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Cite as: (2009) 83(02) LIJ, p.8

Government’s homelessness response a good first step

On the Sunday before Christmas, the federal government launched its white paper on homelessness – The Road Home: A national approach to reducing homelessness.

The white paper is the most progressive step taken by an Australian government to tackle the issue of homelessness in decades. Unfortunately, however, the white paper does not go far enough to promote and protect the human rights of people experiencing homelessness.

There is much to praise in this bold and ambitious policy document.

The federal government has committed to a set of headline goals to halve overall homelessness and offer accommodation to all rough sleepers who need it by 2020, along with interim targets to achieve them.

A $6.1 billion investment of funds, including a boost in funding for legal services for people experiencing homelessness, will underpin the roll out of the government’s plan.

Significantly, the government has also flagged its intention to work with the states to review certain legislation that affects homeless people in a negative and disproportionate way.

A residential tenancy database and voting regulations are areas specifically cited in the white paper.

Finally, the government has flagged the creation of overarching legislation that guarantees that people who are homeless are treated with dignity and respect and receive quality services. These are all promising signs.

There remain, however, significant gaps in the federal government response to homelessness.

While the government’s promise to review tenancy related legislation is encouraging, it must ensure that action is taken in relation to the full gamut of legislation affecting negatively the lives of people experiencing homelessness – including public space, social security and equal opportunity laws.

Perhaps most disappointingly, in its white paper the government has failed to take the most fundamental step – to characterise homelessness as a human rights issue.

Homelessness is a profound form of social exclusion. It is also a violation of human rights and a failure of government responsibility. Any effective national response to homelessness and social exclusion must focus on human rights and should not be contingent on political leadership and good will.

The human rights of homeless people and the responsibility of government to address homelessness must be enshrined in legislation.

In its submission to the white paper, the PILCH Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic called for any new Homelessness Act to include an enforceable right to housing.

We also argued for the introduction of a federal Charter of Rights to ensure broader human rights protection for homeless people.

The federal government has taken the first step towards adopting a human rights approach by committing to goals, benchmarks and performance measures. It must now take the next step and commit human rights, including the right to adequate housing, to law.

The PILCH Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic submission to the federal government’s white paper can be found at http://www.pilch.org.au/white_paper.

Caroline Adler
Manager/principal
PILCH Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic

For providing the letter of the month, Helen Arblaster has won a $50 book voucher from the LIV bookshop, redeemable for the next 12 months.

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