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Homelessness in Sydney an “epidemic”

The number of people who are sleeping rough in Sydney is rising, and substantial increases in funding and housing are required to address the problem, says Lisa Burns of the Newtown Neighbourhood Centre (NNC) reports Vanessa Watson in the South Sydney Herald of October 2008.

For several months NNC has been handing out “swag packs” to help the increasing numbers of people who are homeless. The decision to begin handing out the packs was made as NNC staff realised that more and more people without secure housing were approaching the Centre for assistance.

Aside from a recent $5000 grant from the City of Sydney, NNC does not receive any funding to deal with the issue of homelessness. The money has been coming from the proceeds of the Centre’s own Newtown Neighbourhood Festival and from community donations.

“It’s become an epidemic for us. It’s great that we got that money from the City of Sydney, but still a lot more needs to be done for us to reduce the problem, or you can say that Newtown will change dramatically,” says Burns.

The swags, which cost the NNC $45 each, represent the final effort made by the Centre to assist the homeless after steps towards emergency, medium or long-term housing have been exhausted. NNC has also had to greatly increase other services and time spent on dealing with the homelessness crisis.

“The very last thing we offer them is a street swag, but this is not a solution, it’s not the answer. The whole reality is that this is not what we want to do. We want other solutions, but there are no other solutions,” says Burns.

Rebecca Dudding, the NNC’s Community Development Officer, spends much of her time trying to find homeless clients emergency housing, which is typically available for three nights only. One problem she encounters is that there is not enough crisis accommodation to meet the current demand.

“There are certainly days where they’re absolutely full. Other days, you’re lucky, but often on those days it’s hours and hours of phone calls and waiting. They’d be pretty much at maximum capacity all the time,” she says.

This lack of housing is repeated across all levels, from emergency shelters, to medium-term boarding houses to long-term, secure, low-income rental or public housing. The shortage of affordable housing stock in Sydney, coupled with the rising costs of living means more people end up on the streets and get caught in cycles of homelessness.

Burns and Dudding also said that the people they are assisting are increasingly not the stereotype we may envision when we think of someone who is homeless. More and more families, students and workers are becoming homeless. Burns said that the problem is not being solved by governments and hopes that communities will begin to show outrage and force some change.

“It can’t keep going the way it is. It’s affected too many people on low to middle incomes, so hopefully that will get more and more people angry. I think it will soon affect people we all know,” she says. “The crunch time for us is now. We really need to do something. One of the things we really need is a full-time housing worker.”

Graham, a man who has been homeless around Redfern on-and-off for 15 years, agrees that there is a serious shortage of affordable housing. He hopes that governments will address the issue after consultation with homeless people.

“They should come down to grass-roots level and speak to people here, you know, on the street. Instead of sitting up in offices and making all the decisions for us. It’s not right,” he says.

Graham believes that high rents and the current welfare system encourage some people to remain homeless. After rent and utility bills, he claims he would be poorer if he rented a studio apartment or boarding house than if he remained on the street.

Doing so would also displace him from the daily support network he finds in his friends, who are also homeless. He cites his friends as the most important and only positive thing in his life. Without their support, he says, his depression would engulf him.

Graham lists some problems he sees for Sydney’s homeless people – a lack of emergency shelters, especially for men; lack of training to get skilled employment; Centrelink payments that are too low; inadequate mental health facilities; police harassment and legal problems; too few jobs; and the stigma associated with being homeless which makes jobs difficult to obtain.

Photo: Ali Blogg - Caption: SSH journalist tries out a swag pack

Source: South Sydney Herald October 2008