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Enough is enough

By Robert Pradolin, former General Manager, Frasers Property Australia, and Founder of Housing All Australians

How many tragic deaths will it take before we formulate a clear national housing strategy to end homelessness?

We have to face the facts – there is a chronic failure in our society that results in people being out in the cold, vulnerable and isolated. The violent death of Melbourne woman Courtney Herron in May brought the issue to light yet again. How many more times do we need to be reminded? Then we read media reports that stereotype those who fall through the housing cracks due to issues around substance abuse and mental health. As if, somehow, she was totally to blame for her own vulnerability. This does not help us address the problem. In some ways, it helps us to justify, and sometimes even subconsciously excuse the issue.

We see this time and again. Where are the stories about the talents, dreams and possibilities that every person like Courtney once had? Where are the stories about how they wanted to change the world for the better? Then shit happened – life is not perfect. We all have issues that challenge us in our life. It can happen to anyone. Some of us are fortunate to have extended networks of family or friends, but some of us are not, and we feel we have no-one. 

The reality is that when you face challenges that test your purpose without a safe place to gather your thoughts and without people who genuinely care about your wellbeing, those dreams and possibilities have nowhere to go. You become lonely and isolated. Without a stable and safe place to call home, how can an individual build a productive life? How can they work, study or raise a family properly? Shelter is a fundamental human need, and if it is not provided then we see consequences that have both social and economic impacts.

Studies have shown that homelessness is the catalyst for a raft of issues, including physical and mental health problems, interpersonal violence, increased policing and justice requirements, and then long-term welfare dependency. It becomes a very expensive economic burden to society as a whole, because we wait for the costs to multiply over years, rather than investing in solutions to fix the root problem. People need to be housed, regardless of whether they are rich or poor.

So, what do we do? Well, I have had enough. I am not waiting for governments anymore. I have become cynical and believe that governments only do things they think will win votes.

Once I formed that view, I no longer held any expectations for the government to properly address the problem. I decided that if I wanted change, I needed to get off my butt and engage the private sector to make it happen. That is why we have formed Housing All Australians (HAA).

HAA is a private sector for-purpose organisation that believes it is in Australia’s long-term economic interest to provide housing for all people, rich or poor. It was established to facilitate a private sector voice (and solutions), and to reposition the discussion from an economic viewpoint. It advocates that the provision of housing for all Australians is just as important in terms of economic infrastructure as the provision of roads, schools and hospitals. There is significant economic payback for society in the prevention of the unintended long-term consequences arising from the lack of availability of affordable social and public housing. And we are not waiting for government to intervene.

We recognise that our country’s chronic shortage of affordable social and public housing is creating an intergenerational economic and social time bomb for a future society to face, and the fuse is burning.

HAA has enlisted some of Australia’s corporate elites in supporting its ideas and endeavours to assist those in need.

Working closely with not-for-profit and community organisations, we have already shown the value of innovative and collaborative approaches, including the use of vacant buildings, such as the Lakehouse in Melbourne, as temporary crisis accommodation.

The Lakehouse was an empty aged-care facility undergoing a long redevelopment process. With the goodwill, kindness and generosity of the property sector, the Lakehouse was refurbished on a pro bono basis, and now provides a safe, warm and empowering place for more than 30 women over 55 years of age – 80% of whom have experienced family violence – to call home. Women over 55 are the fastest-growing demographic of people becoming homeless, and violence against women, including family violence, is a major driver of this statistic. It is a disgrace.

The creation of pop-up shelters is not a long-term solution. It is a private sector response to a country in crisis. Our cities have thousands of buildings similar to the Lakehouse standing empty while more and more people find themselves on the streets.

Once on the streets or existing through insecure arrangements, such as couch surfing, women remain vulnerable to further violence – and this, in Courtney Herron’s case, was fatal.

The private sector needs to lead Australia out of this malaise, and come together with the general community to find and develop new solutions to ensure that every Australian has a safe, secure place to call home. The provision of housing for all Australians is the fundamental economic platform upon which our future success will be based.

We need to act, and we need to act now. It will take decades to fix the shortfall that currently exists. I really don’t want to read another story about a life that has tragically ended too early.

Enough is enough.

This article was originally published in Facility Perspectives, Vol 13 No 3.