Unofficial Mayor of Martin Place Lanz Priestly.

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The release of an independent analysis into the social, economic and policy drivers determining the scale and nature of homelessness in Australia has polarised commentators and service providers. 

The Australian Homelessness Monitor, commissioned by Launch Housing, has found among other salient facts that Sydney’s homelessness population has trebled since the 2011 census. 

It stood at 116,000 Australia-wide on census night 2016, an increase of 14 per cent since 2011.

It also claims that 8,200 were homeless on census night 2016, a 20 per cent increase since 2011. 

Most of the blame for these figures is laid at the door of the runaway housing market, which has created unprecedented rental stress and a huge divide between those who can afford to buy, and those who never will.

The report has triggered predictable responses from politicians. 

Labor’s Shadow Minister for Housing and Homeless, Doug Cameron, pointed out that housing affordability and homelessness were effectively absent from the 2018-19 Budget.

“Labor has announced major policy initiatives to tackle homelessness and the housing affordability crisis and will have more to say before the next election,” he said.

In response the Federal Minister for Social Services, Dan Tehan, said the Commonwealth has pledged $7 billion to housing over the next five years, with an additional $620 million going to homelessness funding, whatever that distinction may be. 

Curiously enough these figures, while they demonstrate an actual economic and social crisis in our nation, are not the most controversial aspect of this analysis.

They’ve have been challenged by grass roots service providers, who say that statistical analysis, particularly those based on the 2016 census, are essentially flawed.

Linda Strickland runs Hawkesbury Helping Hands, a largely self-funded service based in Windsor, Western Sydney that’s been feeding and helping out people sleeping rough for the better part of the past decade.

She points out that while the 2016 census figures for Windsor put its homeless population at 57, as most homeless don’t have an address, they cannot, by definition have received census forms.

“A lot of people didn’t get (census) forms, so if you ask our guys they don’t know anything about it,” she told the City Hub.

“Most people you ask won’t even say that they’re homeless. If you’re going into the demographic of middle aged women, they’re embarrassed about their situation, so do you think they’re going to respond to a census and say they’re homeless? 

“I was in a meeting last week with service leaders and I was told that their data says homeless people are coming into Windsor from outer areas.

“They were trying to say that our service was bringing people into the area. 

“I asked them ‘where do you get your data from?’ I’m here to tell you I’m on the street every day and I’m telling you the data’s wrong. 

“I said that my data, which comes from talking to actual people, is that almost all of these people have a local connection. They don’t just sit down with a map and choose the Hawkesbury at random because they think they might get a nice lunch.”

“I said if that was true, then we should stand up and pat ourselves on the back, not think of it as a bad thing, I mean, what’s the old adage – you judge a town on how it treats its most vulnerable?

Lanz Priestly is a self-motivated advocate for the homeless who was dubbed the ‘Mayor of Tent City’ when Martin Place became an ad hoc citadel of homelessness last year. 

He says that basing the administration of homelessness services on census figures or indeed on the business models of national organisations is a flawed system.

“There’s a huge difference between what’s happening in the city and what’s happening in the country or outer suburban areas. Of all the schemes brokered through organisations and commented on in the media, well often nobody’s heard of these schemes in say, Mudgee.

“If you do the numbers out in country towns, the problem’s considerably higher than the statistics would show, as many people are couch surfing or sleeping in cars or staying with friends.

“There are bigger question that needs to be asked – yes, we’re seeing more social housing but there’s no empirical evidence that it alleviates the problem. No matter how much social housing is built, the disparity between income and what people have to pay is growing all the time. We’re not addressing the root causes. We have to make housing affordable for everybody. People fall through the cracks and two years later we pull them out. That’s like parking the ambulance two kilometres away from the bottom of cliff and then hoping they crawl over to you.”

The Homelessness Monitor concludes that homelessness is a social ill requiring a coherent strategic vision and the provision of social housing at realistic levels.

 But while the major parties gear up for a populist Federal election this kind of engagement on behalf of our most vulnerable seems unlikely.