HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [1.09 pm]: I move — That this house —
(a) expresses its grave concern about growing rates of homelessness in Western Australia;
(b) recognises that the WA Labor government’s initiatives and announcements to date are wholly insufficient to address this crisis; and
(c) condemns the WA Labor government for failing to take a whole-of-government approach to homelessness, acknowledging particularly the failed intersections between homelessness responses and WA police, transport, justice, mental health, and alcohol and other drug services.
I thought long and hard before putting this motion on the notice paper. I was unsure whether I should bring on this motion or a motion to highlight the failings of this government on either community-managed mental health services or what is happening in child protection. However, I recognised that we will have an opportunity to talk about what is happening with child protection during debate on one of the bills on the notice paper that is scheduled to be dealt with later in this term, so I hope I will get more of an opportunity to speak about that then. The reason I decided to bring the issue of homelessness to this chamber for its consideration is that too many services are contacting me because they are concerned that despite all the announcements being made by the government, things are not improving on the ground and, in many cases, elements are getting worse. This issue continues to be raised with me. I note that it is becoming such a big problem that it is also getting a significant amount of attention in the lead-up to the Perth mayoral election. It is a serious and vitally important topic and is an area on which I think, frankly, the WA Labor government’s performance to date has been very poor. It has displayed a great commitment to spin over substance. I have no doubt that in response to this motion, Labor members will stand and once again put out there all the announcements that have been made—I do not doubt that. I will not be surprised if we see a government amendment to my motion to try to congratulate itself, as ill-deserved as that would be. I am used to the way that the Labor government chooses to respond to legitimate and genuine concerns that are brought to its attention and I anticipate that we will hear all of it. But that does not mean that I need to make any apology for raising concerns in this chamber. I suspect that a number of people will want to speak about what they are seeing and what they are hearing from services, because things are simply not improving on the ground and, in many instances, they are getting worse.
We know that access to stable and secure housing is a fundamental right. This is not a luxury that we are trying to give to people; it is absolutely essential. Without a home, it is virtually impossible to be physically and mentally well and it is virtually impossible to access employment or even to succeed at education or training. When people do not have homes, the costs borne by the community are significant, and it is simply a false economy to not adequately address homelessness. It is a short-term saving for a long-term cost. But it is not just about the money that is thrown at this issue; it is also about how we engage with those communities that are so desperately in need of support.
The first part of this motion calls on the Legislative Council to express grave concern about the growing rates of homelessness. I am the first to acknowledge that there is a frustrating paucity of robust evidence in this space. We have census data that presents the most accurate and detailed information, but that is now four years old. We have public housing waitlists, but they are not an accurate reflection of the full extent of need, particularly amongst the most vulnerable, who may not have access to identification and the other documents that are an essential part of being able to even apply for public housing in the first place. Public housing eviction statistics rarely provide a complete picture because they do not include tenancies that end before formal eviction has taken place, which is the case with many proceedings because obviously people seek to avoid the costs associated with the completion of formal eviction proceedings.
That being said, we know that homelessness in Western Australia is on the increase. We know this based on the most recent data available from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, which demonstrates a rise in homelessness service clients in WA from 92 clients per 10 000 in 2017 to 95.8 clients in 2018–19. That is a four per cent rise, and, members, that is before the pandemic was a thing. It is particularly concerning that this number includes a disproportionate increase in the number of First Nation people, children on child protection orders and people with mental health and alcohol and other drug issues who are accessing homelessness services. These are some of the most vulnerable people in our community and, frankly, I am appalled that they are amongst those who are being increasingly represented by those who find themselves homeless.
We are also receiving lots of anecdotal evidence about what is happening with the homelessness rates in this state. I know that St Patrick’s Community Support Centre in Fremantle, for example, has been reporting a steady increase in the number of people needing support who are coming to its centre. We also know that the Daydawn Advocacy Centre in Perth has been seeing an increase in the number of people who are homeless, particularly those who are rough sleeping.
We also know, as we have discussed previously in this chamber, that there are over 1 000 fewer social and public housing dwellings in WA than there were in 2017, when this Labor government took office. The minister’s answer to the question on notice asked by my colleague Hon Tim Clifford yesterday revealed that since 30 March this year, the McGowan government has built, purchased or internally transferred only 24 properties for use as social housing— only 24 properties in nearly six months, when we are facing a shortfall of 15 000 properties! According to Anglicare, before the COVID-19 pandemic, WA needed about 15 000 additional public housing properties, and that number could double considering the economic impact of COVID-19. This data absolutely demonstrates a wholly insufficient— that is, a terrible—response to homelessness in WA by the current government. As at 31 May 2020, 23 709 people were seeking public housing. That is an appalling figure in a developed, relatively prosperous state.
