Literature review

The role of local government in addressing homelessness: a literature review

Homelessness Local government Australia
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Local government is commonly considered to be the tier of government closest to the people of Australia. It provides a range of frontline services that underpin the management of our cities, contributes to the wellbeing of our communities through the provision of infrastructure and services and undertakes important regulatory roles.

To date, local governments in Australia have not played a major part in addressing homelessness. However, the recent decisions of the Council of Australian Government (COAG) have committed all tiers of government – including local government – to reducing homelessness. It is important therefore to understand what actions local governments currently undertake in addressing homelessness, how other programs and policies implemented by local government may affect the homeless population and how ‘good practice’ in the area of local government and homelessness could be conceived.

This report reviews the literature on homelessness and local government as it relates to both Australia and international experience. It finds that relatively little has been written on this topic in Australia and this almost certainly reflects the relatively minor role local government plays in mitigating the impacts of homelessness. It does, however, conclude that local governments have important impacts on homelessness and that there is scope for them to more actively engage with the homeless agenda. While accepting the considerable diversity between local governments, some of the critical ways that local governments interact with homelessness include:

• Some local governments take a direct role in addressing homelessness and assisting them with accommodation, services and support;
• Local governments may play an important part in the regulation of boarding houses and other accommodation used by homeless persons;
• The nature of Australian Government, State and local government relations to date has not highlighted a role for local government in dealing with homelessness;
• Local governments may lack the resources to make a significant impact on the direct provision of homelessness services but they can assist in other ways – through information provision, via pro-active planning policies and through engagement with the community sector;
• The planning policies of local governments can assist or impede the provision of affordable housing that constitutes exit points from homelessness; and,
• Local governments may enact by-laws that exclude homeless persons from their territory.

This review also considers the role of local governments in addressing homelessness in a number of other developed nations, including the US, Canada and European nations. It concludes that differences in the nature of government between these places and Australia make it difficult to draw out direct policy implications but they are suggestive of potential roles for Australian local governments into the future.
Overall, the evidence from the literature suggests that the role of local government in addressing homelessness is growing, but that local governments should look to become the facilitators of the solutions to homelessness, not the providers.

There is also evidence to suggest that local governments need to review how their policies and management practices may negatively impede the wellbeing of the homeless and those at risk of homelessness. One positive action is to adopt a Charter of Rights for the Homeless, or a protocol for dealing with the homeless.

This literature review will be followed by a Final Report that includes the outcomes of empirical and policy work across Australia.

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