NSW Homelessness Strategy 2018-23 – review by the NSW Audit Office

Homelessness is not just the result of too few houses. So stated the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in its opening statement in its 2016 Census background brief on estimating homelessness. Shelter NSW agrees wholeheartedly. But in recognising and appreciating the many complexities associated with supporting homeless people, we at Shelter NSW also contend, that homelessness in any of its forms cannot be solved while ever there are in fact ‘too few houses’ (to use the ABS language). 

Shelter NSW recently made a submission to the Audit Office of NSW in its review of the NSW Homelessness Strategy 2018-23. The Audit Office is an independent statutory authority which conducts reviews to ‘help parliament hold government accountable for its use of public resources’. Beyond a review of the overall strategy the review is also looking at the Government’s housing response during the pandemic.

Our submission didn’t shy away from our long-term position  – there is a chronic and persistent lack of secure and affordable housing for very-low-income people in NSW. The rates of overall homelessness (beyond ‘rough sleepers’), demand (met and unmet) for Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS) and the social housing waitlist (especially priority applications) are large and growing.

We did commend the NSW Government for identifying specific programs to support vulnerable people to access housing during the pandemic. This included the Together Home program and expanded ‘assertive outreach’, to support people ‘sleeping rough’ during COVID-19, into stable accommodation linked with wrap-around supports. These were and remain important programs, credited with preventing a potential catastrophic spread of the virus within vulnerable communities in NSW (and into the wider community).

But we wanted to note what we think and hope is a remarkable by-product  –  a breakthrough in how we think about homelessness and how to prevent it. The huge response by Government and the Community Sector has demonstrated the almost self-evident maxim – that the best way to help someone to not be homeless is to provide them with housing; first temporarily and then longer-term (and most certainly with the ‘wrap around services’ if they are required).

We fear however, that while the ‘COVID-19 response’ has been commendable and worthy – the possibility of new and larger cohorts of homeless (including ‘rough sleepers’) emerging remains.

Against the backdrop of persistent housing unaffordability; rising unemployment; and the withdrawal of Commonwealth COVID-19 income support, Shelter NSW is concerned that the success of the NSW Homelessness Strategy is in jeopardy. Without an urgent and significant commitment to reduce the social housing waiting lists (especially for priority cases); increased funding to the already stretched SHS sector and expansion of successful programs and products such as rental assistance we fear a worsening of homelessness, in all its forms including ‘street homelessness’.