Federal Minister for Social Housing and Homelessness Mark Arbib and South Australian Minister for Housing Jennifer Rankine recently made statements about a dramatic reduction in rough sleeping in Adelaide as proof that Government’s homelessness programs in South Australia were working (Inner City Rough Sleeper Street Count May 2011). The South Australian Social Inclusion Board also report that the number of people sleeping rough on Adelaide’s streets has halved. These claims are based on limited data that masks the truth.
A closer look at the research indicates that the streetcount only located 51 adults who were unsheltered or ‘sleeping rough’. As the first street count in 2007 located 108 rough sleepers, headlines emerged in the media “homelessness halved in South Australia”. There are issues with the research methodology that affect the credibility of the results as only four homelessness agencies from the Inner City were included in the study and one of the agencies participating could only find one client who agreed to participate. Also, the research does not report or even estimate the total population of homeless people in the inner city, so it is difficult to ascertain the significance of the numbers presented. Neither do the numbers accurately reflect the number of rough sleepers in the inner-city or across the State.
A number of the homelessness services in the inner city and around the metropolitan and country regions are reporting increased demands on their services with a large number of new clients entering homelessness for the first time. In some organisations, there are up to 45 new clients per month who are presenting for a service for the first time, which represents approximately 540 first time clients for the year.
The street counts are a point in time count, rather than a longitudinal perspective. Many homeless people participating find answering the questions degrading and the number of homeless people willing to participate in this count has dropped steadily since it began, and there is no information gathered about the number of non-participants or the reasons why they chose not to participate.
Of the 51 people included in the count, it is worrying that 17 had been sleeping rough for more than two years, 10 people for between 1 and 2 years and that 35 participants slept out most of the time or almost all of the time. The causes of homelessness are complex and pervasive and solutions to the issues people experience must be multi-faceted and ongoing with long-term support provided.
The National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness that the South Australian Government are signatories to reports that over the last eight years, the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program, a homelessness service, has seen a 77% increase in the volume of demand for services. So numbers have moved from about 7,500 clients to over 13,500 clients, showing a very different picture from the street count. Similarly, the Counting the Homeless report in 2006, found that 7,962 South Australians were homeless on census night and of these 848 were sleeping rough.
There are positive stories to tell about government and community initiatives that address homelessness including Street to Home and Common Ground Housing. High quality evaluations of these services must be conducted however, to show both positive and negative outcomes, so that their effectiveness cannot be challenged and lessons can be learned and shared amongst homelessness agencies. It is recommended that qualitative accounts of consumer experiences are one feature of any homelessness evaluation.
Overall, these misleading reports cloud the real homelessness numbers and the issues for homeless people and service providers. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that homelessness agencies are operating at capacity and regularly turning people away, including young people with small children. This is an issue for all people working in the homelessness field, both government and non-government.
Dr. Alice Clark is Acting Executive Director of Shelter SA, the peak body for housing and homelessness in South Australia.