Get it together: 18 months to write a plan is not OK as people freeze on Perth streets

WA Today

12th August 2019.

Major questions remain over how Western Australia will end homelessness through switching to a ‘housing-first’ approach, with a strategy announced a year ago still nowhere near being released.

Meanwhile, a world authority on homelessness visited Perth to warn that without this approach, any other housing initiatives – such as those announced last week, perhaps – have failure “built in”.

Adopted in Ireland, New Zealand and Canada, Housing First turns the traditional model on its head.

Instead of expecting people to address their mental illness or addictions before being housed, Housing First means they get a permanent home with no readiness conditions. Then, they can realistically and meaningfully address other issues.

In April 2018, WA’s biggest community organisations including Anglicare, Shelter WA and the Red Cross, which had joined forces as the WA Alliance to End Homelessness, launched their comprehensive 10-year strategy to end homelessness by 2028 on Housing First principles.

In August 2018, the state government announced the government would create its own 10-year strategy – not to “duplicate” the Alliance’s work, but “link to and expand” on it with a draft to be published by the end of 2018.

Nothing happened at the end of 2018, the government being hard at work on its ‘directions paper’.

In April 2019, this paper was released for yet more public comment.

Now, during Homelessness Week 2019, the government has still not published its strategy.

Nothing is expected before the end of the year and I am not holding my breath for any implementation (funding being "subject to Cabinet consideration").

Perhaps the government will then commence work on an ‘implementation plan’, which of course might require its own public consultation round.

Minister McGurk said the Alliance's strategy "provided an excellent foundation" but more work was required.

She said the government's strategy included extensive consultation and engagement including facilitated workshops in regional centres, an online survey, engaging with key stakeholders involved in co-designing components of the strategy, and developing a storybook featuring West Australians with lived experience of homelessness.

I read through the Alliance’s document and it looked brilliant to me. Even if it needed some work, how is another 1½ years justifiable?

Maybe they just wanted to rewrite the strategy because there is nothing this government loves more than planning to plan, and writing strategies.

How long can they keep pushing paper around? Until the next election?

During 2019 Homelessness Week last week, the government did say Housing First would be central to its strategy.

It also announced a new program: 20 Lives, 20 Homes in Fremantle.

This subsidises people to get into private rentals without the rent swallowing more than a quarter of their income, as in public housing.

Mind you, the lion's share of the money came from philanthropists corralled by Perth property developer Matthew McNeilly.

It’s described in the ministerial statement as a "proven" housing-first approach, based on a "successful" Perth program (Ruah’s 50 Lives, 50 Homes permanently housed almost 150 people over three years).

Yet the government said funding for the Fremantle program is a "trial" and described it as a "two-year program" aiming to provide "permanent" housing.

Asked for clarification, Ms McGurk said the trial aspect referred to the private rental subsidy component.

She also stressed another difference was the program was "place based" and Fremantle and Perth were two different places.

The program sounds excellent, but it wasn't the government's idea, and the state's other announcements last week (totalling $1.5 million funding), while valuable, also indicate it's pretty much business as usual for the other 9000 West Australians experiencing homelessness.

They amounted to keeping open the doors of Leederville's Foyer Oxford youth homelessness service. Some were to "trial" the Home Stretch program supporting up to 15 Fremantle teens at risk of exiting foster care into homelessness. And some were to expand opening hours at Northbridge’s Tranby Centre shelter.

Bob Jordan, Ireland’s national director of Housing First, addressed Perth service providers at a Homelessness Week event on Thursday.

“The traditional approach is a shelter, then transitional housing to permanent housing,” he said.

“There is failure built into this situation.”

From a three-year pilot for 1.7 million Dubliners from 2011, he launched a national implementation plan in 2018, alongside the country’s Health and Housing ministers.

Now across the country, homeless people get a permanent unit within four weeks and wraparound addiction and mental health support.

Housing First had a 75-80 per cent success rate worldwide, Mr Jordan said.

Mr Jordan canvassed the room to ask how WA was doing on key Housing First principles and those gathered agreed “pretty much zero” of WA’s homeless population was getting anything like it.

Mr Jordan cautioned that if a system wasn't helping the most complex cases, relied on shelters, or limited the time people had a home or service, it wasn’t true to the Housing First model.

“You pull that thread and Housing First turns into a wet cake and the results go back to what they were before,” he said.

If you wonder what's happening to Perth's complex cases, read 'Sophie's story' published on Thursday.

But Minister McGurk said the projects announced last week were consistent with the Housing First strategy, and were also on top of $89 million annual homelessness service funding.

She said the Tranby Centre was an important ‘touch point’ service that connected people with other supports they needed.

"It is not a question of prioritisation – it is about meeting the immediate needs of people sleeping rough in Perth," she said.

Ms McGurk said the Ireland program was developed over many years and had the opportunity to grow through low-cost housing in the years following the GFC. In WA, market conditions were very different.

"There’s no argument that unlocking low-cost housing supply is important and implementation of a ‘housing first’ approach will be considered through the 10-Year Strategy on Homelessness," she said.

And so we wait.