Recently local Facebook pages on the Coffs Coast had a number of robust debates around increasing homelessness in the region and the role, if any, of local councils in helping with the issue.
As a result Coffs Coast Outlook commissioned the following article from a resident expert, with both lived and academic, expertise in the topic.
By Dr Gregory Smith*
This summer’s national bushfire crisis saw federal and state governments demonstrate willingness and capacity to support thousands of Australians who have suddenly found themselves without a home.
With almost 2,000 dwellings destroyed according to the NSW Premier, thousands of men, women and children in four states have suddenly been cast into the depressing world of homelessness.
It’s been a reminder that homelessness can become a reality for the average Australian very quickly, and often for reasons people never see coming. A job loss. A family breakdown. A mental illness issue. Or natural disasters as we have just seen.
Depending on the individual socio-economic circumstances of these latest bushfire homeless this new reality may be temporary for some but, for others, it may well morph into a longer term pattern of homelessness.
Governments have been eager to be seen to have acted quickly to help these newly disenfranchised people; disaster recovery payments have been made available, State-based services have been streamlined and red-tape cut, and the Morrison government has pledged $2 billion to help communities recover.
And rightly so.
When seen through the lens of a natural disaster, homelessness seems to be a no-brainer for sensible and timely government intervention, and a cause deserving of sympathy from the wider community.
Again, rightly so.
That’s not to say governments aren’t already engaged in addressing homelessness. In June 2019, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced 14 Premiers Prorities. One of these was to reduce homelessness to 50% of 2019 figures by 2025, and to work toward 0% rough sleepers by 2030.
Although ambitious, it is a committed response to the recognised crisis in this state. The NSW government has initiated other programs including the Assertive Outreach Programme, currently running as pilot programs in the Tweed LGA and the Hunter region.
The objective of these programs is to offer rough sleepers the opportunity to transit into temporary accommodation with longer term possibilities. This is inclusive of addressing the complex mental, physical and oral health needs of the individuals.
With the advent of these programs — plus a new focus on homelessness emerging with the state and federal policy spotlight currently trained on helping those made newly homeless in the fires — I believe it presents local government with an opportunity to make a contribution towards assisting homeless people, too.
We can’t forget that on any given night more than 116,000 Australians, a third of whom may have jobs, are already sleeping rough or in temporary or unstable accommodation.
Nor can we pretend that the prevailing middle class view of these homeless people is one of sympathy and charitable feelings — it is often one of scorn, stigma and even contempt.
Yes, there are state and federal initiatives that seek to address the myriad uphill battles homeless Australians face but we also know it is local governments that most closely interact with these most disenfranchised and forgotten members of the community.
So exactly what is local governments’ role in addressing homelessness and what more should councils be doing in this area? Particulalrly given regional homelessness is a growing issue? (See;https://www.weeklytimesnow.com.au/country-living/rural-homelessness-alarming-growth-outside-city/news-story/f9d8cded0fab0201d4e295ff5b8ea84e)
There is as much to be said on this as there are councils in Australia.
Unfortunately over the past several decades some councils have inadvertently contributed to the growing issues surrounding homelessness which, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, has coincided with a 14 per cent growth in those affected between the 2011 Census and the 2016 Census.
Some of these council-driven pressures have occurred through privatisation and changing of status around caravan parks to tourist parks. These changes have made it difficult for some at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale and who often relied on these to find short to medium term accommodation.
Some time ago, one mayor in the Northern Rivers was known to have said that all homeless people in that LGA should be put on a bus and taken somewhere else. This, and other wrongful generalisations, just adds to stigma.
Unfortunately, while taking advantage of negative gearing and franking credits, a portion of the privileged in this county see this type of disadvantage and homelessness as a form of social eyesore and a personal affront to that privilege. Surely it is time this changed.
One strategy could be for councils to leverage community empathy for the bushfire crisis to de-stigmatise homelessness by reminding staff and the public that almost all of us are just one or two unlucky turns of events away from being without a home.
Councils such as Byron Bay, and others, have made impressive advancements in their local community in regard to assisting homelessness. For example, since 2015 Byron Bay has had a homeless policy. Importantly, in late 2019 a position was created for a dedicated Public Space Liaison Officer (Rough Sleeping). The purpose of the role is to be a first contact for local business and stakeholders on how to collaborate paths forward. The council supports the Community Centre initiative of providing breakfasts and a nurse once a week for check-ups for rough sleepers.
This is material evidence of a commitment to make changes in an LGA.
The reality is the bushfire crisis, plus the underlying drought, not only threatens to derail people who have already physically lost their homes — perhaps forever — but also regional and rural communities who will suffer huge economic fallout from savage hits to tourism, agriculture and local investment.
These are circumstances where more people will fall through the cracks and into the streets — literally — to join the other 116,000 plus already living there.
As with state and federal governments if local councils, such as those here on the Coffs Coast, continuously ‘kick the can down the tunnels of time’ they will only have a larger task on their hands and more issues to address as the homeless problem gets bigger and bigger together with the destabilising impacts of climate change.
Dr Gregory Smith is a Lecturer in Social Sciences at Southern Cross University, based at the Coffs Harbour Campus.
Gregory has been the subject of two of ABC TV’s most popular Australian Stories. The first of which was The rainforest hermit who stepped out of the wild and a sequel that aired just prior to last Christmas; How a former forest-dweller became a uni lecturer.
Gregory has also written a best selling Penguin book called ‘Out of the Forest’.
Gregory is now working with the NSW State Government on State/Local Government strategies to deal with homelessness.
He has also worked with the Byron Bay Shire, Sydney City Council in NSW and Logan Council in Queensland to work with them on homeless policies and action plans. He has also recently been approached by concerned members of the Gold Coast Council in relation to homeless issues in their area.
Gregory is a colleague of the Editor of Coffs Coast Outlook.