Rough sleepers need tough love

The Everybody’s Home lobby group has been clanging the alarm bells about a growing rate of homelessness in Western Sydney.

But they are using flawed 2016 census data to show an alleged 67% increase in the number of people ‘without a roof over their heads’ due to rental stress.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics likes to tell us that there are more than 100,000 homeless people in Australia.

But this is a dubious number because most of the people counted as homeless in the census actually do have roofs over their heads, such as those living in overcrowded accommodation.

In reality, the inflated number camouflages a smaller group of extremely vulnerable and genuinely homeless people who have largely lost the ability to care for themselves due to mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse.

Only about 8200 people nationally are truly homeless as the average Australian understands the term – a person who sleeps on the streets.

The homelessness industry constantly blames housing affordability and lack of public housing availability for rising number of homeless people sleeping rough. But these claims are simply untrue.

There is no doubt that housing affordability in Sydney is a problem for many renters. However we also know that this has little to do with a person’s chance of being genuinely homelessness.

No person capable of making reasoned decisions would choose to sleep on a bench or in a doorway. Rough sleepers often develop serious infections and diseases, are more likely to die prematurely, and are at constant risk of assault.

The answer from the experts is always ‘more housing’. However, the taxpayer already spends nearly $10 billion per year on housing and homelessness, but this has done little to help people off the streets.

Parts of Sydney’s CBD look like a shanty town because we have failed to address the real causes of genuine homelessness and take assertive action to help people avoid the poor choices that lead to rough sleeping.

Homelessness services are reluctant to provide effective solutions for a fear of breaching the ‘rights’ of people to sleep rough, or of disrupting the homeless ‘culture’.

Hence, participation in mental health and drug counselling and treatment is currently optional. This means the people who most need help are the least likely to get it.

We need to expand mandatory drug and alcohol treatment and compulsory mental health assessments of rough sleepers.

We also need to reconsider the impact of de-institutionalisation. Some people need high levels of support that can only be provided in institutional settings.

If we want to reduce real homelessness we must be prepared to make the tough decisions that are essential to give rough sleepers the help they truly need.

Dr Carlos d’Abrera is a Psychiatrist and Research Associate at the Centre for Independent Studies. His report, Dying with their Rights On: The Myths and Realities of Ending Homelessness in Australia, was released in December.