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Left in the Cold

In the distance, a dark and looming kunanyi / Mount Wellington, peppered with the start of a season’s snow, brings a bitter, sharp wind through the Hobart area. The ensuing whistles of canvas-on-canvas and the shaking of myriads of colourful tents sound like a party of sorts but fail to show the depressing reality of the homeless who seek refuge at the Hobart showgrounds; the cold grasp of winter is here. With no real protection from the elements, supplies and donations drying up fast and a 63-week waitlist for emergency housing according to ABS statistics, situations for these individuals becoming more serious. As the showgrounds is away from the hustle and bustle of Hobart CBD and the political arena, it appears to those homeless that the housing crisis is being swept under the rug as a forgotten issue.

A community effort has been pushing for a fast solution to the ever-increasing pressure on the Tasmanian housing system, but where do we begin to start on a crisis that has now extended beyond what is considered the ‘stereotypical homeless’?

“This is a layered problem,” says Dr Kathleen Flanagan, University of Tasmania’s research fellow in Housing policy and Deputy Director of Housing and Community Research Unit. Dr Flanagan was recently involved in the publication of the University’s Tasmanian Housing Summit Directions Paper, which was used to inform the deliberations of the Housing Summit in March.

“At one level, you have a coalescence of short-term factors,” says Dr Flanagan, namely the explosion in Airbnb listings and Tasmania’s tourism boom, increasing population changes and increased popularity for interstate buyers and a lag in the construction market. “These gathering of fast changes in the market that has produced the situation we see out at the showgrounds.”

However, the long-term issue regarding housing is still the main concern for those affected by the housing crisis. Lack of affordable housing for lower income earners coupled with the increasing difficulty for people to access the housing market has made affordable housing harder to obtain for everyday people. The unaffordability of rental prices acts as a further pressure for those without housing and the range of those who are considered lower income is broadened. When combined with the short-term factors, housing starts to affect more than the stereotyped groups of people facing homelessness who may be unemployed or affected by crime, with the widening of the lower income range to include people who are employed and would be considered a regular middle class individual.

“The reason that we are getting a largely political focus now is because the people at the showgrounds are by-and-large not people on very low incomes,” says Dr Flanagan, who looks towards the gap between the target renters for real estate agents and those who don’t meet the criteria for public housing as the people facing Hobart’s housing crisis. Employed people with no children or animals are more likely to be leased a rental property as they are deemed ‘low risk’ financially for the landlord. Individuals who are young, unemployed, have children or are single parents are a ‘high risk’ financially for landlords.

The exclusivity of the rental market is then closely paralleled by the exclusivity in criteria for public housing. Due to a lack of funding and resources, Housing Tasmania is pressured to give the limited housing away to those who are in dire need of accommodation. Those who fall in the gaps are the people who are camping at the showgrounds. However, the housing crisis has risen to include those ‘low risk’ due to the increasing demand for housing and these individuals with more political voice have introduced a spotlight around this issue.

Dr. Flanagan, however, draws attention to the loss of focus on those deemed ‘high-risk’ who have faced the issue of homelessness: “This has always been the way for these people. They have always struggled to find housing.”

However, the resounding issue of homelessness and lack of housing is driven by more than just a tourist boom. To address this issue of homelessness would mean to both address the crisis while reconfiguring the housing market to solve the continuous strain for those of high risk. An understanding needs to be reached that the many groups and departments associated with our housing system that supply our regulations and policies for housing need to collaborate. This will create a housing system that is flexible for the challenges of the Tasmanian population now and into the future.

Reconfiguring the housing market may also mean a social change in how we think about housing.

“We tend to regard housing as a source of wealth, an asset, an investment, instead of as shelter,” says Dr. Flanagan. “That essential tension between housing as shelter and housing as an investment is increasingly irresolvable. You can’t have both.”

This tension between the way we regard housing has led to iciness between the state government and the public who represent opposing sides of how we value housing. This has resulted in protests such as the recent Occupy Tasmania protest on Parliament Lawns that prompted the arrest of 2 protestors.

Andrew Wilkie, the independent federal member for Denison has been involved in the Hobart Housing Expo on Parliament Lawns and with the community discussion of the housing crisis. Mr Wilkie has expressed his expressed his disappointment in the arrest of protestors, calling it disgraceful.

“This just shows that the Government is out of touch with the community and unwilling to listen to public opinion.”

Mr. Wilkie says that a ‘lacklustre’ response by the State Government to the housing crisis may be the reason for the increased amount of community-lead discussions and protests.
“The fact is that people wouldn’t feel the need to protest if their concerns were appropriately addressed in the first place.”

The recent actions taken by the State Government to find a solution to Hobart’s housing crisis including their allocation of half a million dollars towards emergency housing for those affected, are good first steps, according to Mr. Wilkie. But more needs to be done.

“Much more needs to be done to invest in short-term and crisis accommodation,” However, to work towards a long-term solution for housing in Tasmania – “The State Government must also work with the Federal Government to ensure that ongoing payments for affordable housing are boosted and are locked in for the long-term, rather than having to renegotiate funding every few years.”

For the people who are the victims of the state’s housing crisis, the talk of solutions and possible courses of actions by politicians feels like just that; talk. People on ground zero with the homeless offering hands on help have an unrestricted view in to what homelessness means for Tasmanian people.

A liaison for the homeless at the showgrounds, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that more assistance is being offered by the local community and charitable organisations in Hobart than the State Government. These services can only offer a small reprieve for those lucky enough to receive their support. The increasing number of individuals becoming homeless has charities struggling to support those who have slipped through the cracks of the government’s aid. However, there is also worry for those homeless who aren’t at the Hobart Showgrounds and that their plight and needs may be forgotten, – “the squeaky wheel gets more attention”.

A more pressing issue according to the liaison is the dropping temperatures of the winter months and what this will mean for those homeless in Tasmania who still remain without emergency accommodation.

“There are no adequate facilities [at the Showgrounds] unless the government can provide vans and services,” says the liaison, “they will all need to go.

“Social housing and alternative living models will be the only way out.”

When asked about the government’s actions around creating solutions for the housing crisis in the long term of Tasmania, the liaison has found that with the government’s current reaction towards the matter, the crisis will only get worse from here.

“They are not building enough social housing to meet the list. Anyone on welfare, such as a single pensioner, now automatically cannot afford private housing due to the 30% bat to jump,” says the liaison. The only way out for these affected individuals and groups, who can range from a worker who needs to find accommodation near to their job to youths under 25, is through social housing and alternative living models.

This endless circle of lack of rental affordability, lack of social housing, low rental assistance and little to no emergency accommodation means that the housing crisis will remain until the government can break the chain with improved housing policy.

“No one seems to be not at risk of finding themselves homeless anymore,” says the liaison.  From the horror stories of vulnerable people left homeless in Tasmania, this sentence strikes fear into the hearts of those who feel the strain of our current system.

Both those affected by homelessness and the community are crying out for action on our housing issue but are growing increasingly frustrated by the State government’s frigid response to the public’s outcry. While those at the Hobart Showgrounds are only a small representation of the affected individuals in this state’s housing crisis, the small media spotlight that has been drawn to them has highlighted how neglected the issue of housing has been in Tasmania.

The wind will continue to grow icier and the temperatures lower at the Hobart Showgrounds and for those who call it home. Despite these people being away from the heat of the political arena, a call to action must be garnered to ensure they are not left out in the cold.

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