by Christopher Allan, Journalist, Council magazine

A cluster of councils in Melbourne’s east and south-east have published a new blueprint for local government responses to homelessness, urging that lasting positive outcomes begin with safe and secure housing. Collaborative action on the complex issue of homelessness couldn’t be more timely: recent statistics put Australia behind the OECD average when it comes to social housing availability, as councils report a spike in homelessness exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. We spoke with Brian Little, Mayor of the City of Monash, to learn more about local government responses to homelessness in the region.

Thirteen councils in Melbourne’s east and south-east have taken the next step in their ongoing commitment to accelerate progress on homelessness, publishing a blueprint on local government responses to the complex issue in August.

Entitled Housing first for people sleeping rough, the best practice guide draws together learnings and protocols in local government action on homelessness and social housing.

The guide was produced by a collaborative group of 13 councils in the region known as the Regional Local Government Homelessness and Social Housing Charter Group, or the Charter Group of Councils.

What is the charter group of councils?

The Charter Group of Councils is a collaboration between 13 councils in Melbourne’s east and south-east. The Charter Group seeks to unify local government responses to homelessness in the region, and advocates for major reforms to increase the supply of social housing in Victoria.

“In late 2019, Monash Council CEO Dr Andi Diamond made a commitment to explore how councils could respond better to the growing issue of homelessness in the east and southeast,” Brian Little, Mayor of the City of Monash, said.

“On the ground at Monash, Council was seeing an increase in visible homelessness and people who were sleeping rough.” The catalyst for the Charter Group of Councils was a 2019 forum at Monash University, organised by Monash CEO Dr Andi Diamond, that brought together Council CEOs, senior council staff, housing providers, peak bodies, the Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV) and the State Government.

The forum also included a powerful address from Nova, a woman who had a lived experience of homelessness after having fled family violence with her children. All 13 councils endorsed a Charter in 2020. The three objectives of the Charter are to:

1. Develop public and private sector partnerships to increase the provision of social housing and respond to homelessness in east and south-east of Melbourne

2. Scope land within each LGA that has the potential to be repurposed for adaptable housing needs, and share these insights regionally

3. Advocate together for inclusive housing growth, including mandatory inclusionary zoning

The 13 councils of the Charter Group represent two million residents in Melbourne’s eastern and south-eastern suburbs – the sheer scale of such a collaboration has major implications for all national responses to homelessness and social housing.

The rise of homelessness in Melbourne’s east and south-east

Mayor Brian Little points to the growth of homelessness in Melbourne’s suburbs as a driver for the coordinated action of the Charter Group.

“The prevalence of suburban homelessness in east and south-eastern Melbourne has increased in recent years, and most councils now have a full-time or part-time staff position working to address the issue of homelessness.”

The impacts of COVID-19 have accelerated figures of homelessness in the region: Monash Council data reported 46 rough sleepers in 2019, a figure that jumped to 99 in 2020.

The first seven months of this year have already seen 71 rough sleepers in the City of Monash. “These community members were either camping, squatting, living in their cars or sleeping on the streets,” Mayor Little said.

“Council departments and officers represent some of the ‘first responders’ to homelessness in the community, yet their provision of long-term exit points from homelessness is constrained by a shortage in housing relief that is both affordable and appropriate.

“The limited supply and affordability of single person units in Monash and wider Melbourne is a common issue for people who are homeless,” Mayor Little explained.

“A high proportion of people making contact with Council are seeking single accommodation where they feel safe and do not have to share with strangers.”

Monash Council workers often report that people sleeping rough have had “one or multiple negative experiences in rooming houses” and consequently “are choosing to sleep rough rather than feel unsafe living at a rooming house”, Mayor Little said.

In this context, the Charter Group has dedicated itself to enter partnerships that advocate for increased supply of appropriate and affordable housing.

Social housing in response to homelessness

Advocating for greater supply of social housing is a key objective of the Charter Group of Councils, who recognise that the prevention of homelessness as well as homelessness exit outcomes are both contingent on access to affordable housing.

“Social housing refers to housing owned by the State Government, or by not-for-profit community housing providers, that is rented to low-income households at either 25 per cent (public housing) or 30 per cent (community housing) of household income,” Mayor Little explained.

Importantly, social housing does not typically cover crisis or rooming houses – in fact, continuing accommodation in these services designed for shorter stays can often have negative impacts, particularly for families.

“Despite the critical importance of social housing for prevention of homelessness for low-income households, it has become progressively more difficult to get into social housing,”  Mayor Little said.

