As the CEO of St Bart’s, one of WA’s leading providers of person-centred and trauma-informed recovery support services for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness, mental health challenges and hardship, I have seen firsthand the devastating impact that homelessness has on individuals, families, and communities.
While the issue of homelessness is not new, the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the problem, leaving even more people in need of support.
The homelessness picture in WA
In Western Australia, the number of people experiencing homelessness has been steadily increasing over the past decade.
In the five years between the 2016 and 2021 Census, there has been an eight per cent increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness in some form in WA, which now totals 9,720. That’s a staggering increase of more than 720 people since 2016.
Sadly, the 2021 Census further revealed the number of Western Australians sleeping rough increased by 113.8 per cent - from 1,083 people in 2016 to 2,315 people in 2021 – with WA now having the highest proportion of rough sleeping of all states at 23.8 per cent.
These numbers are simply unacceptable, and they are a clear indication that the current approach to tackling this issue is not working.
Homelessness is not just about lacking a place to sleep. It is about the loss of stability, security, and dignity that comes with having a safe and stable place to call home.
It can happen to anyone, and it is often the result of complex and intersecting factors such as poverty, mental illness, family violence, and substance abuse.
One of the biggest challenges we face as a community and for St Bart’s as a housing provider is the lack of affordable housing in the Perth area.
The cost of living in Western Australia has risen significantly in recent years, particularly in the last year, and the availability of affordable housing has not kept up with the demand.
According to the 2022 Anglicare Rental Affordability Snapshot, just two per cent of rentals are affordable for a single person on minimum wage, and a staggering zero per cent are affordable for a single person on JobSeeker.
This has led to a situation where many people are unable to afford a place to live, and as a result, are forced to sleep rough or in emergency shelters.
The impact of the WA housing climate
Such has been the impact of the tightening economic and housing climate in Perth that in the financial year ending 2022 St Bart’s received a total of 2,207 service enquires, several coming from people who were, for the first time in their life, finding themselves under real housing stress and at risk of homelessness.
Furthermore, we had an average occupancy rate of 94 per cent across our 11 sites servicing transitional, mental health, aged care, and social housing support.
Perth’s housing affordability and supply crisis has further impacted St Bart’s, resulting in people having extended stays in our short-stay and supported accommodation services due to there simply not being enough social or affordable private rental housing for them to move into.
This has kept our Future Homes, Women’s Service and Family Service occupancies at or around capacity and has had a flow-on effect on the number of people enquiring about our services that we are, unfortunately, unable to accommodate.
Actions required to prevent the situation worsening
The current homelessness crisis in Perth is a complex issue that requires a multifaceted approach.
While there is no single solution that can solve the problem overnight, it is clear that we need to take immediate action to help those who are experiencing homelessness and to prevent others from falling into homelessness in the future.
The Western Australian Government has taken steps to address homelessness, including increasing funding for homeless services and implementing initiatives such as the Housing First program.
We welcome the Labor Government’s recent announcement of the Housing Australia Future Fund, which is committed to ensuring 30,000 social and affordable homes are built over the next five years, along with $200 million to repair housing in remote Indigenous communities, $100 million for crisis accommodation for women and children affected by domestic violence, and $30 million for housing veterans experiencing or at risk of homelessness.
CEO of St Bart's, Sam Drury FAIM
However, much more needs to be done, including government investment in more affordable and social housing, addressing the root causes of homelessness by acknowledging the part that poverty plays, and improving access to mental health services and addiction support.
A cookie-cutter approach to housing and support programs is not the best practice. Different housing options for different people in need are required beyond just social housing.
A greater volume and range of new social and affordable homes are required in Western Australia to meet current and ongoing demand, and there is a need for a wide range of consumer voices to be heard to help inform an evolving housing continuum.
In addition to these longer-term solutions, we also need to ensure that people have a choice of suitable accommodation and support for them at the time, whilst ensuring there is enough crisis accommodation to limit the time people spend without a roof over their heads.
Once a person is able to secure long-term housing, we need to make sure there are supports available to ensure they don’t cycle back into homelessness.
One such support that is available is St Bart’s Reconnecting Lives Program, which provides wraparound outreach services including tenancy support, social support, goal planning, NDIS package application and implementation, referrals to relevant health and support services, and assistance with accessing training and vocational upskilling.
Tailored to the individual needs of each program participant, this approach ensures St Bart’s can provide a rapid response to crises and intervene early before a program participant’s situation deteriorates to the point where they are at risk of regressing back into homelessness.
Government, private sector and the wider community all play a part
The responsibility of addressing homelessness does not solely lie with the Government. The wider community also has a role to play.
It requires cooperation between government agencies, non-profit organisations, and private sector entities to increase the availability of affordable housing and to provide the necessary support services to those in need.
Many people who are experiencing homelessness also suffer from mental health issues or addiction, which can make it difficult for them to access the support they need to get back on their feet.
To address this issue, we need to invest in more mental health and addiction support services and make these services more accessible to those who need them.
This will require more funding as well as better coordination between these services and other social support programs.
So, what can you do?
You can stand with us as we challenge the stigma and stereotypes associated with homelessness and recognise that anyone can find themselves in a vulnerable position.
You can support organisations that provide services to people experiencing homelessness, and you can educate yourself and others on the issues and advocate for change.
You can say YIMBY, short for “yes, in my back yard”, alongside other advocates who support increasing the supply of housing due to escalated living and housing costs.
I’m fortunate to be in a position where every day I see the resilience, strength and determination of people experiencing homelessness. We owe it to them to create a society that values and supports everyone, regardless of their circumstances.
Let’s work together to make Western Australia a place where everyone feels safe, stable and respected.
We can start by saying “G’day” when we pass the people living with the harsh realities of homelessness. This simple act of acknowledgement can leave a positive impact on the mental health and well-being of the people on our streets who are doing it tough.
Saying “G’day” doesn’t cost a thing, but it can bring change. Visit saygday.org.au for more information on this initiative, and stbarts.org.au