In August 2017, after years of denial, I finally acknowledged my own homelessness. I came out of the closet in the most public way, on the SBS show, Insight.
Since then I have been seriously researching the issue of homelessness. I think I have clarified the problem – what homelessness is, who it effects, the why and how, and particularly in relation to women. I published my thoughts in What you need to know about women’s homelessness: the shocking truth.
But I have not yet managed to identify clear cut solutions. Nor has anyone else.
We need to understand the exact nature of the problem before we can start to look at solutions. But once we do understand the real nature of homelessness, we realise that solutions may not be as simple as they looked at first sight.
For most, the cause of homelessness is structural, not personal, and is related to poverty
Most of the homeless simply do not have enough money to pay rents or mortgages.
You will see child care workers, primary school teachers, secondary school teachers and even TAFE and university teachers amongst the ranks of homeless women. You will see nurses and allied health professionals. You will see all manner of office and clerical support staff, retail workers, restaurant workers. You will even see highly skilled IT and other corporate workers. You will see many who have been sick or disabled, and you will see many who have fled destructive relationships, particularly sole parents with children.
Very few are mentally ill before they become homeless, and very few are sleeping on park benches. Very few are criminals. Very few are professional beggars. They are mostly perfectly ordinary white collar workers or pensioners.
So why are they homeless?
We have inflated house prices
We have rapidly inflating house prices that are forcing those who have housed themselves for their entire lives into homelessness. The rapid rate of house price increase has been caused, at least in part, by:
- the cultural change from houses as homes to houses as investment, which is supported by much state and federal government policy, and
- the increasing number of houses dedicated to tourism where they attract much higher returns than they do for permanent rentals.
We have deflated incomes (in real terms)
As house prices have inflated at a rapid rate, fixed incomes have stayed pretty much the same, and working class jobs have diminished:
- there are less jobs available, leading to greater unemployment, and
- the purchasing power of working class incomes and welfare benefits for those who cannot find suitable work is too low to pay for housing.
It is pretty much common knowledge that the true unemployment rate is much higher than official government statistics would like us to believe, but there is little agreement on what the true rate is. The Roy Morgan poll estimates 18.9% of the workforce (in April 2017) was unemployed or under-employed and gives their poll statistics to back this up. And there are just not enough jobs to go round. If there are many more people looking for work than there are jobs available, a certain percentage of the population is doomed to unemployment, and for the less skilled and able, there is a certain number doomed to perpetual unemployment.
Depending on your ideological position, you will hold beliefs about why this is so, and beliefs on how to fix it, but the simple fact is that we are living in a time when it is impossible for many to find work, and when low incomes and welfare benefits are not enough to pay even the most basic rents: where 200,000 households are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
We have escalating levels of poverty
Our challenge is not to build more houses for the poor. It is to fix the structural issues that have led to 3 million Australians – 13.3% of the population living at or below the poverty line. Even the way the poverty line is set, is somewhat dubious, in that it relates to median income. If median income goes down the poverty line goes down. It is currently set at $426.30 a week. If you are earning $427 per week (the age pension plus rent assistance is higher than this) you are not included in the statistic. So let us assume that true poverty is affecting a much higher number of people than reported in the official statistics.
This is honest, decent, hardworking Australians, who cannot afford the basics of food, clothing and shelter.
So what are the solutions?
Either house prices have to come down or incomes have to go up. It is really as simple as that. So which is it to be?
Building houses will not fix the problem
When I started this research I was originally entrapped by the idea of building low cost rental housing as a solution to homelessness. Virtually all other commentators are also fixated on this notion. But building low cost rental housing for 200,000 households is simply not viable and will not actually fix the problem. Even if we could do it, it would just render a greater and greater proportion of the population welfare dependent.
There is enough existing housing for everyone: it’s just not affordable
In Australia there is plenty of housing to go around. It is just not affordable. There are:
- 300,000 speculative vacancies (empty homes not used in a 12 month period, identified by zero water use),
- 89,863 houses rented through airbnb alone, and
- massive numbers of caravan and cabin parks for tourists.
We are living in an economy where house price inflation provides enough profit for speculative investors, meaning that many do not need to rent their properties. We are living in an economy where anyone who wants to, can place their property, at much higher prices than market rental, onto the tourist market. The housing is still there, it is just not housing Australian residents. It is either empty or housing tourists.
So can we identify how to fix the economy?
This is where we get into the minefield of ideological belief systems, that many hold on to, despite all or any evidence to the contrary.
Dick Smith, Fair Go
Dick Smith has published a comprehensive paper on housing affordability, The Aussie housing affordability crisis: an honest debate. Because he has become associated a move to reduce immigration levels, his ideas on house price inflation have been dismissed by many on ideological grounds, but this paper has little to do with immigration, and everything to do with accessible housing. It can be used as a starting point for debate, and each issue he raises can be addressed on it’s own merits. He has a strong bias in his arguments in favour of home buyers and does not address rental issues. It is a good start, but not the final word.