“This is due to the proportion of social housing stocks in Victoria declining and the population increasing.” Despite research suggesting a growing shortage in social housing in Australia, stable investment in social housing is widely endorsed both internationally and by local economic planning bodies.

Earlier this year, the OECD promoted sustainable investment in social housing in a context of destabilising change to the rental market during COVID-19. Closer to home, Infrastructure Australia (IA) used the 2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan to highlight that “well maintained and designed social housing provides many community benefits, supporting individual and societal wellbeing and productivity, and reducing costs in health and justice services”.

“Here we have two highly respected economic planning bodies both supporting the case that adequate social rental provision is a vital part of a balanced housing system,” Wendy Hayhurst, CEO of the Community Housing Industry Association (CHIA), said.

Local governments are uniquely placed to advocate for social housing in their communities, by commissioning research into social housing rates, entering partnerships with government and sector leaders to design the smartest investment strategies, and by simply maintaining and sharing accurate statistics on homelessness and rental stress experienced in the community.

Importantly, local governments are becoming more sensitive to the fact that homelessness takes many forms. A stimulus paper commissioned by the City of Monash and conducted by the Planning Institute of Australia (PIA) found that “rough sleeping is just the tip of the iceberg” of homelessness.

Less visible experiences of homelessness included people in emergency shelters, people staying temporarily with family or friends, people living in overcrowded or unsafe housing, as well as people remaining within violent relationships.

Housing first: a new guide for local  government responses

Housing First for People Sleeping Rough is a best practice guide for local government responses to homelessness, launched by Melbourne’s Charter Group of Councils in August.

The guide adopts the Housing First model of homelessness responses, acknowledging that “homelessness is a complex issue requiring a triage of support, but the first step needs to be providing a safe and secure home,” Mayor Little said.

The Charter Group’s guide finds that Housing First is “rooted in the philosophy that all people deserve housing, and that adequate housing is a precondition for recovery”.

Housing First recognises that issues such as mental illness and addiction can be better addressed once the primary need for housing is fulfilled.

In March 2020, Homelessness Australia endorsed The Housing First Principles for Australia to promote national understanding of this framework.

Key elements of the housing first guide

The Charter Group’s Housing First practical guide synthesizes learnings from a wide range of city councils. Key areas covered by the document include the following:

1. Collective impact strategies and functional zero

Many councils address homelessness through developing a collective impact strategy, where key organisations and actors from different sectors in the community collaborate to solve complex social problems.

Functional Zero is a widely adopted strategy, described in detail in the Housing First guide, where “the number of people who are homeless in a city in a given point of time is no greater than the average housing placement rate for that same period.”

The Housing First guide offers a detailed case study of a successful Functional Zero strategy in the Port Phillip Zero project.

2. Protocols and referral pathways

The Housing First guide covers many types of protocols and referral pathways that exist across LGA responses to homelessness, many of which consider real-world obstacles experienced by councils.

For example, the Port Phillip Zero Service Coordination group provides a clear rationale for action on homelessness, while also describing the best steps to follow when navigating important privacy and consent issues that arise when providing support and services.

3. Local government housing advocacy: strategies and reporting

A final key area covered by the Housing First guide is describing how many local governments commission and develop their own research and reporting on community homelessness, resources that are invaluable when advocating for greater affordable housing in government and private partnerships.

Next steps in the national response to homelessness

The Charter Group of Councils is committed to advocating for permanent housing for the most vulnerable community members, including collaborations with state and federal governments.

According to Mayor Little, a mandate for affordable and appropriate housing will be “enacted in partnership with state and federal counterparts, and the housing and support services who demonstrate leadership in representing people with lived experience of homelessness.”

And new partnerships on social housing across levels of government could be here sooner than expected: In Victoria, the State Government announced the ‘Big House Build’ late last year, a $5.3 billion social housing investment that Mayor Little expects to align well with the work of the Charter Group of Councils.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the rising populations of Australia’s cities exacerbated a national shortage in social housing. Wendy Hayhurst, CEO of the Community Housing Industry Association (CHIA), has recently pointed out that “Social housing as a proportion of Australia’s total dwellings has steadily declined to 4.2 per cent, way below the OECD country average of 7.1 per cent.”

“Australia needs to be adding at least 20,000 social and affordable rental homes every year. “That is doable, but it needs the Federal Government as an active participant too – they’re the ones with the fiscal fire power.”

Given that housing is an essential need, and that Australia has fallen behind the OECD pack in terms of social housing, the Federal Government has an opportunity to show leadership on homelessness by backing up local and state efforts to secure affordable and appropriate housing, to support and acknowledge any person who experiences homelessness.

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