How to care for homeless people is an urgent and extremely important challenge to the Australian community.
Homelessness and the issues surrounding it have been a reality of our community for many years. However, whilst we may have become 'immune' to a certain extent, to the plight of the alcoholic on the park bench, as a community we are inadequately resourced to meet the current reality, which is the changing face of the homeless.
In 1989, Australia was called to attention with the publication of "Our Homeless Children",16 a report of the National Inquiry into Homeless Children, also known as the Burdekin Report. This report provided staggering proof of a desperate situation: the large number of young Australians, who were homeless, disillusioned and damaged, and who despaired of any future. 17
In 1997, "Shifting the Deckchairs", a joint report 18 by five major Sydney charities, revealed that increasing numbers of homeless people in Sydney had mental illnesses, despite the steady withdrawal of mental health services to homeless people accommodated in hostels and refuges.
A further report by the same coalition of charities in 1998, "Down and Out in Sydney", 19 produced evidence of continuing depletion and deterioration of services. The report highlighted "an indictment of government policies which have been directed towards saving money rather than the preservation and nurturing of damaged lives. To ignore the stark realities of mental disorder and trauma affecting homeless people is to perpetuate a grave injustice."
How far have we come in the past twelve years?
The reality is, we're not doing very well. In the year July 1996 - June 1997 an estimated 147,000 people used homeless services across Australia, some more than once. A further 304,000 requests for support or accommodation were not met over that period, mainly due to the lack of accommodation places. 20
Statistics from the organisations that work with the homeless show that the problem is getting worse every year- an overall increase of 340% in 4 years
Meanwhile, Shelter NSW 21 in 1999 reported that "In the last five years, over $231m has been cut from the supply of public housing with $99m of those cuts this year alone - a cut of nearly 50% from last year."
It was in 1999 that the new Commonwealth/State Housing Agreement (CSHA) took effect. It reduced the amount of funding available to the States by approximately $10 million per year over the period from 1999 to 2003.