Speech by Senator the Hon Mark Arbib

Launch National Homeless Persons’ Week 2011

Location: Canberra, ACT

*** Check Against Delivery ***

Thank you very much for the introduction and can I sincerely apologise to everyone for this morning. We did intend to get here early but fog in Canberra completely pushed the planes back so my apologies and thanks for hanging around and being patient.

Can I of course acknowledge Joy Burch, Nicole from Homelessness Australia, everyone from the ACT Youth Coalition but also to all the providers for all the work you’re doing on the ground.

The partnership we have at the moment with our homelessness providers I truly value and I day-in day-out see the work you’re doing and it’s truly remarkable. None of you are going to get rich from it, none of you are going to get famous from it, but that passion you have and the effort you’re putting in is just incredible. So thank you for the work you’re doing because it is making a difference, it is improving things on the ground.

I think this is a very important week, National Homeless Persons’ Week – a very important week for the sector, a very important week the country. We need to change some perceptions in terms of homelessness, we really do. Now when we look at the ABS data from 2006 and we talk about the 105,000 top line figure, and we look at the rough sleeping 16,000 estimated, we know we’ve got a problem in this country.

But at the same time as that I think many Australians don’t actually understand homelessness. They don’t understand what we’re dealing with. If you want to address a problem, you have to understand the problem and this was bought home to me last night on one of my favourite social media forums, which is Twitter.

Last night I sent out a tweet which was about the ABS data collection just saying that people should be aware that the ABS is collecting data and people who are homeless on the night – i.e. not just talking about rough sleepers, talking about people that are staying on someone’s couch, someone’s living room, in temporary accommodation they need to put a mark in one of the columns.

And I thought it was an innocuous tweet and that everyone would be saying thanks very much. Homelessness Australia had done a similar tweet and lo and behold I started a major debate on Twitter about homelessness and I had people tweeting me saying that I had no idea, that I was out of touch, that I was delusional. They said: ‘how do homeless people have access to computers? Could a homeless person be reading Twitter?’ And people here laugh, but they were seriously and passionately advocating that I was delusional because homeless people don’t have access to computers. And I tried at that time to help people understand that it’s not just rough sleepers, it’s not just people out in parks or on the street who are homeless.

But I couldn’t turn any of these people on twitter around, despite the positive tweets coming from the sector saying: ‘Yes, the Minister is right.’ I couldn’t turn them around and I don’t blame people for holding those types of perceptions and stereotypes because homelessness is extremely confronting, extremely confronting, and I think for many people the easiest way to deal with it mentally is just to have a perception that it is middle aged men with mostly with mental health problems sleeping in parks. I think for a lot of people it’s easier to try and put it in a box like that.

But it is so much more than that. That is one important part of homelessness, its one important part that we have to deal with but at the same time as that you look at the data and you have tens of thousands of people who are couch surfing, who have fled domestic violence in temporary accommodation. Look at our Indigenous population. The problem is much, much bigger than what most of us in society, in this country, recognise and because of that we need to have policy that actually meets those challenges and not just from government, because government can’t do this alone. It needs to be across community, it needs to be with the support of this sector but also with the corporate sector and also all Australians, at every level. Whether it’s the hospital, whether it’s the schools – everyone needs to have an understanding about what homelessness is and if we don’t have an understanding than we can’t fix it, we can’t fix it.

And that’s why National Homeless Persons’ Week is so important and that’s that one thing I hope we get out of this week. It’s just to let people know what constitutes homelessness and try and break those stereotypes.

I talked a little bit before about the work that’s been going in to addressing homelessness. I think for a long period of time when you look back at history at how we’ve dealt with homelessness as a country a lot of it was about managing homelessness. Managing homelessness and servicing people who were homeless that is important, but you don’t solve the problem by doing that.

What we are trying to do as a national government, and what Joy is trying to do with the Territory government, is actually try to address homelessness, to solve homelessness. A lot of people say it’s too hard and that we shouldn’t be investing all that money because you’ll never break it, you’ll never break the back of this. But we are making progress.

I came back from South Australia on Friday with Minister Rankine and she launched a two year report into the work that they have been doing and low and behold they had increased their services to homeless people, up to 20,000 people have received service in almost a 12 month period which had been an increase in 50 per cent. This is on the back of all the Federal funding that is going into the sector – almost $5 billion in additional funding. Plus an innovative program that the South Australians have put in place and guess what? When the South Australian Government did their street count the rough sleepers from 2007 had gone from over 100 down to around 50 in 2011.

