HOMELESSNESS in Australia has risen sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic, spurring community groups to demand investment in a multibillion-dollar social housing program that could stimulate the economy.
In a submission to the government ahead of the federal budget in October, peak body Homelessness Australia says the COVID-19 crisis has caused a surge in people seeking assistance and losing their homes because their lives have been disrupted.
Even before the pandemic hit more than 116,000 Australians were estimated to sleep homeless or rough on any given night, and hundreds of thousands more faced rent stress.
With Australia now in a COVID-19-induced recession, Homelessness Australia said support services were “inundated” as increased unemployment and family violence took a toll on people’s living arrangements.
“This has inundated a service system that has never before had so many people in desperate need of help at the same time,” the organisation said.
“Even with significant increases in state-territory government resourcing for crisis accommodation and other homeless services, increased demand from people experiencing homelessness for the first time has exceeded capacity to respond across the nation.”
Homelessness Australia has joined with National Shelter and the Community Housing Industry Association calling for the federal government to invest $7.7 billion to upgrade existing housing, purchase new sites and develop new housing complexes.
The groups said their proposal would build 30,000 homes and generate 18,000 jobs each year in construction.
The groups also claim the program would boost Australia’s GDP by between $5.8 billion and $6.7 billion.
Community Housing Industry Association chief executive Wendy Hayhurst said the proposal – dubbed the Social Housing Acceleration and Renovation Program (SHARP) – would help prevent massive job losses in the construction sector.
“Adopting the SHARP proposal just makes good sense because there is almost infinite demand for social housing. This is a build program that can ramp up quickly and the activity can be targeted where the economic impacts are felt most,” Ms Hayhurst said.
A new report by the Australian National University’s Menzies Centre has also called for urgent government investment in social housing stimulus.
While the government introduced the Homebuilder Package as a stopgap for a struggling building industry, the Menzies centre said much more was needed because “none of the housing-related measures that were introduced address the medium and long-term housing precariousness that is prevalent in Australia”.
It noted that main beneficiaries of Homebuilder – that provides grants of $25,000 for new builds or renovations of at least $150,000 in value – “are people who can already afford major renovations”.
State and territory grants for tenants who have lost work are “insufficient” and investment in public housing “modest”.
It proposed “investment in social (public and community) housing could help bridge the gap in housing investment, job creation and income growth and at the same time reduce homelessness”.
The call follows the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council urging a huge injection of public funds to ease a chronic shortage of safe, affordable housing.
The St Vincent de Paul Society National Council wants the Federal Government to set up a $10 billion social housing fund to address a shortfall of over 400,000 dwellings across Australia.
“Such a strategy will bring consistency, commitment and accountability to tackling housing stress and homelessness in Australia,” the Council’s chief executive officer Toby oConnor said during National Homelessness Week from August 2-8.