When we think of homeless people we often think of those on the streets, dishevelled in appearance, roaming the rubbish bins for food, a blight on the social landscape which we wish would just disappear, or at least hide themselves from our view. In effect, however, homelessness is much broader, and any understanding of it certainly requires more deeper vision than that first image conjures up.

In ‘Life after Homelessness’, an article in a recent publication from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (Australian Social Trends, Mar 2012), people were defined as having had an ‘experience of homelessness’ if they had previously been without a ‘permanent place to live’ for one or more of a variety of reasons. Family or relationship breakdowns, financial problems, tight rental or property markets, or violence and abuse are some of the more common reasons for homelessness.

Based on data from the 2010 General Social Survey, ‘Life after Homelessness’ examined a range of socio-economic indicators of those who had experienced at least one episode of homelessness in the previous 10 years, but who were no longer homeless. In general, those who had been homeless were much younger than the overall population – 55 per cent of all who had been homeless in the past 10 years were aged 18-34, compared to 11 per cent of those aged 55 and over. After removing the effect of age, the study found that the homeless were less educated, with one-third not having gone beyond Year 10 at school nor obtaining a non-school qualification above Certificate II level. Homeless people were also more likely to report being unemployed, or not in the labour force, and were twice as likely to report that their main source of personal income was a pension.

In December 2008, the Australian Government released a White Paper on Homelessness, in which it set itself a target to halve homelessness and to offer supported accommodation to all rough sleepers who need it by 2020 (FAHCSIA, The Road Home). Its measures aim to strengthen the provision of services to homeless people, and importantly, to help reduce some of the factors associated with becoming homeless in the first place. The issue of homelessness is financially and socially expensive, and the report correctly points out that “homelessness” is not just a housing problem, but has many drivers and causes. Investing in services to support and prevent homelessness not only benefits those who find themselves without a permanent place to live, but the entire community.

Historically, the Christian churches in Australia have been at the front line in tackling social issues, such as homelessness. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, many denominational institutions preceded government departments in setting up services for the homeless. Today, collectively, all denominations together form the largest non-government provider of community and welfare services in Australia (Shaping Australia’s Spirituality, p113). The Australian churches and its associated service organisations continue to play an important role in working alongside government and private industry in reducing the prevalence of homelessness and assisting those who find themselves without a place they can call home.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 22, No. 2, Pages 7-8

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