Tuesday, December 21, 2010


It's easy just to say the homeless will always be with us.

Three years ago Kevin Rudd attempted to do something about it. This is what happened . . .


About this time, some three years ago, Kevin Rudd instructed all of his MPs to visit a homeless shelter. This seemingly revealed a new and exciting dimension to a Prime Minister who, until then, had appeared to be more of a dry policy-wonk. The move fleshed out his personality; providing a practical example of compassionate Christianity. He’d managed to arouse – in all of us – deep sympathy for those less fortunate than ourselves.

This became one part of a successful attempt to mobilise the country and rouse it to action on the issue of homelessness. Again, at the end of December, Rudd emphasised what he was trying to do in his endearing, folksy kind-of way. He thought to include the dispossessed in his New Year’s resolutions, listing these as getting fit and beginning "to make a difference on homelessness in Australia". But then, because he's a politician, and because politicians need votes, he made sure he left his audience smiling. He said that, for his third resolution, he'd "teach Abby, our golden retriever, that the flower beds at The Lodge are not to be dug up".

Aw shucks.

Well Abbey isn't at the Lodge anymore, and Rudd looked pretty fit the last time I saw him, but unfortunately, homelessness is still very much with us. In fact, very little appears to have been done over the past three years -- certainly nothing that could guarantee we're on track to achieve the former PM's target of "halving homelessness by the year 2020". No one doubts Rudd's determination, but apparently achievement needs to be filed under a different rubric.

Now Rudd did visit numerous homeless shelters (normally without the media being present, although they were often told about the trips afterwards) and he did announce a $150,000 five-year pledge to channel money towards resolving the problem. Then in May 2008, a "social inclusion board" was established in the PM's office to back up the rhetoric. This has given us, for example, "social inclusion week" which, Minister Tanya Plibersek claims offers us "an opportunity . . . to contribute to a stronger and fairer Australia" and reflect on the challenges faced by vulnerable members of the community. Presumably we then go back to devoting the remaining 51 weeks-a-year more or less exclusively to our own personal advancement.

Cynical comments like that don’t do much to help anyone. Unfortunately, it's all too easy to get stuck into some of the vacuous government rhetoric that surrounds the crisis of homelessness in our community. And that’s because it was the government that assured us it was coming up with a plan to deal with the problem. But merely wringing one’s hands won’t shorten the seemingly ever-lengthening lines of the dispossessed. Equally, despite the undoubted good intentions of those at the front-line (often funded by religious organisations, rather than government), the current methods of dealing with the problem aren’t solving it. Regrettably, ‘hope’ isn't a viable strategy. Something new needs to be tried.

This is what makes work recently presented to the Australian Catholic University’s Institute of Public Administration in Canberra so interesting. Gary Johns is a Labor man (he was Paul Keating's Special Minister of State) although more recently he’s been identified as a neo-liberal thinker. The point is he's now freed up from the dictates of ideology. He takes a broader perspective.

He started with a simple question – what research went into establishing Rudd’s goal? Why, for example, just “halve homelessness”, rather than attempt to reduce it by two-thirds? As soon as this query is raised it becomes obvious the answer is political . . . the first target is, somehow, more believable. It has a better ‘ring’ to it. Nothing wrong with that of course, but it demonstrates that our hopes aren’t based on detailed research, let alone a genuine plan for solving the issue. They’re simply ‘aspirations’.

We need hope, but we need to harness experience and knowledge in our efforts to solve this burgeoning problem. Out of every 10,000 Australians, it’s estimated that something like 53 are homeless. But that label covers everything from middle-aged men who’ve been sleeping rough for years to young people who’ve got no-where to go, right through to mothers and children desperate to escape abusive relationships (please pardon the stereotype). Johns points out we’ve known this since 1989, when Brian Burdekin conducted his research on the problem.

Johns notes that if we tirage these groups socially, by introducing new, targeted policies and support for particular groups, it should be possible to have a quick and demonstrable effect in reducing homelessness. This isn’t happening at the moment. We need to recognise the difference between the 16,375 people who are “sleeping rough” and the 46,856 sleeping on the couches of friends or relatives. Despite many promises of action there appears to be a marked reluctance on the part of politicians to commit more resources to dealing with, or even thinking about, the issue.

John's presented his research at a breakfast seminar. It seems unlikely the policy makers were listening. They’ll reflect voters’ attitudes, all too often pre-defined by peoples’ personal experience or ideology. That's why it was so good to hear the next speaker, Roslyn Dundas, the director of the ACT Council of Social Service. She didn't agree with the framework Johns was using to unlock solutions to the problems of the homeless, but that's not the point. Instead, she brought a determined and passionate advocacy to the debate, together with an ardent determination to do more. Unless her urgent emotional engagement with the issue of homelessness is found in the wider community, we may as well forget about solving the problem. We need to stop talking about the homeless and actually do something. Christmas seems like a good time to start.
This is my last column for the year and, hence, the decade. This news may put a spring into the step of at least one reader who believes I have been “unrelentingly unhelpful”. I don’t intend to be negative. Nevertheless, as a columnist, it’s not my job to join any cheer squad. Let us hope that the coming year will be filled with much more for us to be joyful about. Best wishes to all.

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