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Australian bishops say homeless tragedy demands action in national statement


THE Australian Catholic bishops have registered their deep concern over the alarming growth in the problem of homelessness and insecure housing in Australia.

In their Social Justice Statement 2018-19, A Place to Call Home: Making a home for everyone in our land, the bishops call on Australians to look beyond the immediate challenges of the average household budget, to consider those who are homeless or facing housing stress because of skyrocketing rents and property prices.

“It seems hard to believe that in a rich nation such as ours, the latest Census figures show that the number of Australians who are homeless has grown to more than 116,000,” Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Archbishop Mark Coleridge wrote in a letter to parishes around Australia.

“House prices and even rents are spiralling out of reach of too many families and placing huge financial stress on ordinary people, even when they are employed.

“For those living on pensions or allowances, finding secure housing can be a far greater challenge – one that often takes a terrible toll on social wellbeing and mental health.”

In his foreword to the statement, Australian Catholic Social Justice Council chairman Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen wrote that a ruthless housing market was leaving people struggling to find secure and affordable housing, whether they lived in cities or in regional areas.

“That struggle has a corrosive effect on family life, on employment, on study and on our capacity to contribute to and benefit from our society,” Bishop Long said.

“At its worst, the struggle leaves the vulnerable in our society homeless – sleeping on the street, in cars or in doorways, or hoping for a space on someone’s couch or floor.”

The statement draws on Jesus’ famous parable of the Good Samaritan, reminding us that we have the same experience as the Samaritan – we see people in the street in need of help, wounded by violence, misfortune or poverty.

We face the same choice: do we walk past or do we stop and help?

“Behind the people on the streets is another legion – those who are battling to keep the roof over their heads, wondering if they can make the next rent or mortgage payment,” Bishop Long said.

“Often, these are people who are employed but whose income is barely enough – or not enough – to keep themselves and their families housed and fed.

“The bishops emphasise that housing is a human right, asserted by documents like the UN Declaration of Human Rights and by the teachings of our Church.”

Housing, the bishops say, is “an essential entitlement for all people to meet their basic needs, flourish in community and have their inherent human dignity affirmed and upheld by others”.

“That human right and the call of the Church has been reinforced by the words and example of Pope Francis, who has made it a priority to reach out to the disadvantaged and marginalised of Rome, including homeless people,” the bishops said.

The statement puts out the challenge, writes Bishop Long, “to confront an economy that has allowed housing to become out of the reach of so many; to reach out, like the Samaritan, to the wounded and helpless; and to call on our governments to make hard decisions that will allow everyone in our communities to find secure accommodation”.

The statement considers the tragedy of homelessness within the broader housing affordability crisis.

Having a place to call home means much more than having shelter from the elements.

It is about personal security and wellbeing, the social and economic base of living, the formation of families and kinship, and the development of personal and social identity.

Such essential qualities of having a place to call home are at risk where competitive economic valuation reduces housing to be simply a commodity to be traded and where unreasonable cost excludes people.

The statement highlights the plight of particular groups, particularly those living in poverty and people experiencing problems in health and family welfare such as domestic violence and mental illness.

Other people facing the crisis include unemployed and low-paid workers and older people reliant on low, fixed incomes, as well as an emerging cohort of older single women in unaffordable rental accommodation.

The statement asks: “How have so many people come to be on the streets of such a rich nation? And how is it that housing has become so unaffordable that it excludes increasing numbers of Australians?”

Just as in the parable of the Good Samaritan, social and political divisions remain a feature of our society.

We too live in a divided society – one in which we can so easily cross to the other side of the road. Jesus challenges us as individuals and as a nation.

Will Australia let its heart go out to the homeless or will we continue to walk past?

Can we be like the Good Samaritan who bridges the divide and addresses both the symptoms and causes of distress?

In the face of entrenched homelessness in such a prosperous nation, it is time for Australia to reassert the true value of housing as a human right that is fundamental to individual and family wellbeing.

All are our neighbours, all, are owed this right.

The statement traces the evolution of a nation that once prided itself on its high levels of home ownership to one that now lags behind many other nations in terms of housing affordability.

“In 1947, 52 per cent of Australians owned their own homes. By the mid-1960s, that proportion had grown to 72 per cent. Since that time, however, home ownership rates have fallen to around 65 per cent,” it says.

“Since the early 1990s, the greatest decline in home ownership has been for people in the prime of their working lives.

“It is likely that an increasing number of people currently under 55 years of age will enter their retirement not owning a home or still paying off a mortgage.

“The situation is getting worse, with increases in house prices far outpacing average earnings.

“All households are spending more of their income on housing, particularly the poorest 20 per cent.

“Increasingly we hear stories of low- and middle-income workers who provide essential services to the community being pushed further to the fringes of urban centres because of the high costs of home ownership and renting.

“They face long commutes to work, rising rents and the likelihood of future house moves or job changes.”

The statement lists overly limited supply and increased demand as a result of population increases; negative gearing; capital gains tax concessions; and investor demand as reasons for the trend.

“More middle-income households are feeling the pinch as the costs of home ownership have risen.

“People are servicing huge debts and affordable rental housing is harder to find.

“While an overpriced market has undermined the great Australian dream, we must remember that low-income households – the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens – face a seemingly unending nightmare of homelessness.

“If Australia is experiencing a housing crisis, it is facing a homelessness tragedy.”

It is estimated that 875,000 households now experience housing stress – having to pay more than 30 per cent of their income on accommodation.

Low-income households are particularly at risk: half of those in the private rental market are experiencing rental stress.

This has been exacerbated by the increased number of people entering private rental as home ownership becomes less affordable.

The statement points out that there is a dramatic shortage of community and social housing.

“Australia needs more than 270,000 extra affordable homes for low-income households,” it says.

There are almost 39,000 people on community housing waiting lists and more than 150,000 people on the waiting lists for state-owned social housing.

Specialist homelessness services are struggling to meet demand for emergency accommodation and support.

While these vital services assisted almost 290,000 people in 2017, they were unable to respond to more than 53,000 requests for help.

Poorly resourced government housing assistance is failing to address the problem.

The bishops point out that homelessness involves significant social and economic costs not just for those it affects but also for society as a whole.

Some studies have estimated the basic cost of a person sleeping on the streets is over $25,000 per year.

“Increased investment in emergency accommodation and affordable rental homes can help decrease the immediate and longer-term costs relating to health, human services and policing,” the bishops say.

“It makes economic sense to invest more in homelessness services and affordable and social housing.

“But the real cost to society relates to the damage done to people’s human dignity and the weakening of the community.

“These costs are far more than financial.

“It is time for Australia to reassert the value of housing as a basic human right.

“A house is not merely an investment whose value is determined by the laws of supply and demand.

“Houses are built to become homes.

“We want to find again the ideal we once prized – that housing for all should be seen as an uncontestable public good.

“There is a responsibility on society to display a special concern for the poor – guaranteeing the very basics of an acceptable standard of living that protects individuals and families and ensures their participation in the mainstream of community life.

“This concern for an inclusive society is inextricably linked to the common good.

“The exclusion of vulnerable groups is to the detriment of all.”

The funding and resources needed to address homelessness should not be regarded as simply a budget expenditure or a cost governments pay grudgingly.

“Our economy must give priority to the redistribution of resources so that people who have been disadvantaged and excluded can participate once more in society,” the bishops said.

“It is an investment in the dignity of our neighbours and the very fabric of our community.”

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