Speaking Notes for Nepean Forum on Homelessness
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I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land where we meet today, the Dharrug people, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.
Thank you Stephanie [Brennan, SAAP Youth Resource Worker] and Nick [Sabel, Executive Officer of Wentworth Community Housing] for you warm introduction.
Thank you all for the opportunity to be here to speak with you at this important forum.
It is great to be here in the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre.
As one of the greatest opera singers of the 20th century, Dame Joan Sutherland is a truly inspirational Australian woman.
Her long and outstanding career is a great example of what can be achieve if you have passion and determination.
Yet determination alone is not enough for homeless Australians.
Homelessness in Australia
I have said many times before that after a period of sustained economic prosperity, it is a national shame that so many Australians are homeless every day.
New data from the 2006 Census that was released last week found that on any given night in Australia, 105,000 of our fellow citizens are homeless.
This represented an increase of 5,000 people compared to five years before.
There was a 16 per cent increase in the number of people who sleep rough between 2001 and 2006 – from 14,000 to 16,000 people.
There has also been a 22 per cent increase in the number of children under 12 years old who are homeless – meaning that there were 2,192 more homeless children in 2006 than was the case five years earlier.
The data also shows that there has been a shift in the type of people who are becoming homeless.
We are seeing a lot more families and couples becoming homeless – a lot more families with children.
The one piece of good news in the data was that there was a fall in the number of homeless young people between the ages of 12 and 24.
That group of homeless people fell from 23,000 in 2001 to 18,000 in 2006.
This shows that targeted interventions in a particular population group can be successful in reducing homelessness.
Reconnect is one such program – and I note that Wesley Mission operates a successful Reconnect program here in the Nepean region.
Reducing the number of homeless Australians across all age groups is now a major priority for the Australian Government.
We need to rethink how programs across all levels of government can work together to tackle homelessness.
Meetings such as this, where the community comes together to have a full and frank discussion is one way of finding real solutions that work.
Homelessness is a problem which impacts on the entire community and it should be an issue the entire community is committed to addressing.
Effective working relationships between all levels of government, business and community organisations are essential if we are to make a genuine difference in the lives of people experiencing homelessness.
Local and regional plans are also very important to reducing homelessness.
That is why the work being done today to set up a Homelessness Taskforce for the Nepean Region is a big step in the right direction.
I can tell you that both the Prime Minister and I are passionate about reducing homelessness.
This is why one of the Government’s first acts in 2008 was to announce that it would develop a Homelessness White Paper, which I will talk more about later.
Homelessness in the Nepean region
In New South Wales on any given night, there are more than 27,000 homeless people.
That is more total population of major regional centres like Grafton, Broken Hill, Nowra and Taree.
According to the 2006 Census, in the Penrith area there were 267 people living in caravans, cabins or houseboats, and 33 people in tents or sleeping rough.
In 2006-07 New South Wales Supported Accommodation Assistance Program (SAAP) services provided support to over 31,000 people and almost 17,000 accompanying children.
In this region 60 per cent of those seeking assistance were female and half of those had children requiring support as well.
But it is you here today who see first-hand the problem of homelessness in this area on a daily basis and can truly put a personal face to the tragic statistics.
I am heartened that the Nepean Homelessness Taskforce, to be formed today, will look more closely at the people facing homelessness in the Nepean region, as well as identifying the barriers to better service outcomes and what can be done to overcome these issues.
The Taskforce will also look at how to develop a joint response to homelessness and identify some achievable targets to reduce homelessness.
These aims closely align with the Government’s current work on homelessness reform through the Green and White Paper process.
Homelessness Green Paper
In May the Government released its Homelessness Green Paper, Which Way Home? A New Approach to Homelessness, to promote discussion on how to reduce homelessness.
We were delighted by the level of interest in the Green Paper.
We received almost 600 written submissions and over 1,200 people attended the 13 consultation sessions held across the country.
I thank those of you who, like the Nepean Youth Accommodation Service, submitted a response to the Green Paper.
The Nepean Youth Accommodation Service submissions noted that the partnerships between employment, mental health and drug and alcohol services in the Nepean region were critical in reducing homelessness.
I strongly agree.
We cannot fix homelessness unless we find better ways of integrating and coordinating the work of mainstream services and homeless services – much like you have all done here in the Nepean.
Responses also need to more targeted to suit individual needs, as it is clear a ‘one size fits all’ approach does not work with an issues as complex as homelessness.
Some people here will know that for many years my electorate office has been just across the road from the Oasis Centre – the service for homeless youth that was featured earlier in a documentary screened on ABC earlier this year.
Over the years I have made many visits to Oasis and seen many of the young people supported to deal with the problems they face and improve their lives.
Some of the nicest times I have visited have been for graduations from Oasis’s training programs.
It almost always comes at after a lot of support from staff at the service, but is a very important milestone in the long term well being of the young people who get there.
The Green Paper process confirmed that there are many services across Australia that achieves excellent results despite being run on the smell of an oily rag.
