Australia Communities and society, Housing and planning, Welfare and equalities

“Educate yourself as much as possible” – An interview with National Shelter CEO Emma Greenhalgh


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To learn more about the work of National Shelter Australia, Beatrice Makeig from LGIU spoke with the CEO, Emma Greenhalgh, about housing and homelessness in Australia, their role as a national peak body (advocacy group), and her views on how local government can address homelessness within their community.

To start us off, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?

I’m currently the CEO of National Shelter, a not-for-profit, national peak body representing the housing interests of low-income households in Australia. As for my background, I’ve always worked in the housing and homelessness space – this has been in research, policy and strategic planning in the private and not-for-profit sector, as well as delivering housing and homelessness policy for Brisbane City Council in the city of Gold Coast.

Could you tell us about National Shelter Australia? 

The work of National Shelter is primarily advocacy and engagement to raise awareness of housing issues for low-income households, as well as delivering policy solutions.

While our interest is around low-income households, we are tenure-neutral. Our interest is in social and affordable housing, private rentals, and opportunities for lower-income households to achieve home ownership. Ultimately, what we have an interest in isn’t just purely the delivery of housing but a healthy housing market. We also have an interest in infrastructure, taxation, town planning, as well as how the rental market and social/affordable housing are working. It’s quite a diverse area of interest, which means, for us, there’s no point in focusing on one part of the housing market if the rest isn’t working well. We want the housing system to be operating as effectively and efficiently as it can, particularly for low-income households.

To provide a little bit of context about the Shelter Network, we have a network with each state and territory shelter, with the exception of Victoria, which means we have quite a deep reach into Australia’s housing and homelessness sector. National Shelter itself has been going for nearly 50 years, and some of the other state and territory shelters have been around for about the same amount of time or just slightly less.

What would you say are the current trends being seen in homelessness in Australia? Is there a certain demographic that’s struggling more with housing than others?

I think what we’re seeing at the moment – the housing crisis in Australia, the amount rent is increasing and low vacancy rates – is there are cohorts at risk of homelessness or experiencing homelessness that would never have normally had housing issues. The rental market is incredibly competitive, and people are finding it very difficult to either secure housing in the first instance or, if they’re in the rental market, maintain housing because rent increases are so much. What that means is we’re seeing people seeking support who never normally would have. We’re seeing dual-income families, so people with moderate incomes that we consider to be reasonably well off, that either can’t get a home or their housing costs are so ridiculously high that it’s difficult to pay for other goods. What that then means is for those who are on incredibly low incomes, we’re seeing families sleeping in cars and in tents. I’d say at the moment, there’s probably not a particular cohort, but if you are on a very low income, you are obviously at greater risk of homelessness and probably more likely to be experiencing homelessness whether it’s young people, families or older people.

Would you say economic factors and the cost of living are the biggest threats or risks causing homelessness in Australia?

Absolutely. I think it’s housing costs in combination with what’s going on with the cost of living in terms of utilities and food inflation. For someone who is on a very low income, their housing costs could be consuming nearly all, if not all, of their income, meaning they would be forgoing other essentials and may need to seek material or food relief from agencies.

Could you explain how homelessness is currently dealt with in Australia? Is it a local, state or federal issue or mainly addressed by charities like National Shelter?

In terms of funding, the primary source of funding for homelessness services in Australia is through the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement, which is a bilateral agreement between states and territories and the federal government. It includes housing funding of AUD$1.6bn annually, which hasn’t really grown much, but the agreement is renegotiated every five years and is coming up for renegotiation. It’s an agreement that has been around since the 40s in the housing sense but brought in homelessness only relatively recently.

The agreement is where the main homelessness funding comes from, and it’s dispersed to services generally through state governments. For example, for homelessness services in Queensland, their funding comes through state governments, and their funding relationship is with the state government. So even though there’s a national agreement, the federal government doesn’t directly fund those homelessness services.

