by April Shepherd, Editor, Council magazine
With contributions from City of Melbourne and City of Sydney
As the cost of living rises and Australia’s housing prices remain some of the most expensive in the world, councils nationwide are facing a housing crisis, with more and more people of all ages and walks of life resorting to sleeping rough, as extra support available in the height of the pandemic dries up. Here Council investigates how two key CBD councils are working to curb homelessness.
Australia’s homelessness crisis is as prevalent as ever, despite funding and extra support during the pandemic briefly reducing the number of people presenting to homelessness services nationally.
Analysis of Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data by Homelessness Australia showed that increasing income support reduces the number of people experiencing homelessness, as seen in 2020 when the Federal Government provided additional support in the form of JobKeeper and the Coronavirus Supplement.
The analysis also showed that when the extra support diminished, the amount of people seeking homeless services increased.
Cost of living rising dramatically
Household support going back to pre-pandemic levels is not the only contributor to Australia’s housing crisis. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has reported the largest quarterly increase in household living cost indexes since September 2000, when the GST was introduced.
For capital cities Sydney and Melbourne, battling the homelessness crisis is becoming increasingly difficult, as both cities find themselves listed as some of the most expensive housing markets globally in 2022, according to Demographia’s International Housing Affordability (2022 Edition) report.
Demographia’s research found these figures by median multiple (taking the median house price for a region, then dividing it by the annual median gross household income).
Sydney placed second, only beaten by Hong Kong, and Melbourne came in fifth.
The report stated that “the least affordable market is Hong Kong, with a median multiple of 23.2, followed by Sydney at 15.3, Vancouver at 13.3, San Jose at 12.6 and Melbourne at 12.1”.
The higher the ratio, the less affordable the housing market in that city is, with Demographia deeming a median multiple of 3.0 and under as ‘affordable’ and median multiple of 5.1 and over as ‘severely unaffordable’.
In a press release on 11 May 2022, Local Government NSW (LGNSW) President, Darriea Turley AM, said councils were seeing first hand the impact of rental vacancy rates at all-time lows because a significant part of the community is locked out of home ownership.
“Housing affordability is arguably the most pressing issue right now affecting communities across the state,” Cr Turley said.
As the pressure in communities builds, councils across Australia are introducing new initiatives to prevent homelessness in the communities, especially Melbourne and Sydney CBD councils – which both face unique challenges.
Melbourne: building supported accommodation
The City of Melbourne is converting an old industrial building in the CBD into supported accommodation in its Make Room project, to provide a safe place for those who are sleeping rough.
The redevelopment of 602 Little Bourke Street, a former electricity network building, will provide up to 50 studio apartments over several floors once the project is fully complete.
Accommodation will be offered via referrals from homelessness support agencies, with services designed to help people connect with support services while having a secure home.
City of Melbourne Lord Mayor, Sally Capp, said the project will provide a safe place to sleep for some of the city’s most vulnerable people.
Providing a safe and secure home will be life-changing for people who have been forced to sleep rough on our streets.”
City of Melbourne Lord Mayor Sally Capp
“Melbourne is a caring city and we know how deeply Melburnians care about making a positive difference for those currently experiencing homelessness. Residents and business owners are often distressed seeing people sleeping rough near their homes or shops, particularly during our cold winter months.”
Protecting the city’s most vulnerable
The City of Melbourne is providing a Council building valued at $7.45 million, and has secured more than $12.75 million for the $20 million project thanks to donations from charitable partners.
The Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation, the Ian Potter Foundation and the Gandel Foundation have each pledged support for the project, and the City of Melbourne is in active discussions with other potential donors, supporters and partners.
Council is also partnering with the Victorian Government to deliver the bespoke accommodation, which will include housing and homelessness services, and tailored, wraparound support for residents to assist with wellbeing and the transition to long-term housing.
Unison Housing will refurbish and manage the building.
Health, Wellbeing and Belonging portfolio lead Councillor, Dr Olivia Ball, said delivering the project will change lives and help protect some of the city’s most vulnerable.