Also, his solutions are operating within the current neo-liberal framework, and that is not the only approach.
Universal Basic Income & Job Guarantee
There are two populist ideas doing the rounds at the moment, for how to fix endemic poverty, and they go beyond neo-liberalism:
- Universal Basic Income (UBI) and
- Job Guarantee.
They are separate beliefs with separate ideologies, but to the outside observer they are approaching the problem of poverty from the same direction.
Both postulate that every citizen has the right to an income that is enough to provide adequate food, clothing and shelter, which is a very good start.
From this point they differ:
- The UBI does not tie itself to any work or any attempt to work. It is unconditional.
- The Job Guarantee guarantees that anyone who want a job has a job. If there is no job for them then a government agency of some description will create that job, and pay the national minimum wage (set to a level that can provide food, clothing and shelter) for that job no matter what it is.
But won’t funding these lead to greater public debt and runaway inflation?
The idea that printing money causes inflation has become accepted wisdom, but is it true? There are growing numbers of economists and monetary experts who are saying it is not true – as long as we are careful.
Firstly, nations that print their own currency do not need to either borrow or tax to raise funds, they just print more currency (or add a 0 to the balance sheet), and Australia has it’s own currency.
We are told that printing money will lead to runaway inflation. According to Modern Monetary Theory, this is not necessarily the case. If I have understood correctly, the advocates of modern monetary theory claim that printing money only leads to inflation if there is not enough productive capacity locally to absorb that money. As many, if not all, of those receiving this income will be living at the poverty line, it is likely that they will spend locally on the basic necessities of life, much of which are locally produced. This will be a boon for local business and is far more likely to boost local economies than lead to runaway inflation.
And won’t giving people free money make them lazy?
There is no evidence whatsoever that adequate welfare of any kind causes people to leave the work economy. In fact, what evidence there is, shows the opposite – that a reduction in poverty increases the chances of employment.
So should we try it?
I cannot comment on whether these ideas are right, only that there are limited trials going on in Finland, Scotland and Canada. Other countries are seriously discussing the option of a universal basic income. If some nations are taking at least the UBI seriously, why not Australia too? It has been suggested by The Greens, but their proposal has been almost universally ridiculed and there is little intelligent debate as to if or how their policy could be improved. Why? Why can we not discuss it?
It may be that the UBI is a less effective option than the Job Guarantee but without discussion we will never know. It may be that both UBI and Job Guarantee are nonsense, but without discussion, and some form of trialing, how will we ever know?
And in the meantime, how do we house the homeless?
If the conversation moves away from building houses to fixing the economy, what happens to the currently 200,000 households that are housing stressed or homeless, languishing on the public housing waiting lists? They have to be housed – somehow.
We do need some permanent housing added to the national estate – to house 50,000
Public and community housing, where rentals are set at 35% of income, cannot be expected to provide housing for the entire 200,000 struggling households. But it can be expected to provide housing for an additional 50,000.
According to the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI), the national estate of this kind of housing has been reducing over many years, while the population has been growing, so public and community housing is not keeping pace with the existing need of it’s traditional demographic.
“If the proportion of households in social housing (4.8% in 2006) had been maintained through to 2016 (when 4.3% of all households lived in social housing) then an extra 49,302 households would have been living in social housing.” (AHURI)
We need to build more suitable public housing, with security of tenure, to bring the ratio of public housing to private housing back to it’s earlier and more optimum levels. This alone might require as much as 50,000 new residences, and would be a massive building or acquisition commitment in it’s own right, but for which there is currently no political will.
In the interim we need a crisis response
For now, while we wait for sensible action to be taken by federal and state governments, we have 200,000 households living in fear. We need a crisis response to get the currently homeless safely housed, while we are waiting for additional housing to be acquired and for the economy to be re-adjusted.
Where is the conversation about a crisis response? Where is the action?
Frankly, how we can achieve this I do not know. Perhaps:
- we can force the 300,000 empty houses back onto the market
- we can force some of the housing dedicated to the tourist industry back onto the market
- there are government policy areas that can set off immediate impacts on the housing market such as reviewing the Capital Gains Tax exemption on the family-home, or negative gearing
- the army can construct pop-up accommodation on government land to immediately house those in personal danger.
I have no idea what the pros and cons of any or all of the actions above would be. But I do know that we can no longer continue to do nothing.
We must start addressing homelessness as a structural issue, AND do something to rescue and protect the innocent victims of the economic imbalance that has caused their housing stress: the 200,000 households currently homeless or at risk of homelessness need help, and now!