SYDNEY ARCHDIOCESE REPORT-
2 Aug 2011
The Society of St Vincent de Paul has expressed its concern at the high number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders seeking the agency's specialist homeless services.
"The proportion of Australia's First People experiencing homelessness is a massive over-representation," says Dr John Falzon, Chief Executive of the Society's National Council in a statement to mark National Homeless Persons' Week which was launched in Canberra on Monday this week by the Government's Minister for Social Housing and Homelessness, Mark Arbib.
But despite welcoming the Government's ongoing commitment to halve the rate of homelessness in Australia, and promise to offer supported accommodation to all those who need it by the end of the decade, Dr Falzon says Australia will be unable to eliminate homelessness as a nation unless there is greater investment in social housing.
Dr Falzon also expressed Vinnies' ongoing concern at the inadequacy of social security benefits, especially the Newstart Allowance. The Newstart Allowance paid through Centrelink gives financial support to the unemployed. But the amount has not kept pace with the cost of living and has remained unchanged for the past 15 years.
"Being forced to try and survive on $34 a day increases a person's vulnerability to homelessness," Dr Falzon says.
At present there are an estimated 105,000 homeless men, women and children across Australia. Based on figures from the nation's last census in 2009, 10,000 of this number are children under the age of 12, with a further 36,173 aged between 12 and 24.
"There are many reasons why people experience homelessness," says Vinnies' National President, Anthony Thornton and explains how some are pushed into homelessness as a result of domestic violence, poverty, and social inequality.
Other causes can include family breakdown, domestic violence, the lack of affordable housing particularly in cities such as Sydney and drug and alcohol related problems. Mental illness is also another key factor.
"In a recent scientific study it was found that 75 percent of homeless people in Australia suffer some form of mental illness," says Sister Maree Harris RSJ, founder of Petersham's Gethsemane Community which offers pastoral care and support services, shelter, food and resources to many of Sydney's homeless.
The mental illnesses suffered by a large proportion of homeless men and women range from clinical depression and bipolar disorder to schizophrenia. In fact in one study it has been found that as many 23 percent of homeless men suffer from schizophrenia with almost half of all women on the streets afflicted by this condition.
Other disturbing figures in the study found that as many as 98 to 100 percent of women had also suffered major trauma or rape after becoming homeless.
Sr Maree urges the Government to make safe secure affordable housing a priority and this needs to be backed up with adequate support, care and counselling for those with special needs, particularly for those with mental illness.
Vinnies' President, Anthony Thornton agrees.
"As a prosperous nation we should at least ensure that everyone is given the basic right to housing," he says, adding that once this was accomplished, there would be a safe and secure base from which other problems of society could be addressed.
Over the coming week those involved with the homeless services sector such as Vinnies and CatholicCare aim to increase public awareness about homelessness and the diverse reasons a family, individual or single mum and her kids can find themselves without shelter and unable to afford the city's escalating rents, let alone a four or five figure security deposit.
With Australia's next census to be taken on 9 August it is also hoped more details and information about homelessness in Australia will emerge. This will result not only in better data on homelessness experienced by Indigenous people who remain some of Australia's most disadvantaged, but will also shed light on refugee communities and humanitarian visa entrants, who due to language difficulties and lack of financial support, are at constant risk of becoming homeless.