Speech by Hon Kevin Andrews MP

Address to the National Homelessness Conference

Location: Convention and Exhibition Centre, Gold Coast


Thank you Pauline for that kind introduction and for the work you do as Chair of Homelessness Australia.

  • To my friend and colleague, the Hon Tim Mander MP, Queensland Minister for Housing and Public Works;
  • Tom Tate, Mayor of the Gold Coast;
  • Mr Colin Falconer, Director, Innovation at the Foyer Federation;
  • Ms Cindy Southworth, Vice President, Development and Innovation, U.S. National Network to End Domestic Violence;
  • Dr Stephen Gaetz, Faculty of Education, York University, Toronto
    Director, Canadian Homelessness Research Network;
  • Ladies and gentlemen.

Some years ago New Yorker magazine ran an article entitled “Million-Dollar Murray”.

One of the authors in the book we’ll be launching at morning tea refers to this piece.

It made quite an impact at the time.

The ‘Murray’ in question was an alcoholic who lived on the streets of an American city.

At one point a policeman who dealt with Murray on a semi-regular basis began to wonder how much this hard drinking rough-sleeper was costing the local community.

This cop crunched a few numbers and concluded that over a 10-year period:

It cost us one million dollars NOT to do something about Murray.

Murray ultimately died on the same streets where he lived.

The author of his story noted that his town didn’t have adequate structures or services to help Murray.

There was no Mission Australia in Reno, Nevada.

Mission Australia’s recent report entitled: From homelessness to sustained housing relates the experiences of 75 men in Sydney’s western suburbs.

Like Murray, all were homeless and dealing with multiple problems that included depression, substance abuse and mental illness.

Under the MISHA project, they were provided with long-term stable accommodation, intensive support services and case management.

MISHA achieved substantial success that included outstanding tenancy results, enhanced employment prospects and improved mental health conditions.

I’d like to congratulate Mission Australia and its partners in philanthropy who funded this very successful project.

It’s self-evident that the personal, social and healthcare consequences of homelessness generate serious costs to the economy.

But with MISHA some of those costs were saved by doing something.

And that is particularly pertinent to the theme of your discussions over the next two days.

MISHA reaffirms how complex homelessness issues are and demonstrates how solutions require multiple forms of support.

And while this particular project happens to focus on homeless men, we know this is an equal opportunity problem that does not discriminate on the basis of sex, or age, or social status.

In fact some of the most harrowing stories of homelessness involve women and children.

Just as the descent into homelessness can be triggered by multifaceted factors, so the ascent out of homeless can difficult to navigate.

Along with the provision of emergency and affordable housing, it requires such countermeasures as treating family breakdown, mental health issues and substance abuse rehabilitation.

It also involves the delicate art of tenancy management that helps people learn how to sustain housing once they have it, or – better yet – not to lose it in the first place.

The MISHA project also illuminates the importance of early intervention.

Some of the project’s personal vignettes reveal how early the seeds of a homelessness future can be sewn by earlier trauma.

Several of the men involved had a history of abuse and neglect in childhood.

The fifth report of the Journeys Home study that I have the honour to launch this morning has reached similar conclusions.

This study also finds a link between adverse experiences in childhood and adult homelessness.

For our international guests, Journeys Home is a longitudinal study tracking a national sample of men and women who suffer high levels of housing insecurity.

The study is generating critical information about the importance of relationships in preventing or exiting homelessness.

The latest Journeys Home report presents findings from the first five waves of the study conducted over a two-year period between 2011 and 2013.

It relates that traumatic childhood experiences such as family conflict and neglect can increase the chance of homelessness.

And what’s worse, family strife and child-parent conflict contribute to homelessness and substance abuse at a younger age.

Of course none of this will come as a surprise to those of you doing the hard yards at the front end of homelessness services.

But while the anecdotal can reveal certain truths, it’s always useful to validate those conclusions through rigorous empirical research.

This is the value of studies like Journeys Home.

It is also important to be reminded that issues like homelessness rarely just happen

That the incubation period can start a long way back.

The latest evidence from Journeys Home confirms two of my very strong views.

One, that stable families enhance the prospects of life long wellbeing.

And two, that if we are genuine about tackling persistent social problems, we must do more than pay lip service to early intervention and prevention.

The Australian Government has a strong emphasis on family wellbeing and on ensuring children have a strong, safe nurturing environment from which they can emerge life ready.

Including through early intervention.

As a British report advocating early intervention to secure children’s life chances lamented three years ago:

The bleak truth is that decades of expensive late intervention have failed.
Major social problems have got worse not better: despite heroic frontline efforts tackling the symptoms, their causes remain unaddressed. 1

Early intervention will be pivotal to the new Families and Communities Programme in my Department.

This initiative will include the establishment of a Families and Children Expert Panel.

The Panel will advise, mentor and train service providers in local communities and help them deliver robust evidence based practices to keep our children safe, strong and well.

It will focus initially on the Communities for Children Facilitating Partner programme.

This programme will work to promote strong family frameworks in which children have the essential social and emotional foundations on which to build their lives.

This goal not only recognises one of the most fundamental of human rights, but through working to diminish the precursor trauma that can lead to homelessness it makes-economic sense as well.

For the same reason we’re continuing Reconnect, a programme centred on young people from 12 to 18 years who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

Not only does Reconnect help young people to stabilise their living arrangements, but as its name suggests it works to resolve family issues that might have caused estrangement in the first place.

