On every street corner in the heart of Sydney - Photo, Gerry Georgatos

On every street corner in the heart of Sydney – Photo, Gerry Georgatos

One in four of Australia’s homeless are children – and abominably one in six of Australia’s homeless are children aged 12 years of age and less. It should be an unimaginable scenario, but the face of Australia’s homeless is that of children. How is this possible in one of the world’s most affluent nations? How is this possible in the world’s 12th largest economy?

On the streets, these homeless children are exposed to various violence and sexual predation – this is the stark reality. Each morning, these children should be waking to breakfast, to the getting ready for their day in school but for one disturbing reason or another, our governments have not made the pressing issue of child homelessness a priority. We barely hear about it.

How many of you knew that one in four of Australia’s homeless are children?

How many of you knew that one in six of our homeless are children aged 12 years and less?

How much more do we not know?

In general, Australians do not realise the extensiveness of child homelessness, nor do they realise the extensiveness of large homeless families on our streets. There are families of four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and ten children on our streets. People die on the streets and babies are born on the streets. Government agencies often advise families who are facing the imminent prospect of homelessness to buy a couple of tents and to find an out of sight place if they cannot afford daily caravan park site fees, and pitch those tents.

I have met many large homeless families who have endured long-term homelessness. Many of these homeless families are known to the Department of Housing and to homeless support groups but accommodation has never been achieved for them. I have managed to house some of these homeless families and similarly so has my colleague, Jennifer Kaeshagen who coordinates the First Nations Homelessness Project. Jennifer has housed or arranged shelter for families and individuals. In January, Jennifer housed a mother and her nine children, the youngest child 30 days old. No government agency was able to house this family but Jennifer managed to find them a private rental at the 11th hour. You would imagine that a family of nine young children would be housed but it is a first in first served approach by the Department of Housing. They have to change their policies and take in a triage approach. The Department of Housing was not able to house this family and no agency was able to support them, because our governments are not prioritising homelessness.

Governments need to drop in much more of a quid into the Department of Housing and into support groups. Indeed, during the last decade funding has effectively decreased for public housing, for emergency accommodation and for homeless support programs.

Today, Wednesday 5, we are half way through the calendar event, Homeless Week, where much is said and little is done.

Public housing is the solution but governments will not spend on what would be a magnificent investment. Instead governments demonstrate that they are effectively content to have all these children on the streets, predated upon. Governments are prepared to live with large homeless families on our streets. This is a moral abomination.

There is no greater legacy that any government can have than to improve the lot of others to the point that they change lives, save lives. But the desire for this legacy does not seem to wash with them. They are preoccupied in spending billions on the obscenity of warplanes, warships, submarines and also on the desired objectives of the big end of town.

I have spent twenty years assisting the homeless and a common theme is, “I just want to clean up each day” “I just want to have a shower like the rest of you” “Wash my clothes” “Have somewhere to store what I have”. While we wait forever and a day for public housing there should be a minimum standard of our cities and towns to demonstrate themselves as homeless friendly – assisting our homeless in every way possible. In every major hub of our cities and towns where the homeless coalesce there should be homeless friendly precincts; a few hundred square metres of internal space where they can come to clean up, to rest. These homeless friendly precincts should provide showers, laundries, small storage facilities, a treatment centre, a rest space and maybe an area for rostered services, something as simple as a barber. It is a one off infrastructure cost, not a significant outlay, and thereafter maintenance costs only. This is the minimum standard that any city and town should provide, it should be obligatory – a sliver of human dignity.

The 2011 Census of Housing and Population conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics reports 105,000 Australians who are homeless. But the numbers are actually much higher, maybe even double. In the least, according to the reported data, one in 200 Australians are homeless – and this is increasing.

But even if we accepted the reported numbers they are nevertheless shocking – and all trends demonstrate that it is going to get worse.

Nearly 45 per cent of our homeless are under the age of 25 years. One in four of our homeless are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders while 30 per cent of the homeless have been born overseas. Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders are nearly four times more likely to be homeless than the rest of the population – 191 homeless per 10,000 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander population compared with 49 per 10,000 for the rest of the Australian population.

 

More than seven per cent of the Northern Territory is homeless, this abomination occurring in one of the world’s most affluent nations. Nearly all of this homelessness is of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders. This translates to thereabouts 12 per cent – one in seven – of the Northern Territory’s Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders living homeless. Western Australia’s Kimberley is likewise as abominable. Nearly seven per cent of the Kimberley is homeless, with nearly 100 per cent of this homelessness comprised of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders. Outside of natural disasters and civil strife these are among the world’s highest regional homelessness rates.

Homeless friendly precincts are the least in terms of a minimum standard that every layer of government should and must ensure. This is the least of our moral obligations to one another. We will not just only be able to provide a sliver of human dignity to our most vulnerable but also have a place where various services can turn up and assist our homeless out of homelessness into education, into various opportunities, into something much better than what they are enduring at this time. Homeless friendly precincts are an easy can-do, and if they do not happen it will be because of skewed moralities, of a dearth of compassion.