo, possibly illiterate in his own language, but his work ethic and thriftiness will see him rise in our society, whilst we are doing our best to trap so many of those born here at the lowest level.

So once again, I ask of this homeless policy - what is the end game? Are we seeking to help the homeless to stand on their own two feet and to make their own way in the world, or are we seeking to trap them for the rest of their lives in government housing and welfare dependency?

For if it is the latter, we have put ourselves on an endless treadmill where every decade or so, we need to fund another massive expansion in government housing to house the next crop of homeless.


Pat said...

The point of charity is to increase the status of the donor. It is of course usual for the donor to seek a recipient who he can genuinely help- but in our affluent society these are getting very hard to find, so more and more is donated to hopeless cases. Of course a government can gain this status by being generous with other peoples money (ministers, prime or otherwise don't pay for their various poverty alleviation schemes out of their own money- they tax everyone else. Hence governments can gain status as caring and compassionate at the peoples expense.
So the point of the housing is to get the government re-elected- the homeless are incidental.

Pedro the Ignorant said...

Insightful point, Pat. Thank you.

i suspect you are eerily correct.

Anonymous said...

So while you were at boarding school and uni your parents refused allow to to use their home as your permanent address?

Maybe they should try sending addicts to Eton.

Mehaul said...

A large percentage of the homeless have made no attempt during their lives to save, be frugal, make better of themselves, while the bleeding hearts feel good defending what and who they don't know. Labor the caring Government loves to help these people who are incapable of self help (witness the aboriginal squillions that go down the gutter with no appreciable benefit to the giver or the recipient) with the aim of being re elected. I wonder how much the previous anonymous gives of his own time and money to the needy. I imagine a big zero.

Iain Hall said...

This is an excellent post my Lycra clad friend and I am going to write a plug for it at my own blog because it deserves a much wider audience.

Jeremy said...

"The point of charity is to increase the status of the donor."


"Hence governments can gain status as caring and compassionate at the peoples expense."

So... if we do it ourselves, it's for our own selfish purposes. If we get the government to do it on our behalf, it's for their own selfish purposes.

Well, you've certainly constructed a fool-proof scheme for never being bothered by your conscience again.

BOAB - this post is silly. The other problems you identify are real, but continuing to fail to provide adequate housing facilities is the complete opposite of a solution. We need to be expanding the supply of public housing AND increasing the resources allocated to programs to help addicts and the mentally-ill and other common groups among the homeless.

It's not one or the other.

Of course, your economic conservative, with his or her fixation on tax cuts, would rather we spend nothing on the homeless and just leave it up to the charities Pat so despises.

Boy on a bike said...


Try reading this post:

zee said...

Sorry, I stopped reading when you equated being at boarding school to being homeless. Did you suffer multiple head traumas on the rugger pitch as a child?

Boy on a bike said...

Read the other post I linked to above, which is a summary of an official report on homelessness. In officialdom, although Uni students and school boarders live in exactly the same conditions as a large percentage of the "official" homeless, the Uni and school students are not classed as homeless.

Why is it so dreadful for the majority of the "homeless" to live in a boarding house, when so many young people experience the same thing, sometimes for years on end?

There are not 100,000 homeless in Australia. There are 3715 people sleeping rough.