That’s a 50 per cent drop, a 50 per cent drop in rough sleepers. So when you have right strategy and we know we have the right strategy with the White Paper, when we have the resources, we know we have got the resources coming to sector now and when you add that with the implementation and the application of state and territory government funds and the community sector you get results and we are seeing that.

On top of that we recognise that we need to go further, we need to do a lot more. That is why we are working to try an ensure that we have an accurate count in terms of the homeless, the Specialist Homelessness Services data has been improved which began on July 1 and we believe we are going to get much better data of that, much more accurate data and much more timely data. We talk about the ABS Census and that’s important, but the ABS Census is a snapshot in time and it only happens once every five years.

We need to have data year in year out, we need to be able to track it monthly and that’s where the SHS data will become so important in future. As well, we’ll be looking at how we can better use Centrelink data which is live and much more powerful for us in terms of understanding the problems where they arise and the areas of concern.

So data is one thing. At the other end is mental health. We know when we look at the data and you look at the churn going through hospital emergency departments, mental health is something that affects people that are homeless and is also a major cause of homelessness.

The government recognises it, the sector recognises it, and there’s been a huge amount of lobbying from Homelessness Australia but also across the board to get more mental health funding. In this Budget an extra $1.5 billion is going into the immediate area which is going to have a big impact in terms of our providers. I’ve been talking to our mental health providers for many months spending time with them and they appreciate the extra support but also the targeted support in terms of accommodation support.

We work, and all of you work, from the basis that we have to get people into long term, stable housing as quickly as possible but to do that we are going to have to wrap around services and provide the outreach to ensure people are offered clinical and non-clinical support so that they can stay in those houses. You don’t want to put someone into housing for the short term; you want to put them into housing for the long term, and there’s a $200 million pot that comes out of the mental health funding which is largely aimed at trying to give people the support services they need.

We will be partnering up with the states and territories on that and I hope the ACT puts a bid in. The funding is competitive but at the same time as that hopefully they leverage it up and get more out of it.

The other area of course is if we are going to put people into housing, we need the houses, we need the supply. And this is a big problem in this country, affordable housing. And one of the biggest stresses on our homelessness services is there is just a lack of supply in this country of affordable houses.

In terms of social housing, the stimulus has been a welcome relief for many of you. Overall, across the country we are building, right now 19,600 stimulus homes. We have provided repairs and maintenance to around 80,000. Massive increase of stock and a lot of those homes, at the moment around 50 per cent will be going to people who are homeless or who are at risk of homelessness.

But that’s not all we are doing. NRAS, the National Rental Affordability Scheme, is being rolled out as we speak and at the moment there are around 5,000 built but we are going to get up to 50,000. So there is going to be even more supply coming in to the system.

But at the same time I’ll be the first to admit as the Social Housing Minister, the social housing system we have in this country needs to be reformed and it’s not up to scratch. When you are looking at an ageing population, the demand we have now, we really need to increase supply and that means empowering our community housing providers.

I am working with the community housing sector and working with the affordable housing sector to try and provide as much support as possible so that these providers can go in to the private market place, can leverage against their asset base and can borrow money from the private sector and build more affordable and social homes. And the reason why the community housing model works so well is because it’s a mixed model. Mixed in terms of the way it’s stacked up financially, but mixed also in terms of communities.

When you walk in to these community housing suburbs and complexes it’s impossible to tell which are social housing and which are the private market. So it’s a model that works, it works extremely well in England and its one I want to see rolled out here. So it’s critical when you are dealing with homelessness to make sure we have increased supply of housing and that’s something that I’m fully committed to and the Government is fully committed to it.

So that’s the work we are undertaking. There’s a lot more happening but I could probably take another hour of your time so I won’t do that.

This is a critical week. We need to get the message out, we need to change perceptions.

You are all doing an amazing job, not just here but across the country and everywhere I go. Again I see some wonderful people working in this sector getting results. We are dealing with some of the most disadvantaged people at the worst time in their lives and anyone, anyone can become homeless.

That’s the thing that is really scary in this. When you meet people who are homeless and you ask them how they fell in to it most of them tell you that they really didn’t see it coming. They lost their job, had family crisis, or developed a medical condition. It can happen to anyone and we need to make sure that people are aware of that and we need to give those homeless people every bit of support.

So thank you for the work you are doing, thank you for having me here today and I really do appreciate it and I am very pleased to officially open National Homeless Persons Week.