COVID-19 demonstrates why Australia needs a 'housing first' approach to homelessness

Housing First policies recognise that access to permanent, secure housing is a human right, and not conditional upon addressing other issues.

Natalia Brkic

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how extraordinary measures such as social distancing and restricting movement and gatherings are disproportionately impacting people experiencing homelessness.

In Australia, some state and territory governments responded to the outbreak with an emergency response to house all ‘rough sleepers’ in hotel and student accommodation. Some commented that this could be the end of street homelessness as we know it. Most strikingly, it appeared to reflect the philosophy and practice of ‘Housing First’.

What is Housing First?

Housing First represents a philosophy that deems access to permanent, secure housing as a human right that must be reflected in homelessness policy responses. Its philosophy is founded on two key principles:

  1. The right to an adequate standard of living entails the right to adequate housing. Its articulation is best reflected in Article 11(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
  2. The provision of housing is not contingent upon certain behaviours.

In practice, the Housing First model prescribes safe and permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness which is not conditional upon addressing other health and wellbeing issues.

Housing First is an important foundation for people experiencing homelessness. Since its emergence in 1992 through the Pathways to Housing Program in New York City, the model has been implemented in a number of jurisdictions including New Zealand, the United States and across Europe. Most notably, it has been incredibly successful in Finland; the only country in the European Union that has seen a decline in homelessness since 2008. Additionally, a study in Moncton, Canada observed psychosocial benefits including an enhanced quality of life and a greater sense of belonging in the community.

Housing First in Australia

In Australia, homeless services systems have long been characterised by conditionality. From 1985-2011, the Commonwealth’s Supported Accommodation Assistance Program (SAAP) made housing provision contingent upon certain conditions. These included abstaining from alcohol and drug use, engaging with case management services and demonstrating a capacity for independent living. In effect, it meant people were excluded from accessing services because they were unable or unwilling to comply.

Despite Australia’s gestures to ensure a ‘social safety net’ for people experiencing homelessness, academics note “a distinct reluctance to frame the discussion of homelessness in the language of rights”.

Since then, funding for the homelessness sector has been provided by the Commonwealth through the states and territories under the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement (NHHA). Governments in Australia tend to fund discrete Housing First programs including the Street to Home initiative, which operates in all capital cities. Additionally, Housing First is reflected in the programs of not-for-profit organisations including Camperdown Common Ground in Sydney and the MICAH Projects in Brisbane that provide secure accommodation as the foundation for other support services.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, state governments were faced with the acute need to provide housing for all. In March 2020, the NSW Government provided $14 million to immediately house people experiencing homelessness through the Temporary Accommodation program. Additionally, the ‘Together Home’ program will operate for two years with $36.1 million invested to support people sleeping rough into stable accommodation.

Although the NSW Government’s response appears to be consistent with Housing First principles, the policy reflects the shortcomings of Housing First as implemented in Australia.

Why Housing First in Australia is insufficient

There is no comprehensive Housing First policy

Australian responses to homelessness are largely coordinated by state and territory governments. Although the federal government contributes matched funding under the NHHA, there is no national framework that mandates a Housing First approach.

“The reason that Housing First has worked so well in a place like Finland is because it was implemented as a system wide reform program rather than as a discrete program operating within an unchanged system,” says Dr Andrew Clarke, Research Fellow at the University of Queensland’s School of Social Science. In Finland, Housing First entailed investment in social and affordable housing, as well as altering the practices of support providers.

In their Federal Budget submission, Homelessness Australia emphasised how the COVID-19 pandemic had provided a unique opportunity to keep people safely housed. Yet, the Federal Budget failed to commit long-term investment to address homelessness in Australia, let alone a Housing First approach. According to Mission Australia’s James Toomey, it presents a looming risk that people will be pushed into unsafe living situations.

In contrast, the New Zealand Government has committed $197 million to strengthen their Housing First Programme in existing high need cities and regions. Although it should be noted that Australia’s federal system treats homelessness as a state and territory responsibility, the lack of national commitment hinders any chance of an effective Housing First policy that can radically reduce homelessness.

Housing policies are still temporary and conditional

Where Housing First policies have been introduced in Australia, they exist alongside other policies and programs that continue to treat housing as temporary and/or conditional; and, in some cases, they themselves rely on temporary accommodation to house their clients. Although the SAAP was abolished in 2011, the conditionality that characterised SAAP persists in state and territory policy.

The Together Home program espouses a commitment to the Housing First principles developed for Australia. Yet of the eight principles mentioned in Together Home, only one principle is explicit: separating housing from support. Whilst it removes the practice of providing housing contingent upon certain behaviours, the other seven principles are not addressed comprehensively, including choice in housing nor flexible support for as long as it is required.

Furthermore, it does not commit to providing immediate, permanent housing. It provides longer-term housing for eligible persons for up to two years with the aim of transitioning people to permanent housing. However, that is contingent on people’s participation in the program. It is unclear what stable housing will look like at the end of the two-year program. Participants will be assisted in identifying “long-term sustainable housing”; whether it be social housing or support to rent in the private market.

Although the NSW Government committed in March to housing people sleeping rough in temporary accommodation for as long as necessary, with the easing of social restrictions from July 1, this was revised to 30 days of temporary accommodation with the potential for further assistance.

There is a lack of affordable social housing

Simply funding Housing First programs is not sufficient to address homelessness. Dr Clarke argues that the success of these programs in Australia is constrained because they are not supported with investment in affordable housing.

Research from the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute estimated that in 2016, there was a shortfall of around 431,000 social housing dwellings, and that this deficit would grow to 727,300 dwellings by 2036. The research concluded that 36,000 new social housing dwellings per year were required to meet this need.

This may be achieved through investment in social housing in infrastructure, and a more conscious effort to understand social housing pathways. While social housing requires a large investment, evidence suggests notable savings to the health budget when people experiencing homelessness are given public housing.

“(If) coupled with a boost in the supply of affordable housing, and deployed with wide eligibility and sufficient resources for providing support, Housing First could help radically decrease homelessness in Australia,” says Dr Clarke.

COVID-19 has demonstrated just how crucial the right to safe and affordable housing is. Although governments have committed to housing everybody during COVID-19, without a coordinated homelessness policy that adheres to the Housing First principles and an increase in affordable social housing supply, our responses are not enough.

Natalia Brkic is a penultimate year student in the Bachelor of Laws and International Studies dual degree at UNSW Sydney and was the Intern for the Australian Human Rights Institute, Term 3 2020. She is passionate about human rights, social justice and public policy.

The author thanks Dr Andrew Clarke and Gabrielle Dunlevy for their careful reading, feedback and contributions to this article.

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