When I was young, housing was in short supply, and some of my classmates at high school boarded with friends of their parents, or with relatives, so that they could be close to school. There were quite a few hostels, too, for kids from far away. Young couples waited to marry when they could get somewhere to live, or lived with in-laws, not an ideal option. The depression of the 1930s and the second world war had reduced domestic house-construction to nearly zero, and it took a decade before the necessary materials were available again.
But I don’t remember ‘homelessness’ then. There were a few swaggies, and they were itinerants rather than homeless, finding work and lodging on the properties, if they were lucky, and sleeping rough if they were unlucky. But I never saw anyone sleeping in the parks of our town, and my guess is that the police would have moved them on, if there had been any. There weren’t any beggars, either. There was work for anyone who wanted it.
From the early fifties onwards we have had a more or less continuous housing boom, as our population increased from the 7.5 million of 1954 to the 23.4 million of today, and the great majority of the houses and apartments we see today have been built after 1960.
But we don’t seem to keeping up the supply of houses and apartments. While there is some dispute about the actual need for new dwellings — a current estimate is a shortfall across the country of around 250,000 — that dispute is based on what counts as a ‘household’, and a household, as its name suggests, needs a house to hold on to. There can be, and are households of one person, and they presently constitute about a quarter of all households.
Our population is rising rapidly, both because of net migration and because of a recent upturn in births. Between 1985 and 2005, Australia built an average of 150,000 homes each year for every 240,000 increase in population. Recently the ratio seems to have worsened — by mid-2009, a population rise of 480,000 equated to the 150,000 new homes constructed in a year.
That might suggest that there are a lot of homeless, and according to the ABS, at least in 2011, there are about 105,000 of them — one in every 200 Australians. That figure is pretty standard except for Tasmania, much lower, and the Northern Territory, hugely higher: about 15, not one, in every 200, and according to the ABS, that figure is lower than it was in 2006.
But when you look at the homeless data you get a different story. The main causes of homelessness look like this:
Domestic and family violence 25%
Financial difficulties 15%
Housing stress 13%
Inappropriate or inadequate dwellings 10%
Relationship or family breakdown ~ 6%
Housing affordability stress ~ 5%
And the Wikipedia entry on the subject continues like this (with a little editing by me):
The reasons for homelessness are many and varied, and each individual’s path to homelessness is different and unique. Some other reasons for homelessness are addictions, exiting care (foster care system or prison system), barriers facing refugees, debt, disability, unemployment, lack of support, blacklisting, poverty, and being kicked out of home.
And another: Some of the current homeless population in Australia were previously in large-scale residential institutions for the mentally ill. Deinstitutionalisation of people with mentally illnesses began in Australia during the 1980s, and most now live in the general community.
If you look hard in these lists to find the sheer shortage of accommodation you might add together housing stress and inadequate housing and a bit more as proxies, but they would supply only 25 per cent or so of the explanation. What does the rest of the list tell us?
My response is that it shows a society and culture where the level of individualism is producing social and economic costs. No doubt the high levels of ‘togetherness’ in the 1940s and 1950s produced its own costs, but there was then a strong sense both of familial and community solidarity. You kept your head down, and you shut up, but you were looked after.
There is a good deal of looking-after going on today, too. I don’t want to minimise it. And part of the problem is that we don’t have much cheap accommodation where most people want to live, in part because State and Territory governments get some of their revenue through selling land, and they want to make as much as they can from it.
But at least a third of the list points to family breakdown, and/or untenable goings-on inside the family. Homelessness is a cue to other social problems, as well as being a dire condition in itself.
I have no solution. Were the shortfall in dwellings solved tomorrow we would still, on the face of it, have a lot of homeless. The charities and sections of government have an interest, and as always homelessness comes with short-term (where can we put this chap tonight?) and long-term (how can we stop these numbers growing?) concerns. The armed forces and the police, once at least a form of social location for men who had no base, are now highly choosy about whom they enlist.
Why this essay? Because at my last shopping trip to the mall I passed a man sitting outside with a big sign saying ‘I need accommodation’, and his plea has stayed with me.
[Australia's population at the 1947 census was 7.6 million. I had used the figure for males only.]