A LATE afternoon temperature drop presaged sunset as trickles of people meandered toward the Harold Hughes Reserve. On the edge of darkness the Corinella community gathered around the rotunda to share the hurt that comes from the loss of a loved one. In memory of Bert, dozens of people lit candles as the voice of a lone singer carried our thoughts toward the Southern Cross.
Across Australia more than 105,237 people were homeless that night. We know the number because they were counted on Census night 18 months ago. The Bureau of Statistics doesn’t give any of those 105,237 homeless people a face. Bert does.
Late last year, when the local branch of the Australian Unemployed Workers met in Corinella, the topic was robo-debt, Centrelink compliance and life on the edge of the abyss. We looked at numbers like the aforementioned. Another number getting larger is women over 50 sleeping in cars. We also talked about the food bank at the Neighbourhood House and other agencies of support.
Bert didn’t attend our meeting. Although she lived by herself she was certainly not alone in her circumstances. There are now more renters than ever and the over 55 age group is the fastest growing sector of the market. In Victoria more than a third of people now live in rented accommodation. That figure is rising. The cost of rental property is outstripping increases in wages and payments.
That Census also noted a continuing fall in the proportion of Australian households in social housing. From 7 per cent in 1991 the proportion has dropped to 4.2 per cent. That marks the lowest proportion of households in social housing in the past 35 years.
There are currently over 40,000 people on the waiting list for public housing in Victoria. That doesn’t include everyone in the market struggling to find the rent as power prices rise and paid hours are reduced. It doesn’t include all of the increasing number of adults who have to live with their parents to keep a roof over all their heads. Over a million households are now paying housing costs that exceed the affordability benchmark of 30 per cent of household income. Many of these people won't apply for public housing as the waiting list deters them.
Like Bert, those 105,237 people with nowhere to go tonight all had homes once.
Jan Berriman, chief of the YMCA, recently stated that last year her organisation could only accept one sixth of the women in need of accommodation who requested help from her organisation. Ms Berriman cited marriage breakdown, lower paying jobs, caring duties and a lack of superannuation as some of the reasons that women suddenly find themselves in the rental market, the social sector and at the mercy of Centrelink.
At some stage we all need to accept, or offer, a helping hand. There has only been a minimal increase in resources since then prime minister Kevin Rudd briefly focused government’s attention on homelessness. There has been little capital investment in this sector in the intervening decade. Homelessness Australia has reported that the nation is losing the war against what Mr Rudd referred to as a "national obscenity".
Increased funding for crisis accommodation, affordable and social housing needs to become an imperative for state and federal treasurers. It’s hard to see merit in investment in tourist car ferries when people are trying to survive in nearby foreshore reserves. The Miners Rest Motel in Wonthaggi, the only crisis accommodation in Bass Coast and South Gippsland, is slated for redevelopment – into a petrol station.
The evening after those kind and sombre words were said in memory of Bert, a flare shot from the end of the Corinella Pier, lighting up Western Port. A community art project, The Edge of Us, bought the Waterline communities together under the Southern Cross. The candles that flicker in memory of Bert also bring us together. Rest in peace.
The International Organisation for Homelessness defines four categories of homelessness.
- Rooflessness - without a shelter of any kind, sleeping rough.
- Houselessness - with a place to sleep temporarily.
- Living in insecure housing - threatened with severe exclusion due to insecure tenancies.
- Living in inadequate housing - in unfit housing or in extreme overcrowding.