Over recent months, we have seen a heightened interest in the community to address the issue of homelessness. The recently launched "Sleepbus" in Queanbeyan is an example of this - community members seeking to provide a solution to this incredibly complex and difficult issue.
As the chief executive of a specialist homelessness service provider, YWCA Canberra, I know I speak for many in the sector who welcome the positive intentions and the interest from our community in ensuring all Canberrans have access to a roof over their heads.
But equally, I think it's important to make sure that the desire to provide a solution doesn't result in temporary and potentially problematic Band-Aid housing options, which may result in significant issues for the people they seek to support.
The circumstances of an individual's homelessness are often complex, intertwined with social, health and economic factors that require holistic responses grounded in identifying and managing those circumstances. In December 2020, around 1700 Canberrans were registered with Specialist Homelessness Services, including nearly 500 women who were victims of family violence.
Homelessness includes those sleeping rough on the streets as well as people sleeping in cars, on spare couches with family and friends, and in insecure tenancies, while navigating the network of services that can provide support. For the many who are also managing their own trauma, wellbeing and even workplace presentation, the stress can be overwhelming.
With public and social housing waiting lists nearly three years long and a dearth of affordable rentals in Canberra, the community is keen to see an end to homelessness. This ripens the field for new ventures to enter the marketplace of ideas to respond to what is an intractable social problem.
Let's look at the Sleepbus, a project where those in need of a bed are provided a sleep pod in a retrofitted bus that is parked in a public space. The venture originated in St Kilda and has since migrated to Queanbeyan, with a future bus planned for Canberra. Despite the positive energy and goodwill that has driven this project, the provision of temporary sleeping space, outside of the structure of a resourced and staffed shelter or transitional housing, brings with it significant risk.
Those who work with Canberra's homeless are professionally trained and trauma-informed with considerable knowledge of the labyrinthine system their clients are navigating and the complex ramifications of homelessness on every aspect of a person's life.
At YWCA Canberra, and across the advocacy and specialist homelessness-housing organisations we collaborate with, our priority is brick-and-mortar housing that provides safe, dignified, and sustainable options and pathways out of homelessness. With an understanding of the complex issues at play, we also deliver case-management services and support to clients across a range of accommodation services, including shared accommodation, community housing, transitional housing and outreach support. We are well-placed to understand both the causes of homelessness and be part of creating longer-term solutions.
While YWCA Canberra appreciates that good intentions and generous donations have contributed to the construction of the Sleepbus, we are deeply concerned that this model fails to demonstrate any real appreciation for either the individual trauma or the underlying circumstances of those who are in housing crisis or homelessness.
The Sleepbus aims to provide a safe, comfortable night of sleep, based on the well-established concept that a good night of sleep improves mental and physical health. However, a model that blends users - regardless of circumstances, trauma and needs - into a confined space for a night before setting them off, still homeless, into the waking day is not a sustainable response to homelessness nor the causes of homelessness, which for women are typically family violence, relationship breakdown and financial stress.
Without a permanent home, the people using the Sleepbus will still spend their days concerned about their next night, their next meal, and how to maintain any work or social security payments without an address to put down on their paperwork.
Much better is a response that firstly acknowledges the unique circumstances of individuals experiencing homelessness, then provides them with targeted and trauma-informed support based on those circumstances. This may involve helping them to maintain existing tenancies or linking them with housing that meets their needs where they can feel safe and confidentially draw upon support services.
The Sleepbus follows in the footsteps of a number of other community-led projects that service the homeless on the street, like food vans and mobile laundries. There are even projects in the works to provide portable bathrooms for rough sleepers to access through the day.
Unfortunately, despite their positive intentions, these solutions are founded in aiming to make sleeping on the streets more bearable - when what we really need to do is pour our energy, donations and effort into providing secure accommodation to end homelessness entirely.
Solutions such as the Sleepbus, which are developed outside the established network of advocacy, evidence base, social and specialist housing organisations, can sadly create the impression that a solution has been found, when in fact the entrenched issues driving homelessness have not been addressed. Why the Sleepbus has not been utilised by those experiencing homelessness in other Australian cities needs to be considered. This includes the risk factors of mental health, drug and alcohol use, the fear perpetrators may locate women and children escaping violence, and violence from other users.
We encourage the community to follow the work of local social and specialist housing organisations, and to throw your support behind the construction of brick-and-mortar homes that are affordable, dignified and secure. When people have a stable place to call home they can connect with community, neighbourhoods and opportunities, and begin to work towards bringing regularity back into their lives.
- Frances Crimmins is chief executive of YWCA Canberra.