The data on homelessness from the ABS that came out late last week showed how hard you have all been working: across Australia more than 20,000 people were staying in shelters and refuges on Census night 2006.
That is 5,600 more people than were in shelters and refuges in 2001.
These services are a credit to strong local leaders who have brought together funding from multiple sources to create the programs that they think will work for their clients.
So many services are dependent on dedicated and committed staff who put their heart and soul into their jobs.
People working on the ground have worked across multiple government funding programs, used philanthropic funds and built relationships with their local hospital, mental health team and job network providers to bring services together in the interests of their clients.
I think it is fair to say that most of this has been happening without leadership from government, especially the Australian Government.
The good news is that we have many examples of excellent services that deliver outcomes for homeless people.
Between us we know quite a bit about preventing homelessness and helping people to get out of homelessness when it happens.
But we are yet do it everywhere.
One of the great challenges in the Green and White Paper process is to focus the whole system on providing the service and models that work best.
I understand that part of that is about resources.
The other part is about making our services systems as good as they possibly can be.
Homelessness White Paper
All submissions are being carefully considered and used to help formulate the Government’s Homelessness White Paper, which will be released in October.
The White Paper will include a comprehensive, long-term action plan to reduce homelessness to 2020.
It will need to both include what we are going to do now, as well as providing a strategy for all of us to keep working to reduce homelessness in the future.
It presents an opportunity for government at all levels to commit to tackling homelessness.
While we need to help those who are homeless we also need to look at ways to stop people from becoming homeless.
That is why there will be a strong focus on preventing people from becoming homeless by strengthening prevention and early intervention.
The White Paper will include a clear set of ambitious and achievable goals and targets.
This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity and the Government is determined to make the most of the White Paper policy process.
From my point of view I am grateful that we have a Prime Minister who is so committed to efforts to reduce homelessness.
We can, and really need to, make a genuine difference in the lives of homeless Australians.
A Place To Call Home
The Government has already made a significant down payment on its commitment to reduce the unacceptably high number of homeless Australians.
Under the A Place to Call Home initiative, the Government is investing $150 million to provide 600 new homes for homeless Australians.
This is an immediate response to homelessness – and will help to ensure that people can get the support they need to break the cycle of homelessness and establish a stable home.
Funds have been allocated to each State and Territory, including $38.8 million to New South Wales to help build 155 new homes.
We are finalising agreements with each State and Territory to start building new homes in the 2008-09 financial year.
The aim is to create better exit points, so people leaving crisis services move into secure, long term housing – ending their cycle of homelessness.
Instead of going to refuges, homeless people will move directly into new housing.
We know we need to provide more than just a bed to successfully combat homelessness.
That is why the people provided with housing under A Place to Call Home will also receive tenancy and other support for at least the first 12 months.
This support will link clients to education, employment and counselling services and will be in place for as long as is required to ensure they are able to maintain their housing and do not slip back into homelessness.
Furthermore, following this support period they will not be forced to vacate the housing.
Instead, the housing will be transferred to the general public housing pool and the tenancy will be extended in accordance with normal tenancy arrangements for public housing.
Affordable housing is another important area in which the Australian Government is now providing national leadership.
We know there is a real shortage of affordable housing in Australia and that this is a major contributor to homelessness.
That was why the Budget included $2.2 billion in new housing affordability measures.
These include the $512 million Housing Affordability Fund, which will lower the cost of building new homes by addressing infrastructure costs and the length of time it takes to bring new houses to sale.
The Fund gives priority to proposals that improve the supply of new affordable housing, especially homes which help first time buyers enter the market.
The Government is also investing $623 million in a National Rental Affordability Scheme to help build 50,000 new affordable rental dwellings.
These properties will be rented at 20 per cent below the market rate to eligible people on low and moderate incomes.
If demand remains strong, a further 50,000 properties will be built from 2012.
We are also increasing the supply of land for housing by releasing surplus Commonwealth land for residential and community development.
We also know there is a need to improve the evidence base for housing policy development.
This is where the National Housing Supply Council comes in.
It will provide research, forecasts and advice to the Government on issues such as the adequacy of housing and land supply to meet future housing ideas.
The $1.2 billion First Home Saver Accounts will help aspiring first home buyers save a bigger deposit through low tax savings accounts, which attract Government contributions of up to $850 per year.
All these initiatives will help make housing in Australia more affordable.
I know local knowledge and networks are important and need to be developed, particularly in the fight against homelessness.
That is why forums such as this are a wonderful opportunity to create a local focus on homelessness here in the Nepean region.
I encourage everyone here to put their best ideas forward and work in the spirit of cooperation and collaboration on this important issue.
The connections in the community, the working relationships you no doubt already have, are valuable and essential to help those in your community who face homelessness.
I can tell you that there is serious commitment in Government – from the Prime Minister down – to reduce homelessness.
We are dealing with a massively complex problem, but by taking action now and working together we can reduce homelessness and make a real and lasting difference in people’s lives.