It’s time for a social housing revolution
by Hugh Mackay
Just ponder the very idea of it. Imagine that last night, and tonight, and for all the foreseeable tomorrows, you had nowhere to call home. Nowhere to ‘go home’ to. Nowhere to call ‘my place’. Nowhere to invite others into.
We sometimes talk of home as though it’s about having ‘a roof over your head’. But what if the only roof over your head is the roof of your car? Or a shop awning or a bridge that gives you some protection when you hunker down for the night in whatever sleeping gear you can scrounge? Or you might be lucky enough to have a real roof over your head, when friends offer you temporary refuge on a couch.
Maybe you’re battling one of the numerous, well-known causes of homelessness: relationship breakdown, domestic violence, drug addiction, mental illness, a history of incarceration, job loss, poor cognitive or social skills, poverty.
Now multiply all that by more than 100,000 and you’ll have a rough idea of what is happening around Australia, every night this winter. And many more than that number of people are regarded as being ‘one step away from homelessness’.
How, in a country like Australia – and, in particular, a city like Canberra – do we reconcile these statistics with our social consciences? How have we allowed so many people to slip into homelessness, and teeter on the precipice of homelessness, and still not addressed it?
In a truly civilised society, lifting people out of poverty, bringing the marginalised in from the margins, feeding the hungry and housing the homeless would be among our very highest priorities. They are part of us, and they are also casualties of the kind of society we have created – casualties, in particular, of the rampant individualism and competitive materialism that have gradually tightened their grip on our culture for the past fifty years.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us many lessons, and some of them are about the high price we pay for loneliness and social isolation. Has that encouraged us to think more compassionately about those for whom social isolation has become a way of life?
The pandemic has caused many of us to rethink our priorities, and to realise that we can actually live more simply, with less stress, less ‘stuff’, less non-essential travel. Has that encouraged us to become more generous in our giving to charities? Charities like Canberra’s Havelock Housing which provides those in need with a home where they can feel safe and secure until they get back on their feet, emotionally and financially – the core approach of the Housing First principles.
Perhaps these lessons can be translated not only into more personal generosity but also into new, more enlightened, more imaginative social-housing strategies. Finland has effectively eradicated homelessness by a blindingly simple strategy: they give homeless people homes. Once they are securely housed, they are in a better position to address the problems that led to their homelessness in the first place.
Why can’t we do that?
With house prices set to fall, this may be an opportune moment to purchase more dwellings for social housing. With governments in search of projects to stimulate the economy, a ramping-up of social housing construction, and a boost of support for community housing providers like Havelock Housing, would seem to be an obvious strategy.
In our major cities, awareness is growing among planners and administrators of the need for far more social housing. As the demand is likely to grow, there might never be a better time to do something about it.
Here in Canberra, with one of the most affluent and highly-educated populations in the nation, shouldn’t we be planning for the day when charities like Havelock Housing have no reason to exist?