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© Neena Bhandari, Women's Feature Service

Laura became homeless at 13 to save herself from an abusive stepfather; Rebecca left home at 17 to escape a violent alcoholic mother; constant domestic violence compelled Eleanor and her two infants to live on the streets.

Australia has a growing number of people who are not accorded the basic human dignity to call some place home, despite boasting of a 17-year economic boom and billion dollar budget surpluses.

According to the 2001 Population Census conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there are around 100,000 homeless people in a total population of 21,310,067. Of them 42,000 are women, 36,000 are young people under 24 years; 10,000 are children under the age of 12, 17,000 are Aboriginals, and 6,000 are over 65 years old.

Research shows that the immediate reasons for homelessness lie in the breakdown of family, domestic violence, sexual abuse, job loss, drug and gambling addictions, and ailments coupled with spiraling costs of housing and living.

Alice, 28, who has been homeless for five years and is on medication for schizophrenia and depression, says, "It started through drugs, drinking alcohol and then all your money goes. There is no money to pay rent and you are on the streets." Women like Alice live with no hope for the future.

As in the larger population, homelessness takes its toll physically, economically, socially and emotionally on the affected, whether they are adolescent girls, divorcees or women with small children.

Life on the streets, parks, squats and abandoned buildings, especially for young girls and women, is fraught with danger, aggression and volatility.

A 23-year-old woman, who had been sleeping on park benches and pavements for the past seven years, lives in fear of being robbed or bashed up while asleep. She says, "As darkness descends, one is always worried someone's going to beat you, rape you or set you ablaze when you're sleeping."

Walking down Sydney's Central Business District, one encounters homeless people squatting on pavements holding a cardboard placard "Grateful for some loose change". At night, they scramble for a place near air-conditioning vents of office buildings to keep themselves warm through freezing nights.

When it comes to seeking the services of the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program (SAAP) that deals with homelessness and is jointly funded by the Commonwealth Government and the State Governments, more women come forward than men. Between 2005 and 2006, over 62,000 women sought SAAP's help, out of them the majority were aged between 15 and 19 years.

Even more distressing than the statistics of homeless people is the fact that on any given night, seven out of 10 homeless people are turned away from shelters bursting at the seams. In Sydney, there are only about 150 crisis accommodation beds for homeless single women in the Greater Sydney metro area. In the past year, Mission Australia's 23-bed inner-Sydney crisis accommodation service for women, A Woman's Place, helped around 600 homeless women, but had to turn away more than 1,000 because of a lack of beds and resources.

The Wayside Chapel in Sydney's Kings Cross suburb offers food, hot showers and advice to homeless people. Yet, ironically, within walking distance of the chapel are about 300 people sleeping on the pavement every night.

There is also a growing number of on-the-move 'lounge surfers' seeking the hospitality of friends and relatives as homelessness becomes one of Australia's most complex, enduring and pressing social challenges needing a long term policy response.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing recently delivered a report that was sharply critical of Australia, as a first world country failing in its housing responsibilities.

"Homelessness is a priority for the nation... I'm deeply concerned about the emergence of two Australias," Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said at the launch of a homelessness fundraising venture.

Speaking at the Fifth National Homelessness Conference in Adelaide, Rudd said, "We need better access over the long term to stable and affordable housing. We need to increase opportunities for homeless people - to participate in the economy and the community. To have the opportunity to learn and gain new skills and to get back into work."

"It means all levels of governments working better with organisations who work on the front line - like hospitals, mental health crisis services, employment services, courts and police working more closely with women's shelters, youth refuges, hostels and soup vans," he added.

The Australian government just released its first-ever national Green Paper on homelessness, 'Which Way Home'. It will lead to a White Paper with a comprehensive national action plan to reduce homelessness by 2020.

The Labour Government has committed AU$150 million (US$1=AU$1.04) over five years to build 600 homes across Australia and AU$100 million for long-term supported accommodation for people with disabilities.

Soaring rents and increasing interest rates on house mortgages is another factor that is depriving Australians of their basic right to shelter. A charity, St Vincent de Paul, recently reported that nearly 50 per cent of people coming into homelessness services are private renters in difficulty.

The 2008 Budget has made a start on tackling the housing affordability crisis with an AU$1.4 billion package of practical policies. It includes an AU$500 million Housing Affordability Fund to drive housing construction activity and the establishment of First Home Saver Accounts to help young people get on to the ladder of home ownership. The government will also provide AU$622.6 million over four years for the provision of 50,000 affordable rental properties for low and middle income earners.

Recently, the executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, Philip Mangano, was in Australia to tell the government about his strategy based on examining the problem through a business lens, rather than as a social justice issue.

More than 65 studies in the US have shown it was more cost-effective to house the homeless rather than allow them to circulate through shelters, hospital emergency rooms, courts and jails. He suggests governments take a business approach to homelessness and encourage cities to adopt 10-year programmes to get people into houses.

© Copyright Neena Bhandari. All rights reserved. Republication, copying or using information from any content is expressly prohibited without  the permission of the writer and the news agency through which the article is syndicated.  
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