States will also add additional funding to what’s provided by the federal government depending on what is happening politically, for example, whether there’s an election or significant demand, and they may do the same with housing. What we’ve seen recently in Australia is Queensland and Victoria’s state governments committing billions to the development of social and affordable housing, over and above what they received from the Commonwealth. That funding commitment is a recognition that funding for social housing has not kept up with the demand or population growth and, in real terms, has been going backwards.

What is also seen in Australia, and in a number of jurisdictions internationally, are services that are developed by people not in the homelessness sector, such as Orange Sky Laundry, which offers a laundry service for people who are experiencing homelessness, living on the streets or maybe in insecure accommodation. So there are community-led homelessness responses that do then become quite large and which don’t generally get government funding.

Essentially, in Australia, there is the funded sector of homelessness and housing services, and the unfunded sector, which is often community-led and based on mutual aid, such as laundry services, food pantries, meal services or another model we’ve seen, is creating safe places for people to sleep by using underutilised car parks at night.

How important are local community attitudes towards homelessness when addressing the issue?

Yes, that’s a really live discussion because I think community attitudes can be so incredibly varied in one location or in one community, and it speaks to the complexity of how you respond to homelessness and the politics around homelessness. Local governments and councils in Australia can have some people in their communities who want homelessness to be cleaned up, in inverted commas, and people moved on. However, then you’ve got others in the community who would like to see a response that’s more supportive and provides housing, which then brings up a whole issue about what local government does.

Community engagement, education, and having really really open discussions around homelessness and the causes and drivers of it are really critical with communities because sometimes community reactions can be based on a lack of knowledge and also based on fear.

Is there any advice you would give to local government trying to achieve this shift in community attitude and encourage community participation?

I would say for councillors, and even senior staff, educate yourself as much as possible. Before engaging with the community, you’ve got to really understand the issue of what’s going on in your community and really understand why people might be experiencing homelessness.

It’s also worth finding the leaders in your council. Having senior leaders who engage with the community and talk about the issue has been really helpful in examples I’ve seen here in Australia. When a Mayor has decided they want to do something about homelessness, even if they’re not sure what to do but they’re actively taking an interest and talking to the community about it, that’s when a council response and policy is made. So I think councils need to educate themselves first. They need to find their allies. It doesn’t necessarily mean they have to put a lot of resourcing into it, but I think being comfortable having the conversation with the community and not running away from it is really important.

If you could get all the local governments across Australia to do one thing to help combat homelessness, what would you like that to be?

I think I’m going to give you two. To be honest, the one thing I really want to say is that at the moment, the federal government have an Issues Paper out for the National Housing and Homelessness Plan, and submissions close on the 20th of October. I would highly encourage local governments to put in a submission because what we’ve seen with the current government is they’ve really acknowledged the role of local government in terms of the National Housing Accord and the National Cabinet Planning Reforms. I think it’s really critical that we see a National Housing and Homelessness Plan appropriately recognise local governments for the work they do and the work that they can do. I think it’s important to provide local government with resources to do this because what often happens is they want to do housing and homelessness work, but their budgets are too slim, and they need to prioritise their core business. That’s the one thing I really encourage local governments to do right now.

The other thing I’d really encourage them to do is get a handle on what’s going on, on the ground. For example, undertaking a Housing Needs Assessment, which can include homelessness services as well. If local councils undertake a needs assessment to understand what’s going on in their community, that will inform a number of things like planning schemes and housing and homelessness policies. Going forward, I would like to see local governments developing housing and homelessness policies that make it really clear to the community and internal staff how local authorities see their role in relation to housing and homelessness.

Of course, not every local government is going to want to or be able to do the same thing for a range of reasons, for example, a metropolitan council response would look very different from a rural council response, this could be budget-related or that community housing circumstances are different. However, the development of a homelessness and housing policy provides clarity, to the community and internal staff, about the scope of a council’s response to homelessness and housing. In terms of what sits in that policy, that’s where I suggest councils start by looking at Leanne Mitchell’s work on what local government can do to end homelessness.


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