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Human Rights and Housing Legislation Amendment (Ending Homelessness) Bill 2022

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Samantha Ratnam
Leader of the Victorian Greens
9 March 2022

I move: That the bill be now read a second time.

This bill is about changing the way we think about housing in Victoria.

 

It recognises that all of us have the right to adequate housing. And that adequate housing is about more than four walls and a roof. It’s about having a place to call home that is safe, secure, affordable, livable, and helps people to be part of a community.

It also acknowledges that homelessness is a problem that we can solve. Not just within our lifetimes, but by the end of the decade.

As a society we have spent too long putting homelessness in the too-hard basket. In the absence of anything in our laws that creates an obligation on governments to end homelessness or to permanently house people, the goal of a fair housing system has rapidly been abandoned by governments.

Instead housing has been taken over by the private sector, and become a commodity instead of a right, and a private wealth source instead of a public asset.

Having a place to call home is so important to taking part in all aspects of life. A home allows you to find and retain good work; to access health care, education and other community services; to join sports teams or local groups; and to become part of your community.

Yet in Victoria right now, too many of us are without adequate housing. We have 100 000 people on the public housing waiting list, tens of thousands of people who are experiencing homelessness every night, and so many more living in insecure, unaffordable housing.

Ongoing homelessness is one of the biggest failures of our state. The fact that in a wealthy and prosperous state like Victoria, we continue to just assume that some of us do not and will not have a place to call home is unacceptable.

It’s time we changed this.

We can have a state where providing affordable, secure housing for everyone is a priority of our governments.

And where nobody is without a home.

Ending homelessness by the end of the decade is not just an ideal. It’s actually possible.

And this bill will put Victoria on the path to achieving it.

I turn now to the provisions of the bill.

Part 2 of the bill amends the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 to establish a charter right to adequate housing.

Our charter rights are an integral part of Victorian law. They form the foundation of our laws and guide both our legislative and policy work.

But while the existing charter rights touch on aspects of the right to adequate housing, including the freedom to choose where to live and the right of a person to not have their home unlawfully or arbitrarily interfered with, there is no right to adequate housing within the charter.

This means that there is no obligation or mandate to protect Victorians from being evicted into homelessness.

And our governments keep making decisions that only exacerbate housing unaffordability, and push more people into homelessness.

Introducing a right to adequate housing would mean that a person’s right to housing would have to be considered in all future policy and legislative decisions.

This will show Victoria that governments see the provision of adequate housing and the eradication of homelessness as a priority.

In fact, this was recommended by the Legal and Social Issues Committee’s inquiry into homelessness in Victoria—an inquiry I note this government is overdue in responding to, now over a year out from the tabling of the report.

Importantly, this bill goes further than just establishing a right to adequate housing. It adopts a comprehensive understanding of what adequate housing is, based on guidance from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

New section 12A(2) outlines what adequate housing is.

Adequate housing is affordable.

It’s housing that is structurally sound and fit for habitation. Despite Victoria’s rental reforms, there are still many Victorians living in substandard and frankly unsafe housing, especially those living in public housing.

Adequate housing is safe, and protects a person from forced evictions, harassment and other threats to their safety.

Adequate housing provides sufficient space for the person, without overcrowding and without a lack of privacy.

Adequate housing is fully accessible to everyone, free from discrimination, and takes into account people’s cultural needs.

Adequate housing is well located, within reasonable range of employment opportunities, healthcare services, schools, childcare centres and other social facilities for those that need such access. If a government attempts to forcibly relocate people away from their communities and into housing that is cut off from all public services, it cannot be adequate.

And it’s housing where your tenure is secure, and you are protected against unfair eviction. Where you don’t have to live with the threat of losing your home, or where you are moved from short-term accommodation to short-term accommodation, with no security or stability in your housing.

This is how we should see housing. It’s how the United Nations sees the right to adequate housing. Introducing this right into the charter will ensure present and future governments can no longer abandon or avoid the provision of truly adequate housing, and instead must integrate into all of our legislation and policymaking.

