In 2009, Western Australia (WA) and the Commonwealth signed the four year National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness. Data at the time indicated that there were 13 000 homeless people in WA and the objective of the Agreement was to reduce that number by seven per cent.
Tackling homelessness is very challenging as the causes are complex and interrelated. They include issues related to individual circumstances such as domestic violence, substance misuse, mental health and personal financial issues through to broad macro-economic factors such as housing supply, affordability and employment. The impact of these issues can also be different from region to region.
In that context, demonstrating that the programs under the Agreement directly reduced homelessness by seven per cent was going to be difficult at best. In fact, identifying the impact the Agreement has had on overall homelessness levels is not possible. What is clearer is that the consultation and engagement between government agencies and not-for-profit organisations has been more effective than in the past, individual programs have generally met their client targets and they are making a positive difference for the people who use them.
Not everything was done perfectly however, and there are risks to sustaining these results. The availability of housing, both public and private, was overestimated and the shortfall increases the risk of not being able to deliver programs to people who need them. The timeframes provided by the Commonwealth for the planning and start-up of the programs under the Agreement were unrealistic. This is a key lesson with broader relevance to other state and federal agreements. There is also ongoing uncertainty over the future of the Agreement which risks a loss of service delivery capacity and cutting short support for homeless people.
Almost $70 million of the $135 million available under the Agreement is State funding. Despite this, there is very limited reporting to Parliament on the progress and results of the State’s investment. This report should partly remedy this and the similarly focused but independent reports that seven other Auditors General will produce in coming months will further broaden understanding of this Agreement across the states. Nonetheless, for this and future agreements, agencies should ensure that Parliament and the WA public receive the information they need to determine if their money has been spent effectively.