The Prime Minister's Council on Homelessness met for the seventh time in Melbourne on 8‑9 November 2010.
The two-day meeting provided the Council with the opportunity for robust discussion on a number of policy issues critical to the implementation of the White Paper on homelessness. The Council welcomed the participation of Senator the Hon Mark Arbib, Minister for Social Housing and Homelessness, at the meeting. The Council congratulated Minister Arbib on his recent appointment and acknowledged the significant contribution and strong support of the Council demonstrated by the Hon Tanya Plibersek, former Minister for Housing whilst holding this portfolio. The key agenda items discussed at the meeting are detailed below.
Australian Government regional agenda
Council noted that the government is developing structures to support the regional Australia agenda, following the signing of an agreement between the government and independent members of Parliament on 7 September 2010. Homelessness is a significant issue in regional Australia, with approximately 60 per cent of people experiencing homelessness located outside Australia's major cities.
The Council is keen to ensure there is an informed approach to address homelessness in regional Australia as part of the Government's regional agenda. Consequently, the Council have written to the Hon Simon Crean, Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government to raise awareness of homelessness as a regional issue and to invite him to a future meeting to discuss opportunities.
Young people and homelessness
Melbourne Citymission hosted the Council at one of their services and presented information on issues affecting young people who are experiencing, or are at risk of, homelessness and effective service responses. The presentation by staff and clients provided a thorough summary of issues that supported the discussion on young people and homelessness at the Council meeting itself.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics' Counting the Homeless Report 2006 estimated that 31 per cent of the homeless population are aged between 12 and 24. All too often an experience of homelessness can severely limit the life chances of young people. Typically it leads to insufficient educational attainment, detachment from the work force and a poor health trajectory. For this reason, the Council is keen to maintain a focus on early intervention and support for this group.
The potential of the education system as a point of early intervention for young people at risk was discussed. Schools and school teachers are often the first to know when children are at risk of falling out of school and out of home. The Council will continue to stress the importance of schools being engaged in the strategy to reduce youth homelessness.
The Council had the benefit of discussing the links between poor mental health and homelessness with Mr Chris Tanti, Chief Executive Office of headspace - a primary care service for young people experiencing mental health problems. Mr Tanti has agreed to further consultations with the Council on strategies to ensure headspace services reach disengaged and homeless young people, and on priority locations for new headspace services.
The Job Services Australia program was also discussed at some length, with members expressing a view that it could play a greater role in supporting young people to connect with education, training or employment. The Council will continue to explore the potential for this.
Health and hospital reforms
The Council has taken a keen interest in the development of Medicare Locals given the importance of the primary health care system in addressing the health needs of homeless people.
The Department of Health and Ageing's (DoHA) discussion paper Medicare Locals: Discussion paper on Governance and Functions, released in November 2010, notes that current arrangements have often resulted in vulnerable patients missing out on the care they need. Homeless people are one of the vulnerable groups to whom this observation applies as homelessness is frequently associated with mental illness, substance use and poor physical health.
The Council has written to the Secretary of DoHA in response to its discussion paper to provide views on membership of the Locals, governance and stakeholder engagement processes, and the data used to inform the work of Medicare Locals. In addition, some case study scenarios have been developed by the Council to be provided to DoHA to help assess the practical effects of the health and hospitals system on people who are homeless.
The Council has appreciated the ongoing interest and support that DoHA has shown in the consideration of developing health policy that will meet the needs of people experiencing homelessness.
The Council is of the view that it is a good time to expand the involvement of philanthropic and corporate support in the effort to reduce homelessness. A number of existing philanthropic foundations are now giving attention to homelessness and it would be productive to work with them to assist coordination of their efforts with the White Paper strategy. To this end the Council will consider how this can be best achieved.
Reducing rough sleeping
Rough sleeping is a standing agenda item for Council meetings. Measuring the number of rough sleepers is continuing to pose a difficult task prior to the 2011 Census. The Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs is investigating potential sources of proxy data that could be utilised prior to this date. Meanwhile Council will persist in trying to get a better understanding of the extent and efficacy of the efforts of the States and Territories in reducing rough sleeping.
The next meeting is scheduled for 10-11 February 2011 in Canberra with areas of focus being: urban and regional Indigenous homelessness, housing supply, regional homelessness, and migration, refugees and homelessness.