July 25th 2009

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Articles from this issue:

OPINION: Michael Jackson and popular culture

BOOK REVIEW: D-DAY: The Battle for Normandy, by Antony Beevor

CANBERRA OBSERVED: What Australia can learn from China's behaviour

BANKING: Six economists renew call for a 'people's bank'

GLOBAL FINANCIAL CRISIS: Rebuilding a functioning financial system

FISHING INDUSTRY: Coral Sea marine protected areas: our gift to Asian fishermen

EDUCATION: The war against home-schooling our children

VICTORIA: Religious freedom under threat

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Aboriginal disadvantage: more than question of money

AS THE WORLD TURNS: Just some French youths

BOOK REVIEW: THE DARWIN MYTH: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin, by Benjamin Wiker

FOREIGN INVESTMENT: China businesses 'left and right arms of the state'

ENVIRONMENT: Rudd admits failure of global climate talks

HOMELESSNESS: Families forced to brave the streets

RUSSIA: Moscow unrepentant about Stalin era

CHINA: China unrest a symptom of a diseased system

EDITORIAL: The Middle Kingdom sends us a message ...

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Families forced to brave the streets

by Tim Cannon

News Weekly, July 25, 2009
Growing numbers of Australian families will be forced to brave the winter without a permanent roof over their heads. A new report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Counting the Homeless, reveals a 17 per cent increase in the number of families facing homelessness between 2001 and 2006.

The report is based on data collected for the 2006 census, a period in which Australia was experiencing rapid economic growth. Given the disruption of global financial markets since then, and the spectre of worldwide recession, it is likely that the crisis in family homelessness is now even worse than the report indicates.

As one of the authors of the report has suggested, a rise in family homelessness is particularly worrying for children, and demands urgent government action.

Associate Professor David MacKenzie, from Melbourne's Swinburne University, told ABC Radio National on July 9, "What we need in place is an intervention that will keep families in their accommodation before they become homeless. And of course a family is not just one person; it's an adult and several children, so the effect on the numbers of homeless people will be quite dramatic over a number of years."

Family homelessness is highly disruptive of children's schooling, health and social networks, and homelessness during childhood can be an indicator for homelessness later in life.

Charitable organisations are witnessing a surge in the number of homeless families seeking emergency accommodation in recent months.

Tony Keenan of Hanover Welfare suggests that the combination of tight rental markets in urban centres like Melbourne, and the impact of the global economic crisis have thrust many families into desperation. Speaking to The Australian (July 9), he said, "We're also seeing types of people who've never fronted to our service before, those with low-income jobs that may lose some hours and just can't afford their homes in the tight rental market."

However, the Counting the Homeless report indicates that homelessness is not just an urban issue, with greater numbers of homeless in suburban and regional areas.

Mission Australia's Fairfax House is a medium-term supported accommodation service providing assistance for homeless families in areas such as Penrith, in Sydney's outer-western suburbs. There, service manager Julia Coneybeare has also noted a marked change in the types of people seeking housing assistance.

Ms Coneybeare told the ABC's Jennifer Macey on July 10, "We're getting people now who have been renting for a long time, whereas before, we were having people who were escaping, say, domestic violence, had mental health issues, lost their job. Now it's more a combination of losing their job and losing their permanent accommodation."

A sharp rise in the numbers of homeless families in the United States also suggests that job losses associated with the economic downturn threaten to exacerbate the problem of family homelessness in Australia.

The US department of Housing and Urban Development has just released figures showing a 9 per cent increase in family homelessness from 2007 to 2008. But while family homelessness was on the rise, the overall homeless rate in the US remained stable over the same period.

The report notes: "There were early signs that the economic crisis may be affecting trends in homelessness nationally. Notably, a greater share of people accessing the homeless system in 2008 came from stays with friends and family and from places where they had lived a year or more, suggesting that people who had been stably housed were becoming homeless after exhausting their housing options."

There is no certainty that the severity of the rise in family homelessness in the US will be replicated here. Indeed, given the magnitude of the sub-prime mortgage market crash in the US, it is likely that the flow-on effects for families will be far worse there than in Australia, where the rate of mortgage default is much lower.

Nevertheless, the trend is worrying, and projected increases in the jobless rate in Australia do not bode well for families who may already be teetering on the brink of financial survival.

To make matters worse, Australia's threadbare public-housing safety net is already being pushed to breaking point, with a waiting list of more than 200,000 people (and an expected waiting time in excess of three months) Australia-wide. And with charitable organisations routinely exhausting their accommodation resources, many families are being forced to find shelter in caravans, cheap hotels, and even in their cars.

In 2008, the Rudd Government announced an ambitious project to combat homelessness in Australia, with slow progress to date. In an unforgiving economic climate, the growing desperation of Australian families demands even greater urgency in bringing that project to fruition.

Tim Cannon works as a research officer with the Australian Family Association.

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