It's Time To Declare Homelessness A State Of Emergency

The homelessness crisis in NSW has reached epidemic levels, and I’ve asked the Premier to treat it as a state emergency.

Despite having the largest economy in Australia, we have the largest proportion of homeless people and homelessness is increasing at more than double the national rate. About 38,000 people are experiencing homelessness in NSW -- an increase of 37 percent since the 2011 Population Census.

The stories behind these statistics are heartbreaking.

Almost a third of people accessing homelessness services are women and children escaping domestic violence. Young LGBTI people still get kicked out of home and have shared with me stories of trading sex for shelter.

NSW has seen a 45 percent increase in youth homelessness since 2011.  I’ve met disability pensioners living in rundown and often unsafe boarding houses, who have been either discriminated or priced out of the private rental market.

Meanwhile getting a home on the social housing waiting list can take decades.

"Tent City" in Martin Place in 2017. Image: PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images.

People do not choose to be homeless. The causes of homelessness are out of people’s control and include domestic and family violence, health and mental health issues, trauma, job loss and poverty.

The people I’ve met experiencing homelessness are just like you and me but have often had a series of bad luck. With 60,000 people on the social housing waiting list, there are simply not enough homes for those who end up homeless or at risk of homelessness.

Unless urgent action is taken now, the number of people without a home will only continue to escalate, putting more people’s health and safety at risk.

The last time a Premier declared a State Emergency in NSW was in 2013 in response to the devastating bush fires in the Blue Mountains. Nearly 3,500 people registered for help and the government led a coordinated response which saw hundreds of volunteers and staff from multiple agencies deployed to provide outreach and support to protect life.

NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell (centre) meets with Rural Fire Service volunteers as they fight to contain an out of control fire at Winmalee in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, Wednesday, Sep. 11, 2013. (Image: AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

A state emergency is a whole-of-government response to a disaster that threatens lots of lives, and there is no reason to treat our homelessness crisis any differently. Tens of thousands of people are currently at risk and, just like a bushfire, homelessness can burn through a person’s entire life, and like a flood it can wash away all hope.

A coordinated and urgent response is needed.

There are precedents. Los Angeles declared a “shelter crisis” based on the threat to the health and safety of its 28,000 city residents living without a home with emergency measures put in place to get people into safe and supported housing.

In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Adern committed to getting rough sleepers off the street before winter with a $100 million emergency housing package.

The good news is NSW can end homelessness by treating it as a state emergency and putting in place a range of immediate and long term solutions, including delivering more affordable homes.

Emergency housing could be provided in empty and unused government properties such as the Sirius in The Rocks, which has sat largely empty for more than a year and could have housed hundreds of people in need.

When homeless people are housed they should be given access to drug, alcohol and mental health services so they get any help they need early on. Homelessness services should have access to prisons to stop prisoners becoming homeless on release.

Sydney's Sirius building, 2016. (Image: AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

In my electorate I’ve seen the success that Family and Community Services and NGOs have had with assertive housing outreach. But the roadblock to getting someone housed shouldn’t come as a surprise given the severe lack of affordable and social rental housing.

People are homeless because we don’t have enough safe and affordable homes in NSW. To solve this we need to build 5,000 new social housing properties each year until 2026, and mandate at least a 15 percent target for social and affordable housing in all major redevelopments.

This may sound ambitious, but if we don’t rapidly expand affordable housing stock, homelessness will surge, leaving us with harder social and economic problems to address.

The Premier must treat homelessness like any emergency that causes a serious threat to life, health and wellbeing. We have the money and a sector committed to moving from supporting people in crisis to giving them a pathway to housing. We now need the government to wake up and take urgent action.

With so many people on the street unsafe every night, failure to act could earn Australia’s largest economy, the title of the most morally bankrupt state.

Alex Greenwich spent 10 days homeless for SBS’s Filthy Rich & Homeless.