“We are using a housing first approach, which means that people need to be housed before any other challenges in their lives can be effectively addressed,” Cr Ball said.
“Our ultimate aim is to help people put homelessness behind them, because every Melburnian has a right to safe and secure housing.
“With some 300 people homeless in the inner city and 60 to 90 people sleeping rough on any given night, there’s an urgent need for accommodation as a step towards finding somewhere safe and secure to live long term.”
Unison Housing CEO, James King, said the organisation wants to give those sleeping rough the helping hand they need to get their lives back on track.
“We’re excited to be part of this exciting project, which will reduce disadvantage and social exclusion, and deliver benefits to the entire community,” Mr King said.
“When people find safe accommodation, they require less healthcare, are less likely to be victims or perpetrators of crime and are more likely to go back to study or find employment.”
Housing and support for residents
The Make Room project isn’t just offering housing for those in need, but also has a 24-hour concierge service and will be home to a social enterprise on the ground floor, enabling further employment and training opportunities.
Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation CEO, Dr Catherine Brown OAM, said the Foundation is committed to increasing the supply of affordable housing and preventing entry into homelessness in Greater Melbourne.
“The Make Room project is part of our Affordable Housing Challenge Initiative, which is demonstrating that cross-sector partnerships between philanthropy, local government, state government and not-for-profits can have great outcomes.
“We are pleased to be the philanthropic partner in the Make Room development and to be partnering with the City of Melbourne and funding Unison Housing, to provide the safe and secure housing needed to prevent homelessness.”
Ian Potter Foundation Chairman, Charles Goode AC, said the organisation is proud to support Make Room.
“The Foundation supports initiatives that address the factors that contribute to people becoming homeless, through intervention strategies that provide people experiencing homelessness; and with much-needed support to assist them to transition into longer term housing.”
Gandel Foundation CEO, Vedran Drakulic OAM, said the organisation is one of Australia’s leading private family foundations, and is committed to projects that build strong, inclusive communities and empower the region’s most vulnerable people to improve their wellbeing.
“The Gandel family is proud to support the City of Melbourne’s Make Room project and Unison Housing, and we are confident that this initiative will create a positive and lasting difference in the lives of so many Melburnians struggling with homelessness.”
Mayor Capp said Make Room will have a real impact on the lives of many Melburnians.
“Everybody deserves a home, and this project will directly assist those in need with the difficult transition to permanent housing,” Mayor Capp said.
“We are getting on with refurbishing 602 Little Bourke Street while we continue discussions with potential donors. I encourage corporations and charities to stand with us as we look to support some of our most vulnerable residents.”
The Make Room project will create more than 70 jobs in construction, and dozens of ongoing roles when the accommodation is open.
Works are scheduled to begin soon, with accommodation and services open by the end of 2023.
Improving housing accessibility
The City has also taken a leap forward in its quest to improve housing access and affordability, with the establishment of a new entity, Homes Melbourne. Homes Melbourne is designed to deliver on the City of Melbourne’s commitment to improve housing access and affordability.
Figures released by SGS Economics in 2019 identified there is a shortfall of 5,500 affordable homes for key workers in the City of Melbourne at present, and without action this is expected to grow to 23,200 by 2036.
The City of Melbourne’s draft Budget 2022-23 also includes $2 million to ensure rough sleepers have access to food, healthcare and other support services, in collaboration with the Salvation Army, Melbourne City Mission and Launch Housing.
Homes Melbourne will also accelerate its vital work to improve housing access and affordability across the municipality. Cr Ball said the Council is committed to its important work to connect people to support services.
“We’re continuing to increase support for the most vulnerable members of our community, boosting access to affordable housing, and creating a sense of belonging.”
City of Sydney: innovative and evidence-based responses
The City of Sydney is facing similar issues to Melbourne, implementing innovative, evidence-based responses to reduce homelessness in the city.