As I said, I am anticipating—I think we are all expecting—that government members will see this motion as an opportunity to rise and say that they are doing all these amazing things. For example, I am anticipating that they will use words such as “unprecedented levels of spending” and they will talk about the Common Ground facilities, which I will also have some things to say about. I acknowledge that some positive initiatives and ideas have been put out there, but I note that some of them have been announced repeatedly as though they are separate announcements. Maybe that is because there are not enough actual things to announce or possibly it is because the government is still absolutely not doing enough in this space. The Common Ground facilities have been mentioned in government media statements on at least three occasions, yet not one dollar has been spent on this project, and there is no estimated completion date for the first of the two facilities, nor even a location for the second.
People on the ground are going to tell us that what WA needs to properly address the homelessness crisis is more housing, and that is absolutely self-evident. According to the minister’s media statements, over the next year the following will be built, and members do not need to repeat this, because we are well aware of the announcements; they have been published breathlessly by The West Australian. The media statements have stated that 250 new social housing dwellings will be built as part of a $444 million stimulus package; 300 social housing dwellings and 200 affordable Keystart homes will be built as part of the housing investment package; and 170 vulnerable rough sleepers will be housed as part of the Housing First homelessness initiative. That is a grand total of 920 new homes. Members, that is fewer than 1 000. That does not come anywhere near the at least 15 000 new homes we need to deal with Western Australia’s homelessness crisis. I repeat that that number of 15 000 new homes is expected to double. Western Australia now has over 1 000 fewer social and public housing homes than it did in 2017 when the Australian Labor Party took government. I remind members opposite, before they rise and talk about this initiative— which I have just repeated for them, so they do not need to do that—that this is not even replacing the number of social houses that have been lost since the Labor Party has been in government. Only 24 social houses have been built or purchased since March this year.
I have to say something about this government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis in March and April. People in the homelessness and housing sector, and also in the mental health sector, are still reeling from how badly the government handled the immediate response to COVID. It was chaos.
Hon Stephen Dawson interjected.
Hon ALISON XAMON: There were simply not enough viable options to keep people safe.
The PRESIDENT: There is no need to yell across the chamber.
Hon ALISON XAMON: The department was in turmoil.
Hon Stephen Dawson interjected.
Hon ALISON XAMON: WA managed to dodge a bullet.
Hon Stephen Dawson interjected.
Hon ALISON XAMON: Excuse me, minister! I am speaking.
Western Australia dodged a bullet, but we may not be as lucky next time. Everyone is anticipating that this state will have a second wave at some point. The question will be: will it look like New South Wales or will it look like Victoria? We will not know that until it hits. Experts are predicting that, either way, there will be an increased chance of other pandemics as a result of climate change. We have to start to be adequately prepared. An important aspect of this preparation is how we deal with the long-term homeless, and in particular rough sleepers. This state did not do anywhere near what the other states did at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was absolutely woeful.
I want to say something about Housing First. I anticipate that the government will say that it is taking an evidence-based, progressive, Housing First approach to address the issue of long-term homelessness. Of course the Greens absolutely support this approach. Housing First principles include that everyone has a right to a home. It also recognises that the long-term homeless need holistic support. That is what we have been saying all along. The Housing First principles also include that everyone has a right to flexible support for as long as it is needed, with the onus on working to maintain the relationship rather than blaming people for disengaging. The government’s actions have been fundamentally at odds with these principles. There continues to be a significant lack of work in helping people to sustain their tenancies, particularly people with serious mental health issues. I have spoken on numerous occasions in this place about this issue. I continue to be frustrated by the government’s response. I am also frustrated when my office tries to work directly with the minister’s officers on individual cases. Data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reveals that the number of specialist homelessness services’ clients with mental health issues has increased every year from 2011–12, and that currently about one in three clients has a mental health issue. I understand that eviction proceedings have continued in one particular hoarding case on which I have been advocating. The department’s response to a person with serious mental health issues has been appalling. I am sure this is not the only case—I have been told by community legal centres that are working in this space that this is not the only one. This is a poor and short-sighted response. I point out again that it is absolutely not faithful to the principles of the Housing First approach.
