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As Australia's housing affordability crisis continues to escalate, the pressure on all tiers of government, housing and homelessness service providers intensifies in the pursuit of meaningful and sustainable policy and service responses. Of course, the ultimate pressure is experienced in our communities, and by people attempting to access appropriate housing and housing support.

Delayed or inadequate service responses by a system stretched to its limit only serves to push people further to the margins. Homelessness has consequences which extend well beyond the absence of housing; “de-citizenship” is a term long used in the sector which continues to resonate.

Aside from other precursors to an experience of homelessness, we are seeing more people forced out of their homes due to housing affordability and cost of living pressures. The median rent in Melbourne is now $380 per week. Newstart Allowance and Rent Assistance is currently $329 per week. It just doesn’t add up if you are receiving a fixed government benefit.

Like other Specialist Homelessness Services, at VincentCare we see the immediate and cumulative impact of homelessness for people every day. People are often forced into a range of terrible decisions. Sleeping rough or perhaps in an unknown Rooming House? A caravan park or a car for the night? Stay with a violent partner or a motel for 2 nights?

Governments are now acknowledging that they can no longer directly supply affordable housing to all those in the community that need it, and consequently the focus has turned to the private rental market. A renewed focus on Early Intervention, Private Rental Brokerage and Rapid Rehousing Programs aim to ease the bottleneck within crisis, transitional and social housing. Sustained investment with bipartisan support is now required to realise long term benefits for vulnerable individuals, families and communities.

In response to government direction, Specialist Homelessness Services must also evolve. Larger providers are encouraged to directly supply more affordable housing and a range of specialist and mainstream services will support more and more people in Private Housing. As a consequence, it’s reasonable to project that over time, providers will support proportionally fewer people in Crisis, Transitional and Social Housing.

This shift requires government and providers to consider a range of impacts, often the unintended consequences of reform or a change in policy. Critically, the safety net is smaller in private rental, and vulnerable tenants will be exposed to decisions made by an industry geared to protect assets and income. Contesting a Notice to Vacate may delay the inevitable for vulnerable renters; however determined owners and agents ultimately wield the upper hand. The risk here is two-fold. Aside from creating an episode (or an additional episode) of homelessness with the associated disruption, uncertainty, it will also increase people’s exposure to traumatic events. Additional barriers to overcome in the pursuit of a home, and potentially devastating to people’s sense of safety and belonging.

At a systems level, incentives and regulation for the private rental market should be reviewed by government. We are beginning to realise the positive impact of improved regulation of Rooming Houses, which importantly shifts the power imbalance. What can be done to redress this imbalance for vulnerable private renters? Longitudinal support (in addition to stable housing) is evidenced by local and international research and experience, however in the current policy setting; this is only available via other sectors (eg. Individual Support Packages or the Home Care Packages Program), where housing security is assumed and ironically, is not the program’s primary objective.

For providers, the importance of assessment has always been in focus. The duration people have experienced homelessness informs significant variations in health, independent living skills, personal identity, risks, social supports, exposure to trauma and abuse, confidence, trust and other intrapersonal capacities necessary to exit homelessness and rebuild independence. For providers to respond with the correct intensity and duration of support, a deep assessment of housing history, support needs and intrapersonal capacities is required. Exposure to the private rental market without adequate assessment and tailored support presents further risk for vulnerable renters.

With the private rental market earmarked to overcome the problem of housing supply, the future of housing support needs to change. There is no soft landing and rarely second chances here. Without rigorous government regulation for agents and owners, only increased flexibility and investment in housing support will complement private rental at the scale required.

John Blewonski
Chief Executive Officer, Vincent Care Victoria

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