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City of Melbourne releases new homelessness strategy

City of Melbourne releases new homelessness strategy
David Schout

The City of Melbourne has launched a new homelessness strategy to address the city’s “housing and homelessness crisis”

People sleeping on Melbourne’s streets were just the “tip of the iceberg” in the city’s homelessness crisis, with many more women and children sleeping in cars or on couches according to the City of Melbourne.

The council’s comments come as it put forward a new Homelessness Strategy 2024-30, which aimed to respond to a “vastly changed social and political environment” since its previous guiding document (2014-17).

A draft version of the new strategy has been underpinned by research undertaken in 2022-23 and was endorsed by councillors at the February 20 Future Melbourne Committee meeting.

According to the 2021 census, 1163 people were experiencing homelessness in the City of Melbourne, and 130 people were sleeping rough.

However, these statistics were taken during COVID-19 when the Victorian Government accommodated people sleeping rough in hotels during this period, which could account for the decrease.

Statistics from 2020, for instance, indicated more than 300 rough sleepers in the municipality, many of whom congregate in the CBD.

The new strategy reiterated that homelessness was something people experience rather than “who they are” and underlined that it “can happen to anyone at any point in their lives”.

“In our city, we are facing a housing and homelessness crisis, a situation mirrored across Australia and the world,” the document stated.

 

Visible homelessness, people sleeping rough on the streets, is just the tip of the iceberg in our homelessness crisis. Many more women, children and families are part of the hidden problem – sleeping in their cars, on other people’s couches and in severely overcrowded or temporary accommodation.

 

The strategy prioritises four cohorts: Aboriginal people, people experiencing long-term homelessness, women, and young people (aged 15 to 25).

The council said that these groups had “unique needs not currently met within Melbourne’s homelessness system”.

Aboriginal people, for example, were “vastly over-represented” in Melbourne’s homelessness population.

Despite accounting for just 0.5 per cent of the City of Melbourne’s population, five per cent of people experiencing homelessness and 15 per cent experiencing chronic homelessness were Aboriginal peoples.

People experiencing long-term homelessness (for 12 months or more) are identified within the new strategy as having “multiple and complex needs”, which often involved mental health difficulties.

The cohort has elevated rates of depression and substance abuse, often used as a method used “to cope with the dangers, stress and anxiety they face”.

“It is now widely understood that housing alone is unlikely to be an adequate or lasting solution (for this group). Many who have been sleeping rough for an extended time have experienced deep trauma and violence, have complex needs and require physical and mental health support.”

The strategy indicated that the number of women with young children who don’t have anywhere to live has “risen dramatically in the past five years”, with family violence the “primary cause”.

It also indicated that one in six clients of homelessness services in Melbourne are aged 15 to 24, yet the current system “focuses on adults”.

“Young people are caught in this system, and their unique service and housing needs go unmet.”

Research underpinning the strategy identified “many problems” with the homelessness service system at present, including short-term and unstable funding and timely access to healthcare (including mental health).

Police have improved system for rough sleepers, cracking down on fake beggars

Through Operation Protocol, a partnership outreach program with the Salvation Army and the council, Victoria Police say they’ve helped lower the number of rough sleepers in the CBD and better balanced supporting people experiencing homelessness while maintaining safety and amenity.

“No one should ever sleep or be left on the street. It is not a safe location to sleep,” Area Commander for Melbourne East Inspector Dale Huntington told Southbank News.

Inspector Huntington said people causing more issues, particularly at the nearby southern end of Elizabeth St in the CBD, but also in Southbank, were not rough sleepers that were known to police.

Rather, they were people posing as beggars who travel into the city and “take advantage” of “Melbourne’s generosity”.

“We’ve got a really robust system now in looking after those people (rough sleepers) and engaging with the appropriate government authorities in relation to people who need to be housed and supported,” he said.

“These are not those people. We can comfortably say now that we’re dealing with these people behind the scenes who need assistance.

“This is a different thing we’re looking at. This is a thing that’s impacting people walking on the streets, especially those with a disability, and impacting businesses who are trying to make a dollar.

“We’re looking out for those who need help – the homeless. But for people who are coming here to do the wrong thing they will be moved along, if not processed in some shape or form.”

In 2022 the police and the council confirmed that a group of people were travelling into the CBD to beg on the streets despite having accommodation, with much of this activity reported to be taking place along Southbank Promenade.

Inspector Huntington said that, for traders, improvements were possible, starting with better lines of communication, and urged businesses to report issues.

“We’re saying we want you to ring in, we want you to be part of the solution and help us address this issue.”

“When people set up their piece of cardboard out the front of your premises … if you’re competing with someone who hasn’t got a person begging out the front, you’re losing customers. We want you to report those people in.”

Locals urged to have their say

Community consultation for the draft homelessness strategy is open until April 7, and the council has committed to undertaking “tailored engagement” with people with a lived experience of homelessness, and key local stakeholders including traders and residents.

Health, wellbeing and belonging portfolio lead Cr Olivia Ball said where the council set its priorities and objectives was “critical to this strategic work” and welcomed public feedback. •

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