Homelessness Australia has cautioned that a watered-down approach to Housing First is unlikely to succeed. This is a serious concern in Western Australia. I obviously welcome the government’s announcement of a mobile mental health service for the homeless, recognising that homelessness and mental health issues are intertwined. However, it is difficult, if not impossible, to effectively address a person’s mental health issues if the person does not have a home. The Housing First approach recognises that a house should come first. Therefore, the government needs to match its rhetoric with its actions.
The government has also done nothing to address the toxic culture that was brought across from the former department of housing. That came to the fore publicly with the introduction of the three-strikes policy. This policy was introduced despite issues being raised about the impact on children, First Nation families and people with mental health and substance use issues. That has been highlighted by the Auditor General. This culture is completely at odds with the underlying principles of the Housing First policy, which has been so successful internationally and which the minister keeps spruiking. In 2019–20, 470 people were evicted from public housing properties. It is hard to believe that those people will go anywhere other than joining the ranks of the homeless. The Minister for Housing recently put out a special media statement to reassure the community that public housing evictions will still go ahead, despite the extension of the moratorium on evictions. The long wait times for social housing mean that many people spend years in the cycle of crisis accommodation and other temporary options, with devastating consequences to their health and capacity to engage in education or employment. It also means that some people will require support to maintain their tenancy—support that this government is simply not giving them.
The Department of Transport also does not seem to be on board with the underlying principles of Housing First. Instead of consulting and engaging with the Minister for Housing, the Department of Communities or service providers, the Department of Transport has put up a huge fence to prevent people from rough sleeping under the Lord Street overpass. I note that in answer to a question on notice in the other place about whether the Department of Communities had been afforded any opportunity, before the fence was built, to engage in outreach with those people, the minister replied that services funded by Communities had visited the area since it became aware of the issue on 31 July. That was two months after the fence had gone up. The answer said also that offers of assistance or support had been declined. That is an appalling response. The Department of Transport took punitive action against a group of people rough sleeping, without any consultation with Communities. The left hand is clearly not talking to the right hand. Two months later, the government found out that there was an issue. I have to say that every bike rider in the metro area could have told the government that there was an issue. The government’s response was, “Don’t worry. Those people have been offered help, but they don’t want it.” Nothing about this response adheres to the Housing First principles. It does not reflect what was reported in the media about this issue—that is, that these people want to be housed. It also fails to acknowledge that there is a lack of appropriate housing options for many of these people. It makes it clear that Communities is not taking a culturally appropriate attitude to engaging with these people.
There is much more that I want to say in this space. I want to talk about the horrendous reoffending rates, and the failure to support people who are leaving prison, including through the provision of housing. I want to talk about the interaction between police and people who are homeless, because being homeless is not a crime. I am pleased that the need for work in this space is reflected in the homelessness action plan. However, I am concerned that it will turn out to be another example of how the government says all the right things, but nothing changes. When we talk to the services that work with rough sleepers, particularly in Perth and Fremantle, they tell us terrible stories about the way in which the police interact with those people. None of that is consistent with an appropriate way to deal with systemic homelessness.
I also want to mention the children and young people who are disproportionately impacted, particularly those involved in the child protection system. The government may talk about the Home Stretch trial, which has also been brought to the attention of the media on a number of occasions. It is an excellent initiative. More than anything, it serves to highlight the huge gaps in meeting the needs of young people leaving care. We know that young people leaving out-of-home care experience higher rates of homelessness and unemployment than other young people. According to Anglicare, which is running the Home Stretch program, the current post-care system is fragmented, lacks intentionality in design, relies on limited resourcing, and is highly discretionary. This is not okay. Home Stretch is an essential service. It should not be a trial. It should be rolled out broadly and be available to all young people who need it.
