Homelessness crisis looms in region

CRISIS LOOMS: ac.care homelessness and community services manager Trish Spark has raised alarm about an increasing number of people contacting the Limestone Coast Homelessness Service unable to secure a rental property or fearing they will be evicted from their homes due to reduced income and increasing rent costs. She said the agency was doing all it could to help people maintain tenancies and avoid homelessness, but a lack of public and emergency housing was making it increasingly difficult to place people in appropriate accommodation

THE Limestone Coast is on the precipice of an unprecedented homelessness challenge due to COVID-19 and its impact on the housing market, regional agency ac.care has warned.

Staff at the agency’s Limestone Coast Homelessness Service have reported a dramatic increase in people in need of support as increased government payments are wound back at the same time as

rent costs increase.

“The true impact of the pandemic is now becoming much clearer as the economy rebuilds and affordable accommodation rapidly dries up in our regions, leading to alarming waiting lists for housing, including in Mount Gambier,” ac.care chief executive Shane Maddocks said.

“The government must hear the growing consensus in our society that now is the time to increase JobSeeker long-term to a level that is sustainable and allows all people opportunities to afford basic

necessities and climb out of the poverty trap,” he said.

“Otherwise, despite the best efforts of organisations such as ours, increasing numbers of people may be left unable to afford their rent and with nowhere else to go.

“If this crisis is not averted, these families and individuals could tragically be forced into rough sleeping wherever possible at levels not seen before in regional areas such as Mount Gambier, prompting diverse social, health and welfare issues that could be avoided.”

Member for Barker Tony Pasin said the Federal Government was currently actively considering a simplification of and permanent increase to the base rate of JobSeeker.

“I can assure your readers that Australia’s social safety net, that was strengthened in response to the challenges posed by COVID-19, is not going anywhere,” Mr Pasin said.

“The challenge of course is to carefully calibrate that increase to ensure that it does not operate as a disincentive to entering the workforce.”

The number of people seeking emergency accommodation at ac.care’s Limestone Coast Homelessness Service has increased by a third over December and January, compared to the same period in 2019/20, jumping from 48 individuals and families to 71 in need of safe accommodation.

Meanwhile, the number of people seeking emergency relief, often so they can maintain their tenancy and avoid homelessness, leapt from 113 to 205 for December/January – a 44pc increase on figures for the previous financial year.

“Our staff in the Limestone Coast are seeing the number of people on the brink of homelessness rapidly increasing as people turn to us to avoid or navigate through a crisis,” Mr Maddocks said.

“We are doing all we can to support those unable to afford the cost of increased rent or find a suitable property, however, are approaching a crisis point with emergency accommodation at capacity and simply nowhere available to provide affordable accommodation.”

The Barker MP said while social housing was the responsibility of state governments, the Morrison Government was keen to incentivise private home ownership and was providing assistance for first home buyers in the form of the First Home Loan Deposit Scheme as well as the incredibly successful Home Builder Program. 

“These programs have seen unprecedented activity in the residential home building sector, creating jobs not only for the tradies on local building sites but also those employed in the relevant supply chains including in Barker’s timber mills,” he said.

Mr Maddocks said significant additional government assistance throughout 2020 had been vital in keeping people safely housed and able to afford necessities, such as enough food to feed their families each day.

But in 2021, after the benefits of living in South Australia and particularly less congested regional areas such as Mount Gambier had become clearer than ever during the pandemic, this had prompted a surge in the housing market, with property prices on the rise, along with rent costs.

“While this has delivered economic and lifestyle benefits for some, especially those already in the housing market, it has made it harder than ever for those with less financial capacity to secure affordable housing,” Mr Maddocks said.

He said government spending on social housing had not kept up with growing demand over recent years, even though more investment in this area would provide an economic stimulus, as well as meeting a vital need going forward.

“This issue will not go away without significant government intervention,” Mr Maddocks said.

“Instead, it will only be exacerbated further with COVID-19 supplements to JobSeeker payments continuing to be wound back, potentially to pre-pandemic levels at the end of March.”

“The government has provided vital support at the peak of the pandemic, which has helped many people avoid potentially tragic outcomes, but pulling out this safety net while the impacts of the pandemic increasingly ripple through our state would be devastating for many Australians.”

Member for MacKillop Nick McBride – who has previously outlined affordable housing as a wishlist item – did not believe the State Government should be the complete supplier of affordable housing but could provide mechanisms to drive private investment.

“I think the government needs to help assist the private sector to make it attractive to build in the regions and that could be everything from whether the land is available at a minimal price, the house build itself is affordable and if it can attract the right number of houses,” he said.

“Maybe land tax could be considered as an impost on the actual build and maybe because it is affordable housing meeting a social need, one questions whether those sort of builds should be exempt.

“But there’s no point building five houses on two blocks and thinking you have solved it… no one wants a ghetto and it has to work on a social fabric as well as an economic one.

“The housing issue has always been put in the too hard basket because there are no investors, there is no build that is going to reach investors expectations, all levels of government are not on board and the types of land and the land that is available is difficult and cumbersome.”