Homelessness is set to rise in Australia as COVID-19 income protection measures are scaled back, with only a minority of the 33,000 homeless people put up in hotels likely to secure permanent housing.
The 2020 Australian Homelessness Monitor found that in the financial year before the pandemic, about 290,000 people sought homelessness services.
However, despite widespread job losses and economic hardship triggered by COVID-19, homelessness fell slightly between April and June this year.
This followed Commonwealth income protection measures, eviction moratoria and unprecedented action by the states to tackle rough sleeping to prevent the spread of the virus.
But many homeless people put up in hotels had since returned to the streets, the report said, especially in Sydney and Adelaide where rough sleeping was once more on the rise.
In Melbourne, however, where funding to put homeless people up in hotels has been continued until next April as part of a $150 million package to help people transition into housing, rough sleeping remained at a level far below the norm.
The Homelessness Monitor – commissioned by Launch Housing and conducted by researchers from UNSW and the University of Queensland – found homelessness was likely to sharply increase as COVID-19 income protection measures and eviction moratoria were scaled back.
Lead researcher Professor Hal Pawson warned only a minority of those put up in motels would emerge from the crisis with permanent homes, despite action by the NSW and Victorian governments to temporarily lease private rental properties.
"Decades of belt-tightening have seen Australia's social housing supply effectively halved since the 1990s," the professor of housing research and policy at UNSW said.
In the decade to 2019, Australia's population rose by 15 per cent, while social housing declined from 4.6 per cent to 4.2 per cent of all occupied dwellings.
NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet said this week his government would spend hundreds of millions of dollars on social housing in the state budget to help stimulate the economy.
Victorian Treasurer Tim Pallas suggested on Thursday the state would also invest in social housing in its upcoming budget, acknowledging it was "unfinished business".
"I do make the point that the advice that we have from Treasury in terms of the best employment-generating, economy-growing investment at the moment is into public and social housing, and the government is looking at what we can do," he told the Victorian Parliament.
The Australian Homelessness Monitor calls for the revival of a national social housing program after a 25-year break, saying the Commonwealth must play a far more active role in tackling the problem.
Professor Pawson said the states' contribution was encouraging but the scale of investment required to enable significant expansion of Australia's social housing stock could happen only with Commonwealth government commitment and leadership.
He said last week's federal budget was a "complete wasted opportunity” to directly fund social housing.
Housing Minister Michael Sukkar said the budget delivered an additional $1 billion of low-cost concessional loans that would enable community housing providers to deliver more affordable homes for Australians.
He said the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation estimated this investment could support 2500 affordable homes.
"Although the delivery and construction of social housing is a responsibility of state and territory governments, the Morrison government is making significant, ongoing investments into social housing," Mr Sukkar said.
In two years, the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation has issued nearly $1.6 billion in bonds through its Affordable Bond Aggregator.
"The issuance of these bonds has already supported the delivery of more than 2200 new and 6300 existing homes built and maintained by community housing providers," Mr Sukkar said.
He said the Morrison government also provided more than $6 billion in Commonwealth rent assistance and support to the states and territories to deliver social housing through the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement. It remained committed to this ongoing annual support.
Federal Labor said if it was in government it would invest $500 million to fast-track urgent repairs to social housing and call on the states to match the funding.
In a pre-budget survey by the Economic Society of Australia, 49 economists were asked to rate 13 options in terms of their effectiveness in boosting the economy over the next two years.
The most popular option, endorsed by 55 per cent of those surveyed, was boosting spending on social housing, followed by permanently boosting JobSeeker, more funding for education and training and infrastructure projects.
One of the economists surveyed, University of Melbourne professor John Freebairn, said social housing met a key social need but government policy and land tax had contributed to limited supply. "It's also a fairly productive way to create employment in the context of a collapse in migration over the next couple of years," he said.
University of Queensland Associate Professor Cameron Parsell said the economic benefit of housing the homeless outweighed the cost of its provision.
A study he led in 2015 found governments can save more than $13,000 annually per person by providing the chronically homeless with access to secure long-term housing and support services.
The evaluation of the Brisbane Common Ground housing project found tenants in supportive housing experienced fewer mental health episodes, fewer days as an admitted patient, fewer visits to hospital emergency departments, fewer interactions with the police (both as victims and offenders) and fewer nights in custody.
"When we keep people homeless we don't save money, instead we spend money responding to the symptoms of their poverty," Professor Parsell said.
Before the pandemic hit, Natalie Dibnah and Steven Whiting lived in a Melbourne squat that had been progressively wrecked and stripped of copper pipes by the homeless people who passed through it.
"It made us really sick because of the water constantly running,” Ms Dibnah says.
At 45, Ms Dibnah weighs just 40 kilograms. "I suffer migraines, I've got bipolar, I've got addictions. I'm a small sick girl.” She says she became homeless after leaving a violent relationship. "I was just floating around, going nowhere, with no direction.”
Three years ago Ms Dibnah met Mr Whiting, a labourer from New Zealand who has lived in Australia for 18 years. "When COVID-19 came I was not eligible for any payment and my own country won't help me,” Mr Whiting says. "I'm one of those ones who's dropped through the cracks.”
Ms Dibnah has been able to support Mr Whiting with the increased JobSeeker payment and the couple are now staying at a motel in Abbotsford, although at times over the past six months they have lived separately.
Victorian Housing Minister Richard Wynne says since the coronavirus pandemic began more than 2000 people experiencing homelessness throughout Victoria had been housed and supported.
The government has promised to allow the homeless to stay in hotels until at least April next year while they are helped to find long-term housing.
It has also pledged to lease 1100 properties from the private rental market to provide permanent homes for people when they leave the hotels.
However, there is now an estimated 100,000 people on the public housing waiting list in Victoria. Social housing makes up only about 3.2 per cent of all housing in the state, well below the national average of 4.5 per cent.
Launch Housing chief executive Bevan Warner said before the health crisis, national expenditure on homelessness ‘emergency services' rose by 27 per cent in the four years to 2018-19 and was on track to reach $1 billion in 2020.
"In contrast, social housing spending increased by just 4 per cent over the same period, a real decline relative to population," he said.
"This means we've been spending close to seven times more in crisis solutions – often just band-aid
action – than we have been to properly fix the problem. We can end homelessness but not without more homes."
Ms Dibnah says the hotel accommodation has made a "big big difference”, but she worries about what will happen next. "I just don't want to end up back on the streets.”
The couple say permanent housing would make a huge difference to their lives. "It gives you security so you can start getting your life back together” Ms Dibnah says.
Jewel Topsfield is a senior reporter at The Age. She has worked in Melbourne, Canberra and Jakarta as Indonesia correspondent. She has won multiple awards including a Walkley and the Lowy Institute Media Award.