Visible homelessness – the tip of the housing stress iceberg

Are homeless rates increasing? Or are we all becoming more aware of homeless people sleeping in public places?

We all ask ourselves what’s going on when we see tarps erected in public places, or people sleeping in their cars. Those who work daily with people experiencing housing stress and homelessness understand that open or rough sleeping in the Mount Alexander Shire is the visible tip of the iceberg of the current systemic housing crisis. This is a crisis of reduced supply of private rentals, higher rents, lack of supply of public housing and limited resources for an emergency housing response.

Residents of our shire have long been aware that there is limited affordable housing available locally. Affordable housing is housing that can be afforded on a low to middle income.

According to Homes Victoria Rental Report (March 2023), low to middle income people in regional Victoria can now only afford 24% of all private rental stock. In the past it has been double that.   Affordability is even worse in Melbourne, where only 6% of housing stock is considered affordable. This means demand for rentals continue to climb in our shire because low and middle-income people are being pushed further out of Melbourne.

At the same time demand for local housing is increasing, properties that might once have been rentals are now increasingly occupied by owners. Homes Victoria data shows that there has been a 7.5% reduction in private rental stock across Loddon Mallee. There are now all-time low vacancy rates and annual rental increases of 5%.

Castlemaine now has the sixth highest rent for 3-bedroom houses in regional Victoria at $455 a week (Homes Vic March 2023).

Housing options for low-income families historically have been public or social housing. But public housing waiting lists have grown exponentially because there has been less turnover and more people are seeking affordable housing through the public system.

According to Homes Vic, there are currently 67,985 applications on the Victorian Housing Register.  Of those, 58,131 are new applicants and 37,079 of these are categorised as ‘needing priority’.  This means the applicants either need additional support for complex needs, have experienced family violence, are over 55 years of age or need supported housing. We know that 753 people have listed Castlemaine as their preference for public housing and from that number 479 have priority status. The largest demand is for single persons units.

This is the nature of the gridlock in housing. As private rental becomes less affordable and public housing waits are years long, people are couch surfing, sharing with friends, sleeping in night shelters, staying in motels, and when all of that fails, sleeping in cars.  If they don’t have a car or friends to stay with, then they are sleeping in parks and other public places.

Sleeping in parks and public places is therefore the tip of the homelessness and risk of homelessness iceberg. Generally, people sleeping in public places are people with the least social and economic resources, doing the best that they can in a very difficult situation. They are people who have run out of every other option.

The harms associated with housing stress, the risk of homelessness and homelessness compounds poor health and reduces people’s capacity to work and earn and get themselves back on track so they can afford housing. It is a vicious cycle.

Until the broader housing system issues are addressed then we are likely to continue to witness the fall-out around us.

What’s being done to help?

A Housing Forum held recently in Castlemaine welcomed representatives of Federal, State and Local government. These representatives are working together on solutions for housing builds, both public and private, but because there is a long lead time for housing builds any action will take time to impact on the ground. In the meantime, we can provide local coordinated responses for short-term and supported housing, and short-term material aid.

Existing services are working to capacity on this issue. Dhelkaya Health’s Specialist Homelessness Program’s first priority is to stop homelessness from occurring by resolving a range of private rental issues before they lead to eviction. The program can also assist eligible people to access private rentals. When private rental is not a sustainable option people are assisted to apply for public and social housing. Dhelkaya Health is working with other services to locate more resources to support this program.

My Home Network, auspiced by Dhelkaya Health, is a local network advocating for greater housing support to vulnerable people in the community. It also advocates for increased and improved crisis, transitional, social and affordable housing provision. The Network, made up of people with lived experience and services with expertise in the homelessness field, explores innovative solutions with local community members to meet long-term housing needs and reduce housing stress. The Network continues to define housing need and lobby State and Federal governments for funds to address housing need here. The Network is clear that additional, purpose-built short term and crisis accommodation locally would go some way to reducing rough sleeping.

Local Services, including Dhelkaya Health, Castlemaine Police, Mount Alexander Shire Council, Salvation Army, and ARC Justice, have formed a Rough Sleeper Action Group to map out the scope of the problem and plan a coordinated approach to offer the most effective service to rough sleepers. This way we can quickly coordinate resources as the needs arise.

What is the best course of action for people who are concerned?

If you’re concerned about the issue of homelessness and the welfare of those involved, there are some actions you can take:

  • give generous donations to existing charities who supply the bulk of material aid to homeless people – for example St Vincent De Paul – Castlemaine or The Salvation Army
  • Phone Dhelkaya Health’s Housing Service on 5479 1000 if you have a specific concern about the living conditions of people who are sleeping in the open. The housing service assesses and coordinates responses and endeavours to help all those at risk of, or who are experiencing, homelessness.
  • Engage with My Home Network and follow updates from the Network on Dhelkaya Health’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/castlemainehealth

Sue Race
Chief Executive Officer
Dhelkaya Health

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