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Australia’s hidden homeless

Cover of Australia's Hidden HomelessThe Hotham Mission’s Asylum Seeker Project (ASP) provides housing and support to people seeking asylum in Victoria. In 2010, they released a report outlining the challenges faced by agencies housing people seeking asylum. The report included 11 recommendations to the Government, along with a proposed model for combating homelessness.

People seeking asylum and homelessness

Why are people seeking asylum at particular risk of homelessness?

Most people seeking asylum live in the community while waiting for their refugee claim to be determined. More than half have no financial safety net. Most find it  difficult to find work. They don’t speak the language, don’t have local references, and don’t have known work histories.

For the small proportion of people seeking asylum who manage to find paid work, it is hard to rent housing. Two of the key reasons are a lack of rental references and discrimination. Despite this, people seeking asylum are often left out of the mainstream debate over homelessness.

This leaves destitute people seeking asylum with two choices. They can get government-funded crisis and transitional housing. More commonly, they live in housing provided by specialised non-governmental agencies.

Why should our government care?

Housing is a fundamental human right. Homelessness can have serious, long-term effects on a person’s mental and physical health. Even a short time being homeless causes long-term trauma.

Yet there is no evidence that forced destitution encourages people seeking asylum to return to their country.

The ASP surveyed housing models in Australia and overseas for people seeking asylum. They found overwhelming support for a better housing model for people seeking asylum.

Key challenges in the Australian context

Australia has a serious shortage of affordable housing.

People seeking asylum can apply for government-subsidised transitional housing. However, they find it hard to access these programs. Programs require clients to have an exit plan, which can be difficult for those without income. Providers also often don’t understand their specific needs and vulnerabilities.

Living in government-subsidised crisis accommodation was not considered appropriate. Such housing was for short-term, and many clients there had mental health or substance issues.

As a result, people seeking asylum rely on specialised non-governmental agencies.

These agencies raised other issues with housing. One was that agencies often provide both casework and housing support. This can create a conflict between the role of advocate and the role of landlord.

There was also no consistency in housing agreements used, with very few using legal leases. While flexible, these informal agreements make it difficult for agencies to enforce eviction rights.

Finally, shared housing was not considered appropriate, especially for women with children.

Following these national consultations, the ASP conducted consultations in the UK, Sweden and Canada. These were countries with established models for safe, secure and affordable housing for people seeking asylum.

Those countries differed in that:

  • Housing was government-funded through the process of determining their claim, although standards varied
  • They accepted their legal and moral responsibility to house people seeking asylum
  • There was legislation specific to housing people seeking asylum
  • They provided other support alongside housing (for example, a living allowance, orientation, referrals, language classes)
  • They provided more support to families with children under 18
  • Robust housing was also considered important in monitoring compliance with conditions
  • Housing standards were in place in UK and Canada, and being developed in Sweden

Findings

People seeking asylum in Victoria rely on specialised housing agencies. This is not sustainable as these agencies often rely on philanthropy.
Australia needs to make it easier for people seeking asylum to access government-funded transitional housing. This is possible due to our relatively small population of people seeking asylum.

The design of medium-term housing programs should reflect its transitional nature. It should neither be within a settlement services framework nor cause social isolation.

It is important that support alongside housing is provided by specialist agencies. There should be a smooth transition once status has been resolved to either settlement or return.
Any future housing model should be consistent with current government policy on housing and the homelessness service system.

Recommendations

The report recommended that the Government should expand the Community Assistance and Support Scheme (CAS) to include all people seeking asylum at risk of homelessness. The CAS program should be made more flexible and tailored to specific support needs.

In the medium term, the government should provide safe, secure and affordable medium-term housing to people seeking asylum. The housing should be consistent with the Australian protection framework and within the current legislative framework. A ‘portfolio’ approach should be taken to housing stock, to ensure Australian citizens and residents are not deprived.

It also recommended that a national scoping study should be conducted to determine the ongoing need for subsidised housing among people seeking asylum in our community.
In the long term, the government should include the provision of safe and secure housing in its strategic homelessness agenda by 2020. It should also introduce legislation to protect their rights.

A pilot program

The report recommended a 12-month pilot in Victoria. This should be extended nationally after evaluation. Under this model:

  • The Department of Immigration and Citizenship funds State departments to contract with specialist, registered housing providers.
  • The housing providers subcontract with community agencies (CAS/ASAS service providers) to provide other support component.
  • Housing quality will be monitored under existing tenancy legislation, and tenancy management will be done by the housing provider.
  • Properties will be sourced from current properties over which agencies for people seeking asylum have nomination rights. With the prospect of a rental return, more houses owned by church groups and private people are likely to become available.
  • Rent should be set at 80% of market value, and subsidised depending on the needs of the person seeking asylum.

Under this model, the Department would assess eligibility upon a person’s arrival in Australia and the individual would then be referred to ASAS or CAS. Housing would be provided for between three to 18 months, with reviews at six and 12 months.

When leaving the housing, people seeking asylum should be supported to apply for public housing and rental properties. This should include access to interest-free bond loans, private rental assistance funding, backdating new public housing applications to the date a person first accessed public housing, and extending eligibility to the National Rental Affordability Scheme.

The future

The model proposed by the ASP seeks to provide secure, affordable housing for people seeking asylum within current homelessness frameworks. This will lessen the current exclusion of people seeking asylum from the mainstream homelessness debate. Regardless of the outcome of claim, our human rights obligations require that people seeking asylum are housed safely and securely while they are in Australia.

Read Australia’s Hidden Homeless

Author: Johan Ariff

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