It also supports the reintegration of these troubled teens into education, vocational training or employment.

Through counselling, group work, mediation and practical support to the whole family, Reconnect makes a real contribution to breaking the cycle of homelessness.

We introduced this programme when we were last in Government and I am pleased by the bi-partisan support it has received.

It proves that some things are so important that they can transcend than the point-scoring or to’ing-and-fro’ing that dominates life in Parliament House.

Since 2000 the Reconnect programme has helped more than 78,000 young people and their families, including over 6000 in the past year.

More than 90 per cent of participants have reported an overall improvement in their quality of life.

Over the three years from 2013 to 2016, more than $70 million is being provided for more than 100 Reconnect services throughout Australia.

It’s an exemplary programme that demonstrates government service provider partnership at its best.

One of the most disturbing contributory factors to homelessness is domestic violence, a blight on our society that is all too commonplace a problem.

Many women become homeless, not because they do not have don’t have a roof over their heads, but because, but because it’s become an unsafe environment for them and their children.

The countermeasures required to this bane are many.

They include teaching young children to resolve arguments without violence, preferably through the role models of strong, stable families.

The Government is a strong supporter of the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children.

The Prime Minister launched the National Plan’s Second Action Plan earlier this year.

The 2014-15 National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness also includes a number of initiatives contributing to support services for women and children to stay in their present housing when it is safe to do so.

In my home state of Victoria, the ‘Safe At Home’ initiative provides case management support to women and children suffering family violence, assisting them to remain stay safe in the family home or to re-establish their lives in a secure environment.

Safe at Home brings to bear an integrated response that includes Police, Courts and Specialist Family Violence Services.

It enhances after-hours support when women have been referred by Police following a family violence incident.

Through Western Australia’s, Domestic Violence Outreach project, workers in rural and remote locations provide support and outreach services to victims of partner abuse.

When an Order for removal of a perpetrator is issued, the police officer obtains consent for the victim to release their details to a support service.

I am very aware that the future of NPAH – and of the National Affordable Housing Agreement – is of concern to this audience.

And in the interests of full disclosure I must mention that the previous Labor Government terminated NPAH funding, effective 30 June this year.

This was patently unacceptable to the Coalition and we stepped into the breach with $115 million for the NPAH in 2014-15.

I’m pleased to report that all States and Territories come on board with matched funding.

And you can add to that another $250 million in homelessness-related programme money throughout Australia from the National Agreement on Housing Affordability – NAHA.

Between funding by the Commonwealth and the States & Territories, almost one half billion dollars will be available for homelessness prevention programming over the coming financial year.

As I have stated previously, we want to look at what improvements can be made to more effectively respond to homelessness issues, including how to improve housing supply and improve affordability.

Affordable housing in Australia is in a parlous state.

And public housing – once the safety net for those unable to find affordable housing in the private sector – has long since stopped keeping up with demand.

Almost 160,000 households were on public waiting lists at the end of June last year.

The simple fact is that housing supply is not keeping pace with housing demand.

And because not enough homes are being built throughout Australia, the price impacts are felt throughout the market, from the most upscale neighbourhoods in our capital cities to the affordable housing sector.

Having said that, this issue is a difficult one for the Commonwealth.

We do not have the direct role in the delivery of housing services.

In our system of federated government that is the sole province of the states and territories.

The NAHA has built into it objectives and strategies to grow the supply of homes across the whole market.

Quite frankly, it has simply failed to deliver.

I have expressed my serious concerns about this before.

The Commonwealth provides around $6 billion a year through our various agreements and Commonwealth Rent Assistance.

But with real estate prices going higher and higher CRA is buying less and less.

Then there’s the issue of transparency – or to be more precise lack thereof.

The Commonwealth drops $1.3 billion per year into the NAHA pot with very little knowledge of what it’s getting for that money.

Because this funding isn’t specifically linked to programmes or outcomes, we have no way of knowing how much bang the Commonwealth is getting for its housing and homelessness buck.

So we need to revisit our approach to housing and homelessness policies and programmes.

The Forrest and McClure reviews have made some recommendations which go to housing support in a welfare context.

Mr McClure recommends making CRA available for public housing.

Mr Forrest recommends market based rents.

As a consequence I am currently working with the Prime Minister and the Treasurer about a specific review of housing and homelessness.

I expect the Review will, among other things, examine the operation of the National Rental Affordability Scheme to ascertain it meets its original objective and address concerns about delays in delivery and administrative red-tape as well as consider future homelessness funding arrangements.

We are also looking at the housing review in light of the White Paper on Reform of the Federation which will be looking at housing and homelessness in an effort to clarify the roles and responsibilities of all levels of government.

Most of all, what we need to achieve collectively is a coordinated response to homelessness.

That more than 100,000 Australians, including a high proportion of women and children, are homeless, on any given night is a terrible blight on our country.

But as we all know, this is not easy challenge.

But taking a lesson from Murray, we need to put in place the structures that support people – and this is broader than housing.

I have today touched on only some of the many issues that we need to consider.

I look forward to hearing the results of your deliberations over the next two days, which will cover many of other critical aspects.

I thank you all for the enormous amount of work you put into alleviating homelessness and helping us look for the solutions to countering it.

  1. Allen, Graham. Early Intervention: The Next Steps, 2011