City of Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore said, “It’s a complex social issue that needs a whole government sector response. This is why we work closely with our partners in the NSW Government, including NSW Police, the NSW Department of Communities and Justice, and NSW Health, along with sector partners and community organisations.
“We are facing a housing and homelessness crisis in the city, with only one per cent of homes in Sydney classified as affordable and the numbers of people sleeping rough on our streets increasing.
“Affordable housing is essential infrastructure to enable workers like nurses and teachers to live close to work, and prevent our cities from becoming enclaves for the rich.
“At the height of the pandemic, we saw the government invest a huge amount in temporary accommodation to get almost every person sleeping rough into some sort of housing – so we know it can be done.
“To make the sort of impact we saw through the pandemic permanent, Sydney needs more appropriate, long-term social housing and diverse accommodation options.
“This is particularly urgent for those who don’t currently qualify for housing support, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and people with complex care needs such as brain injuries and trauma who have found themselves on the streets. We cannot have a situation where our most vulnerable residents return to the street without support.”
Implementing a dedicated team on the ground
City of Sydney is the only council in New South Wales with a dedicated homelessness service that patrols the street daily. Council’s homelessness unit patrols inner city streets every day, connecting people with services, offering advice, and providing those sleeping rough with essentials like water, masks and sunscreen.
The homelessness unit runs a street count twice a year to track the number of people sleeping rough in the city. For the most recent count, the team was joined by eight of the City’s homelessness advisers – volunteers with lived experience of homelessness.
Council also provides funding to specialist homelessness services, supporting young people, Indigenous Australians and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
City of Sydney implements the New South Wales Government’s Protocol for Homeless People in Public Spaces.
“The protocol helps ensure people sleeping rough are treated respectfully and appropriately, and are not discriminated against on the basis of their situation,” Mayor Moore said.
Pandemic support kept vulnerable off the streets
The Council’s latest summer street count found 225 people sleeping rough on Sydney’s inner-city streets – compared to 272 in February 2021 – and that crisis and temporary accommodation beds were at 81 per cent occupancy, one per cent lower than at the same time in 2021.
In line with the statistics in Homelessness Australia’s report, City of Sydney also found the number of people sleeping on the street reduced during the lockdowns, when there was extra support from governments, and that the numbers have started to rise again.
“While our ability to conduct official street counts was impacted by the pandemic, reports from homelessness services suggest there were far fewer people sleeping rough during Sydney’s lockdowns,” Mayor Moore said.
“The NSW Government provided additional funding to homelessness services during the lockdown via the Together Home Program, which dramatically reduced the number of people sleeping on the streets.
“Since the lockdowns, there are more people sleeping rough without a pathway to housing due to their residency status. Currently 17 per cent of people sleeping rough in the City of Sydney are not residents.”
City of Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore
Council said that, while its latest street count didn’t record an increase in the number of people sleeping rough in the CBD local area, other locations (including regional areas), has shown more people sleeping on the streets than before COVID-19, which has been attributed to rental affordability and availability.
“The NSW Government’s Together Home Funding proved that these measures can have a positive impact in tackling street homelessness and should continue to be supported and funded,” Mayor Moore said.
Council said it would like to see a flexible approach to offering temporary accommodation to people sleeping rough.
“We would also like to see support extended to non-citizens wherever possible, and to see continued funding for permanent accommodation options,” Mayor Moore said.
Planning more affordable housing
Mayor Moore said the Council’s initiatives to reduce homelessness and provide more affordable housing include planning and development agreements, land rezoning and transfers, affordable housing levies and a dedicated fund to support the development of permanent affordable and diverse housing.
“We also advocate for the NSW Government to build more social and supported housing,” Mayor Moore said.
“Grants from our affordable and diverse housing fund have contributed to projects, including initiatives for both older and young people who are homeless and at risk of homelessness.”
Mayor Moore said that, while it is hard to predict, a higher cost of living will have some impact on the number of people experiencing homelessness, and that rental stress, job loss and other financial hardships can all contribute.