Homelessness in Australia is getting worse. It is no longer just city centers where people are forced to sleep on the streets, live in their cars or seek temporary shelter. The most recent census shows suburbs and regional areas are feeling housing pressure like never before.
Often communities in these areas just don’t know what to do. Increasingly, residents are asking small, sprawling municipalities to move beyond their traditional fare, road and waste responsibilities and do more to address homelessness.
But the local government lacks the mandate or money to do so. Often, the only tool available to municipalities is to enforce local laws regarding conduct in public places.
And when municipalities do get involved with the problem of homelessness, it is often too late. They react when homelessness has reached a crisis point, rather than working to prevent it.
Now, with the federal government developing Australia’s first National Housing and Homelessness Plan, it is increasingly recognized that state and federal governments need to bring their local counterparts to the table. My new report on what local government can do to end homelessness suggests that municipalities — more than 500 of them across the country — may be the missing link in efforts to solve the homelessness crisis.
As the level of government closest to the people, municipalities have a unique perspective on homelessness that other levels of government are simply too distant to see. If done correctly, this national plan could be the biggest opportunity we’ve ever seen for not only tackling homelessness, but for local governments to help prevent the problem at its roots.
Read more: Homeless numbers have risen since COVID housing efforts ended – and the problem is spreading beyond major cities
Housing everyone is no easy task
The causes and manifestations of homelessness are complex. We know from experience that it cannot be ‘solved’ by the action of one group. Collaboration central.
We also know that Australia needs more social and affordable housing. From June 2022 there were 174,624 households on waiting lists for public housing, 13,724 for Indigenous housing, and 41,906 for community housing. And the waiting lists don’t include everyone who needs housing.
But houses cannot be built overnight. Even if we do everything we can to increase the supply of social housing, we will probably be left with a shortage for a long time. That is why we need the involvement of the local government in the first place to prevent homelessness.
All too often we see reluctant municipalities explain that homelessness is not their problem to solve. But when we see it on local streets, in public parks and other shared spaces, it’s a weak argument.
Read more: ‘Getting on the waiting list is a struggle in itself’: insiders on what it takes to get social housing
We can learn from the successes abroad
Prevention is tricky. It takes many partners and many types of effort to implement it, and it is difficult to measure. But, like my report shows, we can learn from the successful efforts of local governments abroad.
For example, Newcastle City Council in the United Kingdom has prevented homelessness in less than a decade more than 24,000 households. It has achieved this by working with local government officials and services to identify the triggers leading to homelessness and opportunities to intervene before someone loses their home.
And in U.S. cities, including San Francisco, Washington DC, and Baltimore, social workers and those with previous experiences of homelessness, mental health issues, and drug and alcohol use work successfully in public libraries to help people at risk access support and services.
Identifying potential homelessness before it becomes a crisis is something well-informed Australian council workers can do too. They work deep in communities, often know their customers and can spot early warning signs.
Joint efforts are needed to train council workers so they know how to connect with specialized services that can help someone find housing, get emergency funds to pay bills or access health services. These actions can stop homelessness before it happens.
Read more: Municipalities’ help with affordable housing shows how local government can make a difference
But first guesses must be part of the plan
The federal government appears to have adopted the 2021 recommendations parliamentary inquiry into homelessness in Australia and identified local government as an untapped resource and partner.
A national plan that recognizes and defines the unique contribution municipalities can make to preventing homelessness, and allocates money to it, could be a breakthrough.
Local government doesn’t have to be the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, or the cleanup crew.
If municipalities are truly recognised, willing and equipped to take on this role in preventing homelessness, it can also reduce the amount of social, temporary and emergency housing needed later on. It could even end homelessness in Australia.