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Homelessness: redefining the problem

National Homeless Persons’ Week Address to FaHCSIA Staff Canberra, 5th August 2009

Dr John Falzon Chief Executive Officer St Vincent de Paul Society National Council of Australia

We are discussing homelessness on Aboriginal land. I pay my respects to the traditional custodians of this land. I wish to acknowledge that colonization, dispossession, the stealing of children and other, more recent, forms of authoritarian intervention have resulted in the removal of people from their homes, from their country, from their spiritual sustenance. I pay tribute to the spirit of resistance and hope. The St. Vincent de Paul Society has been present in Australia since 1854. In 2007-08 the Society in Australia responded to nearly 600,000 calls for financial or material assistance, operated 636 ‘Vinnies shops’, provided around 2,350 beds a night to people needing accommodation and provided over an estimated one million meals. I do not, however, wish to dwell on what we, and many other NGOs, big and small, as well as Government agencies, are doing about the problem of homelessness. I wish to reflect with you on why a prosperous nation such as Australia has this problem at all. I also want to pose, in National Homeless Persons’ Week, the question: Whose problem? The instinctive response that has been inculcated by the dominant discourse is that it is the problem of the person experiencing homelessness themselves. All they have to do, according to this school of thought, is to get off their backsides and want to change. Bit by bit, they, and they alone, have the power to fix their problem. The second response is that this is why we have charities such as the St Vincent de Paul Society. In this scenario government sees itself as having a supporting role in funding and enabling charities to do the good things that need to be done to address this problem. The third response is that it is the Government’s problem. Amongst the three levels of government there may of course be substantially different views about whose problem homelessness is but there is certainly an element of society that see it as a government problem. As a society we have a values framework based on an economic system that is historically conditioned and therefore finite. I put it to you that the presence of homelessness in our midst can act as a powerful catalyst for us to think and act differently about what it is that matters to us collectively. Professor John McKnight writes that: “Revolutions begin when people who are defined as problems achieve the power to redefine the problem.”

Homelessness is not simply the absence of certain fundamental rights. It is also the construction of a way of being on the margins of a given society. As such it cannot be viewed in isolation from other marginalising phenomena. When people on certain statutory incomes, for example, are made to feel the power of the punitive stick: People who have had their income removed, for example, even at the risk of homelessness, on the false grounds that this will push them into the workforce. When homelessness is not technically considered as a barrier to workforce participation. When looking for accommodation is not permitted as a substitute for looking for work. Others still, at the low end of the labour market, scratching out a living and highly insecure. Also vulnerable to family homelessness. People experiencing homelessness are denied the right to appropriate housing. But there is more. There is the insecurity, the vulnerability to illness, to violence, to prosecution, the feeling of disconnectedness, the feeling of being seen right through as if you are not there. Some see a person experiencing homelessness and reflect that our system is not working. Others, in my opinion more astute, see a person experiencing homelessness and conclude that the system is working. It is working because inequality lies at its heart; because inequality is seen as both a necessity and a virtue. We reject the notion that marginalised people should continue to be blamed for their own marginalisation. We also reject the notion that social problems are best solved by simply allowing the market to run its course in an unfettered fashion. Or that the principle corrections can be supplied by charity for those who allegedly fall through the cracks. The founder of the St Vincent de Paul Society, Frederic Ozanam, a 19th century French activist academic, once wrote: “Charity is the Samaritan who pours oil on the wounds of the traveller who has been attacked. It is justice's role to prevent the attack.� Charity, be it warm or cold, is no substitute for justice. In Australia, we have recently come out of a decade that has seen a 50% increase in the number of people imprisoned at the same time as a 30% decrease in the amount of Federal Funding for social housing.

The countries where there is the greatest rate of imprisonment are also the countries with the greatest level of inequality. The United States of America leads the world as the most extreme incarcerator of its own citizens, with 1% of its adult population behind bars. If you count the people under community supervision or on probation, the total rises to 7 million, or 3.1% of the adult population. It is impossible to look at the issue of housing and homelessness without analysing the patterns of incarceration. Philip Mangano, executive director of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness , said on a recent visit to Sydney that US studies showed half those coming through the front door of homelessness services had just emerged from foster care, mental health care, incarceration and even military service. He said that addressing homelessness improved once homeless people were consulted as part of the process, which only began happening in the US five years ago. "They don't ask for a pill, a program or a protocol. They ask for one thing first - they ask for a place, a place to live," he said. "When you ask what they might further want, about 70 per cent say they want a job. If we can keep our focus on those two things, we have a clear path forward." "The single most important factor to beat homelessness is the political will of the leaders," he said. "You can do all the planning in the world - but plans will just end up on a shelf covered in dust if there's no political will behind them..." Homelessness is not largely a reflection of individual incapacity; people experiencing homelessness are not primarily in that situation because they have a capacity deficit; because they need to learn the skills to cope with the complex world. Sure, we all need to learn more about the complex world. The capacity deficit, however, is clearly a deficit in our social system. This is where we should look first if we are serious about tackling the structural causes of poverty and inequality. And we should be listening to the people who are most oppressed by these structures. We must move away from the false notion that the problem of homelessness is primarily a matter of individuals changing themselves. The 1975 Commission of Inquiry into Povertyi noted that: ‘If poverty is seen as a result of structural inequality within society, any serious attempt to eliminate poverty must seek to change those conditions which produce it.’ Australia stands near the bottom of the list of relative social expenditures in comparison with countries in the European Union. Of the 27 EU countries assessed over 2004-06 all but one (Greece) invested a higher proportion of GDP in social

expenditure than Australia. The EU25 average (23.4%) was almost twice that of Australia.ii The greatest power for progressive social change lies precisely with the excluded. But not, as some claim, by individually addressing their own exclusion as if it were a private malady. As the writer Isabel Allende expressed it: “ [i]s not a question of changing our personal situation, but that of society as a whole.�


Commission of Inquiry into Poverty, First Main Report: Poverty in Australia, AGPS, Canberra, 1975, p.viii.


Source: OECD Social Expenditure