In conversation with Bevan Warner, CEO of Launch Housing

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There are 44,000 young people homeless in Australia on any given night and alarmingly, close to 16,000 of them are under the age of 12.

Of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experiencing homelessness, close to 70% live in severely overcrowded dwellings.

Launch Housing is one of Victoria's largest providers of housing and homeless support services, with a 75-year combined history and a clear mission: to end homelessness.

Dan Creasey, KWM's Head of Pro Bono & Community Impact, recently spoke with Launch Housing's CEO, Bevan Warner, about his organisation's work and his ideas for reform.

Q: What is Launch Housing's mission and how are you responding to the global pandemic Covid-19?

A: "Launch Housing firmly believes that homelessness is not a natural part of the human condition, or a natural consequence of a first world economy. It's a function of choice as we make as a society, and we're dedicated to ending homelessness, not to treating it, or making the experience of it less severe. We're proudly working, on the streets, in crisis centres, but also developing permanent supportive housing options…so that we can pull people straight through from rough sleeping…sleeping in cars…or being in overcrowded and unsafe accommodation into a permanent home, with the type of support that individuals need to live a long and productive life.

Through this current COVID-19 crisis, we've been busy adjusting our services to make them safe but continuing to work on the streets. We've pulled 688 people into emergency accommodation who would otherwise be rough sleeping or sleeping in cars, people who have been pushed out of couches and surfing situations because the circumstances in that home have become a bit intense…we are looking at permanent housing solutions for them."

Q: What are the different types of homelessness, and how do they specifically relate to children and young people?

A: "There's about 120,000 people without a home on any one night in Australia. But people who are rough sleeping, make up about 7% of those people. Most of the people, the 'hidden homeless' if you like, are living in overcrowded accommodation, in refuges, crisis accommodation, couch surfing, or staying in temporary types of accommodation, like caravans or cheap hotels or rooming houses; without any sense of security about what one week might be like from the next."

"…young people and children, they make up about 40% of that group so 44,000 children and young people in Australia are homeless. We know that the consequences for young people and their future prospects are quite dire without the safety and security of a home."

Q: Homelessness arises from a number of different situations, many people argue that the real solutions come when we start facing up to the issues, painful root causes, do you agree with that view? What really are those painful root causes?       

A: "Yes, prevention is better than cure. But…the lessons of history will tell us that there will always be a certain flow of people away from trauma towards vulnerability, and that includes trajectories of trauma into homelessness. But it's really important to avoid stereotypes, homelessness is an experience it is not an identity.

For young people in particular, trauma…where there's a sense of isolation and despair; young people will leave the home and put themselves in vulnerable situations. There are a variety of causes…and tackling those social issues better in the first place will obviously alleviate or reduce the flow of people into precarious housing situations and indeed rough sleeping."

Q: Why is it that there's such a prevalence of homelessness amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples? And what are the unique needs of our First Nations peoples?

A: "Well I think it's a simple product of our history. We spent most of our history denying Aboriginal people existed, and then 'welfarising' them, then denying them any purchase on economic society by being hostile to land rights. So our First Nations people don't have as much of an economic hold on Australia as they should have, and that economic fragility plays out in relative low rates of home-ownership, disproportionate rates of homelessness, and that's an intergenerational reality because of the way in which colonisation occurred, because we've never reached any sort of meaningful settlement with First Nations People.  

What do they need? They need a treaty, they need access to economic assets and they need culturally appropriate support amongst service providers".

Q: Do we need a new approach that ensures that schools, real-estate agents, social services, businesses and charities, work more closely together as a cohesive unit to start to solve this national problem in Australia?

A: "Yes and no…It's always better when civil society or interest groups in society want to work together to solve the problem. But I wouldn't want to suggest that the solution isn't a government solution. I think if we had government making it clear that housing was a human right, a pre-condition for an effective fair and functioning society, rather than an asset-class, that would help. If we had policies that supported housing as a human right, rather than a commodity that could be traded, then the conditions for eliminating homelessness in society would be much better, and the work then of like-minded businesses and charities would be made much simpler.

Q: Do you have any specific things that the private sector could be doing more of?

A: "I think we need government and the private sector working together…Government needs to create the tax breaks and incentives for institutional capital through superannuation  funds or high-net wealth, high-net worth individuals, and private investment vehicles to want to invest in social housing. The type of social housing that young people might want, could be the sort that we're already running. There are opportunities to work with private capital, around interventions that are proven to work, where we can get an incentive framework with government. Where there's a guaranteed right of return for private capital, I think that's the way of the future and we've got examples of that already."

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