Where do homeless people stay? (source: Homelessness Australia)
Where do homeless people stay? (source: Homelessness Australia)

Last month The Age told readers that “the number of people sleeping rough in our city has increased”, with Melbourne City Council reporting the number of “rough sleepers increased to 247 in the city this year, compared to 142 two years ago”.

In an accompanying article (Homelessness: what are the solutions to the crisis on our streets?), journalist Farrah Tomazin canvassed four potential solutions: forcing developers to create affordable homes through inclusionary zoning, raising more funds by taxing vacant dwellings, improving the delivery of social services to those who sleeping on the streets, and a greater focus on prevention.

Much of the public discussion of homelessness is framed around the “crisis on our streets” – just look at the pictures in The Age’s stories. But it’s only part of the problem. According to Homelessness Australia, rough sleepers account for 5% of homeless persons in Victoria (6% nationally); the rest are living in severely over-crowded dwellings, temporarily with other households (“couch surfing”), in supported accommodation, or in boarding houses.

Rough sleeping is primarily a drug and mental illness issue. The evidence for Victoria is largely anecdotal but it’s consistent with findings from elsewhere. For example, a London study found:

46% of those seen rough sleeping in London during 2013/14 had some kind of mental health issue; 43% had problems with alcohol and 31% had problems with drugs. There’s obviously some crossover, but around three-quarters of all rough sleepers had some kind of support need.

The key needs of rough sleepers are long-term support programs and facilities to deal with underlying addiction and mental health issues.

Actions to increase the supply of affordable dwellings make sense for the majority of homeless persons, but they’re less relevant for those who sleep in the open. People who’re drug-addicted or alcohol-dependent find it hard to reserve any money for rent, even low rent.

Moreover, living on the streets – especially in the CBD – has advantages; apart from being free, there’s ready access to suppliers, to ‘market intelligence’, to like-minded company and to passing prospective donors. For some, there’s a community that’s more attractive than a lonely life in an “affordable” flat. Charities and authorities help mitigate the worst of the downsides, like violence, lack of warm clothing and bedding, hunger, basic health care, and personal hygiene.

The usual affordable housing solutions don’t always make sense for many, perhaps most, of those sleeping rough. Policy-makers need to think about housing solutions that are attractive from the point of view of those they’re aimed at. There are already too many examples of new but unsuitable housing being ignored or abandoned by the“ungrateful” recipients of well-intentioned polices.

Any accommodation policy needs to be integrated with drug dependency and mental health programs; needs to be in tune with the very limited capacity of beneficiaries to pay; and while it has risks for recovering addicts, needs to capture the need for relationships with like-minded people. It also needs to understand that rough sleepers tend to congregate in the CBD rather than the suburbs because it provides benefits to them; it might even be that the best approach is to provide rough sleepers with support in-situ.