Councils unite to address homelessness in the suburbs

Published on 03 August 2021

The number of homeless men, women and children is growing in suburban areas and COVID-19 has further impacted the vulnerability of those who sleep rough without a safe place to call home.

Yarra Ranges Council is among 13 eastern and south eastern municipalities uniting to address homelessness with a best practice guide launched during Homelessness Week, the Housing First for People Sleeping Rough Practice Guide for Local Government.

More than 116,000 Australians and almost 25,000 Victorians were homeless on any given night pre-COVID-19 (ABS 2016 Census*), including 7,490 across the 13 municipalities and 360 in Yarra Ranges. Council staff have since noticed more people experiencing homelessness in the suburbs.

The 13 eastern and south eastern Council CEOs formed the Regional Local Government Homelessness and Social Housing Charter Group in late 2019 to end homelessness and advocate for more social housing. The 2016 Census found 32 per cent of Victorians without a home lived in this region.

Led by Monash CEO Dr Andi Diamond and endorsed by all 13 CEOs, the Charter Group Councils recognise the growing need for suburban and local government advocacy for our most vulnerable through improved supports and more permanent and safe housing.

The municipalities include Bayside Council, the City of Casey, City of Cardinia, Frankston City Council, City of Greater Dandenong, Knox City Council, City of Kingston, Manningham City Council, City of Monash, Maroondah City Council, Mornington Peninsula Shire, City of Whitehorse, and Yarra Ranges Council.

Housing First for People Sleeping Rough Practice Guide for Local Government acknowledges that homelessness is a complex issue requiring a triage of support including mental health, but the first step needs to be providing a safe and secure home. The Councils’ mayors have also offered their support.

The guide outlines the problem and possible solutions based on current best practice. It draws on evidence-based research about the value of social housing across the local government sector and communities, with an emphasis on the ‘Housing First’ model.

Housing First is based on consumer choice, harm minimisation, human rights and collaboration. It relies on adequate housing supply and coordinated support services. Any Council can use the guide to reflect, better understand the Housing First model and see how others approach the issue.

Mayor of Yarra Ranges, Cr Fiona McAllister, said that the Councils had come together to seek change and help improve the supply of permanent, safe, appropriate and timely housing for those who need it.

Cr McAllister said the joint approach allowed for the sharing of ideas between Councils and the development of protocols, resources, community education and advocacy for more social housing for each region.

The Councils have also welcomed the recent $5.3 billion Victorian Government investment in social housing.

“There is no doubt that homelessness is on the increase and the impacts of the pandemic and recent storm event in the Yarra Ranges has compounded the situation,” Cr McAllister said.

“As a collective group of councils, we have the local knowledge and expertise to make a difference to the rising issue of homelessness, so to be able to join forces like this and share ideas and experiences is a great outcome.

“Everyone has the right to - and deserves - safe housing and a home and as councils we have a responsibility to make it happen.”

The guide encourages a whole of Council approach to homelessness based on human rights, including everyone’s right to a safe and affordable home, while protecting public places and spaces.

Yarra Ranges Council’s Homelessness Protocol is also featured in the guide. Council’s protocol has been developed using principles that are based on human rights.

The protocol outlines that people who are homeless and/or sleeping rough have:

  • the same entitlement as any member of the public to be in public places, and participate in public activities and events
  • the same access to right of reply and appeals/complaint mechanisms as any member of the public
  • diverse backgrounds and needs that should be considered in any response with sensitivity and respect

Yarra Ranges Council’s protocol also defines homelessness and outlines when it is appropriate for its officers to respond.

The guide follows initial research that the City of Monash commissioned through the Council to Homeless Persons: Making a difference – effective local government responses to homelessness.

It found Councils were well placed to address homelessness as by-laws officers, parks staff or contractors often interacted with people sleeping rough on public land and facilities.

Often out of concern, local businesses and residents are also likely to contact Councils’ customer service staff to report people experiencing homelessness.

The resulting Regional Local Government Homelessness and Social Housing Charter (Charter) was endorsed by the 13 Charter Group councils, the Eastern Region Group of Councils and Eastern Affordable Housing Alliance.

It aims to address the urgent need for more social housing and a more effective, integrated and supported homelessness service system. The charter’s four principles include:

  • Human rights and ‘Housing First’. Through this:
  • Housing is a human right for every person
  • Local government can influence an increase in social housing in our region
  • Participating councils commit to working with the homelessness sector on a Housing First response.