Doorstop Interview – Nowra – Wednesday 10 November 2021

SUBJECTS: Housing crisis in Gilmore and the Illawarra; Labor’s Housing Australia Future Fund, Housing for women and children fleeing domestic and family violence. 

 Well, thank you everyone. Look, I’ve invited Jenny McAllister the Shadow Assistant Minister for Communities and the Prevention of Family Violence and Jason Clare, the Shadow Minister for Housing and Homelessness, to Nowra today. We have a housing crisis. We absolutely have a homelessness and housing crisis. Both Jason and Jenny have been here before, but the situation is absolutely dire. We’ve been visiting a number of different services today, and of course, here we are at SAHSSI, which provides vital crisis and temporary accommodation. Of course, here we are at the Shoalhaven Homeless Hub. And I want to really thank Leslie Labka who is the Manager of the Shoalhaven Services here at SAHSSI. We have heard some of the most harrowing stories today from people that have become homeless for a number of different reasons, soaring rents, just being pushed out of their homes for a variety of reasons.  
Of course, this is no different to what has been happening for some time in the Nowra area and in the Shoalhaven, and right along the South Coast. But it is getting absolutely worse. We are hearing those stories, and that’s why I’ve brought Jason and Jenny here today. But look, I really want to introduce Leslie who probably doesn’t need an introduction, the work that they do here at the Shoalhaven Homeless Hub for decades and decades, providing support for local people. Everyone knows where the Homeless Hub is. And it’s a place where people can get that safety, and I guess in service that they so deserve. So, I really want to introduce Leslie to talk about the crisis that’s happening, and some developments in that area. 
LESLIE LABKA, MANAGER SHOALHAVEN HOMELESS SERVICES: My name is Leslie Labka. I’m the manager of SAHSSI Shoalhaven Homeless Services. We’re here at the Homeless Hub today, the homeless have received some very disturbing news yesterday, we ourselves are about to become homeless. We have until the 26th of January to find alternative accommodation for ourselves. And we’ve been fortunate to be in this place for 20 years, and our rent was very generous. That will not be the case and our funding program cannot afford the local commercial rents, and there is a lack of stock as well. So I’m not sure what we’re going to do. But lucky we’ve got a lot of experience working with homelessness, because we’re about to try to use it on ourselves.  
We have a growing demand for our homelessness, walk-in service. We support men, women, children, anybody. And we’ve got about I think 50 new clients a month coming in requiring our services. We’re seeing an increasing number of people who have never encountered homelessness before, now becoming homeless for the first time. They’ve got good tenancy histories. They pay their rent on time. They’re good tenants but their property is being sold, and they cannot find alternative accommodation in the timeframe they are provided. That’s impacting on mental health. It’s impacting on drug and alcohol and it’s having community flow on effects as well. 
SENATOR JENNY MCALLISTER, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR COMMUNITIES AND THE PREVENTION OF FAMILY VIOLENCE: Thanks so much, Leslie. And thank you Fiona for inviting Jason and I here today. I wanted to make a few brief remarks about the significance of services like this for women who are experiencing domestic violence. Violence is the leading cause of homelessness for women and children, and we know that the numbers of women and children becoming homeless is growing every year. Each year 10,000 women and children are turned away from homelessness shelters, when they are looking for support. And it raises a very important question. People often say, ‘Why doesn’t she leave?’ Well, the answer is that it is very difficult to leave if there is nowhere to go. Here in the Shoalhaven, services like this play a vital role in connecting women with support and a caring place to help them to start a new life. And these women are very brave women, and are taking steps to protect themselves and to protect their children, and they deserve our support.  
Leslie has talked to us today about some of the challenges that they were already experiencing before they received this very bad news. The COVID pandemic has meant that all across the country that rates of violence are up. The pandemic and the fires here have also intensified the shortage of rental accommodation. And it means that when people seek support from the refuges here in the Shoalhaven, often they need to stay in that crisis accommodation for a very long time, simply because there is not a rental property for them to move into.  
This is placing an enormous strain on the system. And the news that we’ve heard this morning, that this service may have to close its doors, will only intensify a very bad situation indeed. I want to thank Fiona for drawing this to our attention. I want to thank Leslie for sharing the stories that she shared this morning about her work, and the work of her staff here. I want to introduce my colleague Jason Clare who will talk a little bit about Labor’s approach to homelessness and why we think it is such an important priority. 
JASON CLARE, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HOUSING AND HOMELESSNESS: Thanks, Jenny. Housing has always been a major issue here on the South Coast and in the Shoalhaven. Fiona, within a couple of days of you being elected to the Federal Parliament, you were on the phone talking to me and I was here a couple of weeks later talking to the organisations whose job it is here on the South Coast to help people struggling to put a roof over their head. But with everything from bushfires to floods to COVID, it’s got worse. It’s harder to buy a house on the South Coast than it’s ever been. It’s harder to rent than it’s ever been before. There are more homeless Aussies here on the South Coast, in the Shoalhaven, than ever before. House prices have jumped by 35 per cent just in the last year. Rents are up three or four times as much here on the South Coast, as they are in Sydney, and there are more people who are homeless than ever before. People who have never ever had to knock on the door of an organisation like the Homeless Hub, are now knocking on the door asking for help for everything from food vouchers to dry socks when they get sodden from the rain.  
