Doorstop Interview – Adelaide – Tuesday 9 March 2021


SUBJECTS: Homelessness in Adelaide; Homeless Aussies thrown back on the street after COVID; Social Housing.

JASON CLARE, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HOUSING AND HOMELESSNESS: It’s great to be in Adelaide with Nat Cook and Steve Georganas. I’m here because what we’re seeing on the streets of Adelaide is a big increase in the number of homeless Aussies sleeping on the street in places like King William Street. 

This time last year a lot of Aussies who were sleeping rough were found accommodation in empty hotel rooms and empty motel rooms. More than 300 people here, in the middle of last year, were housed in empty hotel rooms and motel rooms. We showed that if we really want to, we can significantly reduce the number of homeless Aussies here in Adelaide and right across the country. We did it. Right across Australia, about 40,000 people were found a home, were found a roof over their head. 

But now, as the pandemic retreats, we’re seeing people pushed back onto the street. Here in Adelaide, there’s at least as many people back on the street today as there was 12 months ago. I was just talking to Chris Burns, who runs the center here. He told me that there are more people on the street today in Adelaide sleeping rough than there were this time last year, and that’s before JobKeeper ends, which happens at the end of this month, and it’s before JobSeeker Supplement goes.

It’s a massive missed opportunity. If you look at places like Victoria, where there’s still a big drop in the number of people sleeping rough, it shows that if government takes action, then you can really make a difference. That requires government finding transitional accommodation, short-term and medium-term accommodation for people so that they don’t get forced out of the motel back onto the street, and building more social housing. At the end of the day that’s what’s critical. We need more social housing. 

Believe it or not, there’s less public housing in Australia today than there was 10 years ago. Here in Adelaide, there’s less public housing today than there was last year, because the government’s selling it off. We can’t fix this, we can’t provide a roof over the head of more Australians, if there’s less public housing today than it was last year or less public housing than there was 10 years ago. That requires the government here in South Australia and governments right across the country, including the government in Canberra, to invest more in social housing and put money into repairing social housing. It’ll create jobs for local tradies, and it’ll put a roof over the head of people who desperately need it. 

I’ll hand over to Nat.

JOURNALIST: Nat, what are we seeing in terms of those figures here in South Australia?

NAT COOK, STATE SHADOW MINISTER FOR HUMAN SERVICES: Adelaide is a Vanguard City. So, we signed up to an agreement in 2017 to end inner-city homelessness. What that gave us was a real opportunity to get the data, the true numbers of who is homeless and where these people are from, and also to track the journey. It gives us a monthly snapshot of our numbers in South Australia, in the CBD, of people who are homeless and sleeping rough. We see now that only in the last month, we increased our homelessness numbers by nearly 10 per cent. That’s in one month. People sleeping rough, people who are homeless, as big as the numbers were before COVID. The commitment that was given by the Marshall Liberal Government here in South Australia, to not send people back out on the streets, hasn’t actually succeeded. There are people who are returning to homelessness, and they’re not achieving the ultimate goal of having shelter.

JOURNALIST: What do you think are the major things that we’re lacking or that we need to get these people off the street?

COOK: In South Australia, we have currently got the highest unemployment numbers. We are seeing that the supplement payments such as JobSeeker and JobKeeper are about to fall off a cliff. We have people here in South Australia, to the numbers of 17,000 waiting for public housing and another 14,000 on this on the Community Housing register, with 1,700 empty public housing properties. We’ve seen a very slow rollout of any maintenance stimulus money. We saw nearly $24 million announced and it took nearly a year and a half to spend only a few million dollars of that. There is a $20 million Homelessness Prevention Fund that was announced in May last year. Only in the last two weeks has it even been announced that people who tendered for that were successful, and that is only at $4.5 million, so a very small percentage. There have been no plans announced to invest more into those programs. In fact, it will be drip fed over the next eight to 10 years. If people have spent, if the government is spending thousands of dollars per fortnight for families to stay in hotel rooms, the government can equally spend that thousands of dollars to renovate one of those homes that are empty. A public housing property that is empty could be repaired for families to occupy in weeks. All it needs is some will.

JOURNALIST: We’ve been hearing the story of one Adelaide mother with four children. She’s been in very difficult circumstances, does that really epitomise what some people are experiencing?

COOK: Every day, our offices get contacted by another family or another person who is homeless or in absolute crisis. We’re seeing numbers attending open inspections from rental properties like we have never seen before. It is almost impossible for somebody who has been homeless or couchsurfing to compete with someone who has a job. Kirstie is the public face of a story that is very dark. I touch base with Kirsty personally at least twice a week. I am doing everything I can to reach out to every contact, and yet she still is staying in hotel accommodation. That is absolutely the example I call on when I say to the government: spend the money that you’re spending on a hotel or to hotel rooms for Kirsty on maintenance of a property that can be repaired for her to stay in. Let’s stop playing games with this. Just fix it. She’s been homeless for months. It’s not good enough, her children are suffering and so is she.

JOURNALIST: Speaking to the Minister this morning, she basically said that this is just a blip in the stats and that you’re misrepresenting the statistics to say we’ve had this increase. What do you say to that?

COOK: There is no blip in the stats. I refer the Minister to the data on the Don Johnson Foundation website, which I’m sure as a diligent reporter, you will have done that yourself or will be doing that. There is no Blip. This has been a trend. This has been going up for months. And in fact, it without the CS program, where some political will is invested in putting people into hotel rooms, saw a drop in the stats. The numbers are bigger than they were when we left government in March 2018. This is no blip. This is the result of a Liberal Government who isn’t in there to address social issues.

JOURNALIST: So you mentioned that there are things going on in other states?

CLARE: The Minister can’t pretend this isn’t happening. People can see it with their own eyes. I walked down King William Street last night, you can see people sleeping in doorways, you can see people sleeping under ATMs using the security camera to help make sure that they’re safe and someone doesn’t rob them in the middle of the night. It’s happening. It’s in front of us. You can’t just spin it or lie and pretend it’s not happening. 

I trust the advice of people like Chris, who runs Hutt Street Center here, who has told us today it’s not just back to what it was, it’s worse. That’s a tragedy. The real tragedy is we could have helped all of those people who were in motels and hotels last year, into more permanent accommodation. We should have had this on the agenda of National Cabinet making sure that that happened. The fact that it didn’t is a real tragedy. Federal government and the state governments dropped the ball.

JOURNALIST: I was going to just briefly ask, you talked about some of the things Victoria has done. Do we need more of a national approach and what would Labor do?

CLARE: We need a national housing and homelessness plan. But right here, what you can do is make those 1,700 homes fit to live in. Nat made a point about that a moment ago, you’ve got 1,700 homes here in South Australia that the government owns, that the people of South Australia own, and there’s no one living in them. Fix them, you can fix it quick. You can provide a home for people like Kirsty. But on top of that, what other governments around the country are doing is investing in more transitional accommodation to get people out of a motel and into a home and then building more social housing. 

I made the point before there’s less public housing today we had 10 years ago. The population has gone up but the amount of homes for people who desperately need it hasn’t. What that means is the health budget goes up, the criminal justice system budget goes up, it creates extra costs that we all have to pay for because if you don’t have a roof over your head, people get sicker, people run into problems with the law. We need to build more social housing and that’s something that the federal government, state government and local government should all be working on together.

JOURNALIST: That’s great. Thank you.