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How many homeless?

About 400 people are sleeping rough in the inner city each night – far too many, according to Liz Giles, Manager of the Homelessness Unit of the City of Sydney Council reports Kelly Lane in the South Sydney Herald in October 2009.

Volunteers recently conducted a bi-annual street count across two-thirds of the Council’s local government area. They found 399 people sleeping in overnight temporary shelters, parks, streets, trains and train stations – an increase of 12.7 per cent on the numbers counted at the same time last year.

Ms Giles said the figures did not necessarily indicate an increase in the numbers of people living on the streets, as variables such as weather needed to be considered. “I think what’s really important to focus on, in terms of the results of this street count, is that 399 people is just too many,” she said.

But the figures came just weeks after the City’s Homeless Persons Information Centre released its 2008/09 data, reporting a total of 66,610 calls in a 12-month period, over 13,000 more calls than the previous year.

“Under our homelessness strategy ... the City is committed to a goal of reducing overall homelessness and ending chronic homelessness in the inner city by 2017. So the aim of the count is to collect accurate and up-to-date information about the numbers of people sleeping rough and in overnight shelters and in homelessness hostels across the City of Sydney, so that we can develop incremental targets for reaching that goal,” Ms Giles said.

The count was conducted between 1.00am and 3.00am on August 18 by 167 volunteers, which included a group of advisors that are currently or formerly homeless. The advisors helped to direct volunteers on the night of the count and also provided information to people on the streets about the count and why it was happening.

Surry Hills resident, Simon Mirvich, who has lived on the streets, was one of the advisors on the night of the count. “People who’ve sort of been in that situation, or had association with that situation, they tend to know where to look,” Mr Mirvich said. “When you’re going out there in the counting, you’ve got to picture yourself: imagine you were homeless and you had to find somewhere to sleep.”

Ms Giles said the count was also a way to increase community awareness, as a number of the volunteers were local residents. “Homelessness is not a lifestyle that people choose. It’s initiatives such as this and opportunities to get involved, when you’re walking around in the middle of the city and the freezing cold, [which help you] to understand that this is not a lifestyle people choose.”

Cana Communities, a charity that provides crisis accommodation, opened the doors of its community cafe in Redfern on the morning of the count. The cafe coordinator, Julie Sneddon, said: “We have an ongoing connection with Liz and a number of our volunteers offered to count. We decided to open the cafe for [breakfast] to say thank you, and that we all appreciate the time they have given. We had about 150 people through between 1.00am and 6.00am.”

Ms Giles said that Council is reconfiguring its homelessness strategy to align its targets with State and Federal targets, as well as working more closely with other homelessness services. “I think this is what will finally achieve a reduction of numbers in the inner city – this move away from individualised approaches to joined-up efforts,” Ms Giles said.

But she said there needed to be a greater availability of long-term housing options where people could exit homelessness.