The numbers paint the picture

On the evening of Tuesday August 9, 2016 it was all about the numbers.

At that point in time, there were almost 120,000 scattered across Australia.

Proportionally you were more likely to be counted as one if you were young, if you were an older woman, and especially if you counted yourself as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. 

When it comes to defining who we are, how we live, what we believe in and how we are changing there’s no better measure than the Census, conducted on the second Tuesday of August every five years.

As imperfect as it may be the Census is also a main measure of how many of us don’t have a home to call our own, at least on that particular winter’s night.

These are numbers etched deep into Katherine McKernan’s mind.

“Unfortunately, homelessness since 2011 at the time of the last census, and in NSW in particular, increased 37 per cent. In Sydney itself it’s increased by 48 per cent.”

This is a period that, more or less, covers Katherine’s tenure as chief executive of the not-for-profit group Homelessness NSW, the peak body that “works with its members to prevent and reduce homelessness in NSW”.

While the numbers may be damning they are also growing.

“Nationally we believe we need 500,000 social and affordable homes over the next 10 years,” Katherine says. 

“In NSW alone we need at least 5000 new additional social housing properties every year for the next 10 years if we are really even going to begin to meet the need. 

“In NSW there’s around 60,000 people on the social housing waiting list. Also unfortunately less than 1 per cent of all private rentals in the greater Sydney area are affordable for people on low incomes.”

For Katherine and for many others who work with the homeless, developing a lasting solution to the issue would reap so many other benefits for all of us.

“Housing is so fundamental to being able to grow as a person and as a family and in a broader community sense as well. Without housing you can’t do those things. 

“When you don’t have housing all the other issues become exacerbated such as mental and physical health issues, employment and care of children. It’s very difficult to deal with those issues if you don’t know where you are living. “

Is the problem insurmountable? According to Katherine it’s not, but it’s hard not to feel there may be cause for deep concern.

“There’s no policies in place to look at the fact that homelessness is increasing, and the cost of private rentals is increasing,” she says. 

“There’s no action to address this. The biggest worrying trend, the biggest issue, is that we don’t have a national housing strategy or homelessness strategy. 

“We need really is cross-local, state and federal government action to address affordable housing for people who are disadvantaged and poor.”

But Katherine is an optimist.

“People are aware of the issue,” she says.

“People are noticing the increase in people sleeping rough for example. There’s a lot of conversation about young people accessing home ownership so people are aware of the problem in its many forms.

“It’s about having a plan to end homelessness and provide affordable housing across the country.”