Part 3 of the bill amends the Housing Act 1983 to create a legislated target for ending homelessness in Victoria. The bill sets that target at zero by 2030—that is, that nobody will be homeless in Victoria by the year 2030.

For the purposes of the ending homelessness target, a person is homeless if, for at least 28 days, they have not been housed in housing that is adequate for them and have been unable to access housing that is adequate for them.

This time frame acknowledges that housing services will have a reasonable period of time to secure permanent housing for a person, but also recognises that should this bill become law there will be enough housing built to ensure that people can be housed within this time frame.

The bill requires the minister to develop a plan for achieving the ending homelessness target by 2030.

One thing missing in Victorian legislation is any long-term planning for addressing our state’s housing and homelessness crises.

It’s partly why we’ve ended up in the crisis we are in. Years of short-term vision and sporadic funding have barely scratched the surface of unmet need for affordable housing, pushing more people into homelessness.

With this bill, the government will now have to develop a plan to create the public and affordable housing needed to end homelessness, by creating an ending homelessness plan to meet the target.

The plan must have a focus on providing adequate and ongoing housing for people experiencing homelessness.

This is the Housing First approach—where homelessness is addressed by immediately providing a person with adequate long-term housing, without any housing readiness requirements.

We know this approach works. We’ve seen this internationally, most notably in Finland, where their use of Housing First principles has effectively ended street homelessness.

In fact, we even saw a version of Housing First in this state over the last two years, with the government providing people who needed a place to stay with hotel and motel accommodation during our many COVID lockdowns, which ended street homelessness in Melbourne for a short period.

The simplest and most effective way to end homelessness is to provide more secure, long-term, affordable housing. There are usually many complex factors that lead to homelessness. But it is from the base of a permanent home that a person can start to address any other issues they may be facing.

So by mandating a focus on the immediate provision of housing without any preconditions or housing readiness requirements, the bill ensures the ending homelessness plan will set out an achievable, Housing First path towards meeting the ending homelessness target.

The plan will also have to set out the details of how homelessness will be reduced over the decade, including how many new homes will be created in order to meet the target, what types of housing the new homes will be, how much funding will be given to housing support services, and how many people will be permanently housed each year to 2030.

The government of the day will also have the ability to set other appropriate benchmarks such as tracking the number of people sleeping rough or living in marginal housing such as rooming houses.

To ensure proper scrutiny of the ending homelessness plan, the plan must be tabled in Parliament within 10 sitting days after it has been prepared.

In the interests of full transparency, the bill also creates annual reporting requirements on progress towards the ending homelessness target.

The government will need to report on the numbers of new homes created each year, how many people transitioned from homelessness into permanent housing, and how much additional funding housing support services received.

The government will also have to report on what we know are common pathways into homelessness—the numbers of people leaving prison and entering homelessness, leaving hospitals and mental health facilities into homelessness, and leaving family violence services and refuges into homelessness.

Improving transparency around the entry and exit points of homelessness will give us a clear understanding of how and why people are entering homelessness, and therefore the best approaches for how we can eliminate it.

I look forward to the debate on this bill and am hopeful for multipartisan support for a way forward to end homelessness. I anticipate during the course of the debate there may be suggestions for improvements to the bill and I welcome them. I see this bill as an opportunity for all of us to work together to end homelessness and not hide behind further excuses and incrementalism.

The reforms in this bill are ambitious, but achievable.

Too often, our governments describe homelessness as complex; insurmountable; difficult and impossible to solve.

All words used to avoid taking responsibility for homelessness in Victoria. And to dodge the solutions that we know work—a massive increase in long-term, secure, adequate housing.

It’s time we stopped pretending homelessness is an impossible problem, and a permanent part of Victoria.

Ending homelessness in our state is possible. Not only that, but it’s possible by the end of the decade.

All we need is a plan to achieve it.

I commend this bill to the house.

Watch the speech on YouTube.

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Samantha Ratnam
Leader of the Victorian Greens
9 March 2022
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