by Cameron Parsell
The intentions of those who provide charity to people on the streets are unambiguously positive. And yet, without them knowing, their actions can actually do more harm than good.
When people in Australia live on the streets, they do so not because we lack the resources or technical solutions to end their homelessness. Instead, people sleep rough because of the political decisions we make and sanction.
By directing – through government policy, business support, and charity – aid towards things like mobile washing facilities or soup kitchens, we inadvertently normalise homelessness and lose sight of how to end it. As a society we should instead redirect our efforts toward providing immediate access to housing to end homelessness.
Of course, responding to people living on the streets with helping services is far less worse than what we have recently seen in inner-city Melbourne where local authorities move people on. But just because washing people and their belongings in public spaces is better than criminalising their poverty doesn’t make it a useful solution to the underlying problem.
Irrespective of the benevolent intentions involved, we know that people living on the streets can experience receiving charity to survive as demeaning. People distinguish the actions of the givers of charity, which they see as admirable, from how receiving charity to survive makes them feel.
Mobile support services, which receive government funding and philanthropic and community support, send the message that extreme poverty and inequities are OK, so long as we ensure the people can be cleaned and kept alive. But when we direct our energies toward sustaining people in extreme poverty we take the pressure off those responsible for affordable housing and the social conditions that result in housing exclusion.
People providing charity to those living on the streets are correct to say that the problems with housing supply and housing access are out of their hands. But how can we as a society better harness their positive goodwill to redress the structural conditions that need to be changed so that people sleeping rough can achieve housing justice? How can we do better? These are challenging issues, but our responses can only be justified by the outcomes for people experiencing exclusion, not for what the giver of charity receives from giving.
We don’t need to look overseas or even come up with something particularly creative. Australian practice and research evidence demonstrates that affordable and secure housing coupled with targeted street outreach and ongoing support services is enough to stop homelessness. Our research has clearly shown the diversity of people who sleep rough and how homelessness does not form part of their identity or how they want to be seen. Among these diverse individuals, however, is a stark common experience of profound trauma and exclusion that people trace back to infancy.
We ought to end homelessness because it is the right thing to do and we know how to do it. But ending chronic homelessness with permanent supportive housing also makes fiscal sense. Over a 12-month period, people who were chronically homeless used state government funded services that cost approximately $48,217 each. Over another 12-month period in which they were tenants of permanent supportive housing, the same people used state government services that cost approximately $35,117. We showed that on average, people who were housed in supportive housing used $13,100 less government services annually compared to the government services they used when living on the streets for a year, and this reduced cost includes the cost of providing supportive housing.
When people are housed they are able to participate in a community of their choosing and exercise the control over their lives that the material resources of housing provides. Our Street to Home research has shown that when people move from chronic homelessness into secure housing they describe the housing as home because, among other reasons, they can cook, wash their clothes, and watch what they want on TV and when they want to watch it. Living on the streets means reliance upon the goodwill of others to survive; reliance on others for day-to-day functioning because of poverty is an assault on ones sense of self and moral worth. If we see rough sleepers as people first and foremost, then we are compelled to accept that they, just like all of us, need and deserve housing.
Responding to people in ways that keep them on the streets is not only pessimistic, but it is also premised on a notion of homeless people as different and on a social injustice they should continue to expect.
Dr Cameron Parsell is an Australian Research Council Senior Research Fellow. He works at the Institute for Social Science Research, The University of Queensland.
Used with permission