I want to talk about how shameful it is that up to 50 per cent of our street homeless are First Nation people who have no culturally secure accommodation in their own country. I think this is a watershed moment for the government. The pandemic has thrown into stark relief not only the magnitude of the homelessness crisis in our community, but also how poorly this government deals with the issue of homelessness as a whole, particularly compared with other states. Frankly, we all know that the Labor Party is likely to romp in at the next election—and isn’t it aware of that as well! That does not give this government an out. It still needs to deal with the hard stuff, and homelessness is hard stuff; I am the first to recognise this. It is really important stuff. In many ways, communities are giving the right rhetoric in press conference after press conference, but the news stories and the good intentions are not action, and they are simply not being reflected on the ground. I do not want to hear the spin anymore, although I am quite sure that I am going to hear plenty of spin in the government’s response to this motion. As I say, I also anticipate some spurious attempt to change the wording of the motion, rather than those who disagree with it just voting against it. This is a huge issue in our community.
Comments and speeches by various members
HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [3.05 pm] — in reply: Thank you, Madam Acting President, and I am disappointed I was not able to hear further from Hon Tjorn Sibma. Hopefully, he might use his member’s statement time to avail us of his contribution.
I thank all members who have spoken. It is clearly of great importance to this Council to deal with the issue of homelessness, as it should be, because it is a huge problem in this state. As I have indicated already, rates of homelessness were already going up before we had the COVID-19 pandemic, as rates of social housing were going down. COVID-19 has simply made that worse.
I need to respond to a few things that have come from the government members. The first thing is that I am hearing back directly from homelessness services. This is not me just spouting my ideas. I am talking directly to the services and going to those services, and they are making it very clear that the increased numbers of people going through their doors is not a sign of success; it is not a sign of how well service delivery is now occurring. They are saying it is a sign of increased demand, that it is a problem and that they are concerned about the sheer number of people going through their doors. I point out to the government that every single time it sends out yet another press release, particularly one on exactly the same initiative it has already announced once, twice or three times before, the government is politicising the homelessness debate. It is not quietly and studiously getting on with the business of government; it is turning everything into a political announcement. That is the nature of what the government is doing. If anyone is politicising homelessness in this state, it is this ALP government, and it is doing so without any challenging questions from many corners of the media. I tell the government who is concerned and that is the people delivering those services on the ground. I know that because they talk to me, as I know they talk to other members of the opposition. They have expressed their frustration and distress that this government is getting away with its announcements without being questioned or challenged when they know what is coming on the table is wholly inadequate.
I am disappointed that the minister was unable to listen to what I was saying about some of the basic things that need to occur to turn this around. Obviously, the minister would like to hear even more from me in this chamber, so I am quite happy to assist in that regard and ensure that at every opportunity I will stand up over and over again. I am sure all members here are quite happy to hear from me even more!
The first thing is that the departments need to start talking to each other. The police and the Department of Transport are out of sync with what the Department of Communities is trying to do. They need to get on the same page. The other thing is that agencies within Communities itself need to get on the same page. The department of housing is so wildly out of whack with what the other good people in the Department of Communities are trying to do it is not funny. The Communities experiment has failed, and that needs to be sorted. That is the first thing.
The other thing is that the government needs to stop evicting people who have mental health issues, which is causing the behaviours leading to the problems. Stop it! The government cannot say on the one hand it is trying to deal with homelessness while at the same time continuing to evict these people, and they are being evicted. I gave the government facts and figures, and I am sorry it was unable to hear them, but the facts do not lie. The government also needs to start developing culturally appropriate responses, particularly for First Nations people who are homeless. The feedback we are getting is that what the government is doing at the moment is not working. It is not enough to turn around and say, “People don’t want the support.” They want the support, they want the housing, but what the government is offering is not working. How about talking to First Nations people and getting their feedback? It is not just about dollars, but it is of course always about dollars. It is also about replacing what the government has initially taken out, and it is about working with those people and services, and not expecting them to always have to stand next to ministers while they do press conference after press conference. They are feeling compromised. They are feeling as though they have been shut down. They feel worried that if they raise those concerns directly with the media, they are going to be denied funding opportunities. The record of this government has been that people feel as though that is exactly what will occur.
Hon Stephen Dawson: Tell us who said that.
Hon ALISON XAMON: I will not tell the minister that, because if I tell him, they are concerned they will not get funded. Try listening, for a change!
Several members interjected.
The ACTING PRESIDENT: Order, members!
Hon ALISON XAMON: I am bemused to hear this government thinking that the Greens are here to do anything other than to hold it to account. We will hold it to account, as we will hold any Liberal–National government to account when it is here. I stand in this place day after day raising these concerns and I will continue to do that.
Question put and a division taken, the Acting President (Hon Adele Farina) casting her vote with the noes, with the following result —
Question thus passed.