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Media Release by Senator the Hon Mark Arbib

Homelessness Budget announcements

When this Government came to office in 2007, we made a serious commitment to tackle homelessness in our society. In an economy as strong is ours, it is everybody’s responsibility to ensure that people are not without one of the most basic necessities of life – a place to call home.

We committed to halving the rate of homelessness and offering supported accommodation to all people who seek it by 2020. We also committed to interim targets for 2013 and since 2008 this Government has invested almost $5 billion in additional funding to help address homelessness.

We are halfway through this current investment – 26,000 homes for those without are continuing to be delivered (and many are now housing people and families in need) and we have more than 180 new or expanded homelessness initiatives rolling out right around the country.

This Budget has been designed to address long-term economic issues and restoring the Budget to surplus by 2012-13. However, it has also focused on some extremely important and urgent issues such as mental health funding and assisting victims to recover from the natural disasters that so tragically affected Australians over the summer.

There are a range of measures in the Budget that relate to homelessness, including the Government’s mental health reform package, boosting support for vulnerable job seekers such as the homeless, and more Centrelink engagement officers to outreach to those who are homeless.

Delivering National Mental Health Reform – $2.2 billion over five years

The Government has listened to the voices of millions of Australians who have experienced mental illness, their families, their carers and their health care practitioners. People who are homeless or at risk of homelessness and who suffer from a mental illness will receive better mental health care support under the Government’s mental health care package.

Accommodation support

As recognised in the Government’s White Paper on homelessness, too often people exit hospitals into homelessness because of a lack of links to housing and supported accommodation. Following the White Paper, 50 initiatives worth more than $250 million in joint funding with the states and territories are being delivered to help people suffering from mental health issues who were homeless or at risk of homelessness.

It is incredibly difficult to manage a mental illness without stable housing and the necessary support to help people maintain their tenancies.

The Australian Government is taking a national leadership role in filling mental health service gaps. A key element of this package is a new $200 million National Partnership Agreement on Mental Health, where states and territories will be invited to bid for funding to fill service gaps. It is intended that funding will prevent exits from hospitals into homelessness and provide accommodation support to help people stabilise their housing.

This initiative is likely to particularly benefit people with severely disabling and persistent mental illness, who are frequent users of emergency departments and need stable accommodation as a cornerstone to keeping well and to break the cycle of hospitalisation and homelessness. The proposed NPA will be taken to COAG this year.

This Budget measure forms part of the Government’s record investment of $2.2 billion over five years to support people with a mental illness. Other measures in the mental health package include an additional 425 new community mental health workers called ‘personal helpers and mentors’ to work one on one with an additional 3,400 people with severe mental illness. They will join the 1,000 workers already providing intensive, practical support through the Personal Helpers and Mentors services across the country.

In addition, there will be more funding to achieve complete national coverage of the headspace model. In five years there will be a total of 90 sites, with the capacity to assist 72,000 young people a year once all new sites are up and running through additional funding per site.

More outreach officers to support the homeless

Following the Government’s White Paper strategy, the Government introduced 90 community engagement officers to deliver essential outreach services to people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

These community engagement officers have had a real impact on the ground – something I often hear from community organisations– because they go out to boarding houses, homeless shelters and to the streets and help people who are homeless or facing homelessness contact with the services they need.

This Budget delivers an additional 20 Centrelink community engagement officers to ensure that people who are homeless are sought out and assisted.

Increasing emergency relief and financial counselling

The Australian Government is investing an extra $83.3 million over the next four years in emergency relief services to provide vulnerable families and individuals with life essentials such as food and clothing, pharmacy and transport vouchers, and help with accommodation and utility bills.

This ongoing investment recognises that the demand for emergency relief services remains high across Australia. In 2009-10, 1.1 million Australians were assisted by 705 organisations in more than 1,340 emergency relief service locations nationally.

The emergency relief funding also includes $1 million a year to continue to support Foodbank Australia to deliver food and grocery supplies to not-for-profit organisations that help families and individuals in need, including the homeless.

Seventy-seven full-time financial counselling positions established during the global financial crisis will continue to be funded, with an extra $28 million over the next four years. Commonwealth financial counsellors deliver free, confidential and professional counselling for people experiencing financial difficulties.

This new funding for emergency relief and financial counselling across Australia is in addition to our investment of $15.7 million to 31 December 2012 in emergency relief and financial counselling services in disaster-affected areas in Queensland, Victoria and NSW which was announced on 16 April this year. Together, these measures represent a 60 per cent increase on base funding for emergency relief.

Increasing support for homeless job seekers

The strength of Australia’s economy continues to grow and this provides opportunities for job seekers who are homeless or facing homelessness.

This Budget introduces new obligations, greater support and wage subsidies for the very long term unemployed (2 years or longer). These job seekers will be supported by a new $1000 payment to JSA providers to fund job training, Work for the Dole, and other work experience activities. The Government is providing $143 million over four years for an additional 30,000 places in the Language, Literacy and Numeracy program, which helps jobseekers to improve their basic skills.

In addition, from 1 January 2012, a new wage subsidy will apply and will equate to the average rate of Newstart Allowance a job seeker receives for six months, approximately $5,700 at present. More than $94 million is provided under this Budget for wage subsidies to assist up to 35,000 very long-term unemployed people move into employment. This subsidy will be provided for eligible job seekers with a part-time capacity to work. Social enterprises and private sector employers will be eligible to employ job seekers using this subsidy.

Centrelink will also work more closely with vulnerable jobseekers in 44 locations and with employment services to intervene earlier to improve participation and prevent the need to impose penalties.

Boost to funding for aged care providers that specialise in housing the homeless

Having an aged care sector that houses and cares for those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness is absolutely crucial – all people have the right to access mainstream services, including aged care facilities.

I recently visited Wintringham’s facility in Port Melbourne and was extremely impressed by the dedication and hard work of people like Bryan Lipmann and Wintringham’s staff, like Lee-Anne. They work tirelessly to support people who have very little in life and who deserve the same level of support as those who are in other aged care facilities.

In this Budget, the Government has extended the viability supplement to eligible aged care providers facing extreme pressures, including homes specialising in services for people who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness.

The extension of the supplement is in response to a review of the Aged Care Funding Instrument (ACFI) which recognised that services that cater for care needs of people who are homeless face additional challenges in providing services. The ACFI review may be accessed at www.health.gov.au/acfi-review.

Minister for Mental Health and Ageing, Mark Butler has announced that the implementation details will be determined in consultation with the sector.

Funding will be provided for one year pending the outcomes of the Productivity Commission’s Inquiry into aged care, Caring for Older Australians. The Government will respond to the inquiry after it considers the Commission’s final report, which is due in June 2011.

There are a range of other measures that may assist with preventing homelessness including the extension of Family Tax Benefits to families with school attendees between 16-19, improvements to Youth Allowance, and increasing the proportion of the low income tax offset (so that lower income earners are taxed less during the year). Also attached for your interest is some information regarding measures that relate to the not-for-profit sector.

All Budget papers as well as supporting documents and ministerial statements are available online at www.budget.gov.au. If you would like any further information, please don’t hesitate to contact my office – for policy, Katie Ford or, for media, Alison Hill, on 02 6277 7780.

We are making real progress, there is great energy in the sector, and I am proud that homelessness continues to be national priority. I look forward to working with you on measures to further reduce homelessness in our society and thank you for all your work in this area so far.