We met some of those people today in a couple of different places here in town. We got to see the tears in people’s eyes, often tears of joy and relief where they talked about the organisations who were there for them and told us what life might be like for them if it wasn’t for those organisations that have provided them with help, with hope, with shelter.  
One fellow this morning said that if it wasn’t for the sort of organisations we have here in town, he might be dead or in jail.  
Jenny, you talked about women fleeing domestic violence. One of the other impacts of COVID apart from rising housing prices has been rising levels of domestic violence. More and more women are forced to flee their home with the kids, often in the middle of the night. And many are being turned away from refuges because they’re full. Right across the country 10,000 mums and kids were turned away from refuges last year because they were full. The refuge that SAHSSI runs has six beds and there are 60 women on the waiting list. What does that tell you? It tells you that there are a lot of women that are sleeping on couches, their kids sharing a bed with friend’s kids, or that they are still in the home where the violence is happening. They’re still at risk.  
One of the things we’ll do if we win the next election, is set up the Housing Australia Future Fund, a $10 billion fund that’ll be invested and, using the dividend from that fund, will build more social and affordable housing. 30,000 homes, social and affordable homes, in the first five years. A lot of those will be here on the South Coast where they’re needed and a lot of those will be for women and kids fleeing domestic violence. Why are refuges full here on the South Coast and right across the country? Because a lot of women are staying in refuges not for one night or one week, but for six months or more. Why? Because there isn’t the transitional and the long-term accommodation for them to move into. So they’re stuck there – what Jenny referred to as ‘bed block’. You need that long-term accommodation if you’re going to free up space for those women, sixty women, who are there waiting at the moment to find safety here on the South Coast.  
If we win the next election, that’s what we’ll do. It’s just one of the things we need to do if we’re going to tackle this housing crisis that exists, not just here but right around the country. It is not an exaggeration to say this is a crisis. When prices are up by 20 per cent across the country 35 per cent here on the South Coast, when rents get so high that people can’t afford to move out of their mum and dad’s house, when there’s nothing left after they pay the rent to save up for a deposit, when they lose all hope of ever being able to buy a house, and when there are more and more people sleeping on the street and in the park and knocking on the door of a Hub like this than ever before, that is a crisis.
And now to have the Hub itself, potentially be homeless on Australia Day next year, can you think of anything more un-Australian than on Australia Day next year for the Homeless Hub here in Nowra to be forced to close? We can do better than that. And I make a public call today to anybody watching, or listening, that has a home a place where this Hub can operate from, you do the work of angels here in the local community. We got to meet a couple of the people today that you help, see the tears, but also see the smile on their face and the toaster under their arm, and the dry socks that they were given. You change people’s lives for the better every single day. And that cannot stop. So, whether it’s the federal government or the state government or the local government, or it’s just a benevolent, good citizen, if you’re out there, we need your help. 
JOURNALIST: Fiona, hearing the news today about the Homeless Hub, I guess, tell us what you’ll be doing to try and help find a new home for the Hub? 
PHILLIPS: Oh, look, I think we’re all in shocked in at this devastating news today. And who would think that the homeless hub that has been here for decades supporting local people in absolute need would be homeless? I’m, you know, I think we’ve all like got tears in our eyes like this can’t be happening. Absolutely I’ll be joining that fight for a new for a venue for the Homeless Hub. It’s so important. So, I urge anyone out there that can support the homeless hub, I know that the homeless hub has people have so much love for the homeless hub in the community. You see people donating goods, it is just beautiful. But to see this famous Hub, become homeless next year is just not on, we cannot let that happen. So I will absolutely be fighting, I know alongside with our community, to make sure that it does have a place to call home. 
JOURNALIST: So, I mean, I guess this also plays in a bit to the Local Government elections where homelessness and affordable housing is really on the agenda. Have you spoken to Council at all about affordable housing options? And I just getting (inaudible) for the Shoalhaven, particularly with the election coming up? 
PHILLIPS: Well, one of the things, I’m actually on the Shoalhaven Homelessness Task Force, and as we know, some years ago, now that task force was disbanded under the Local Government. So I’m really pleased with that has started up again, it’s only just started up again. Homelessness is everyone’s, it belongs at every level of government. Local government, state government and the federal government all have a role to play. Not enough has been done. At any level. We’ve got we have got some spots around the area, but it does need investment. It needs investment by the Federal Government. And that’s where Labor’s Australia Housing Future Fund would come into play to, you know, to really kickstart those investments.  
I think Shoalhaven Council has done quite a good job in terms of, you know, identifying spots that can be there for affordable and social housing. But again, it takes investment from the State Government and the Federal Government. And that just hasn’t happened. I can say, like back in, I think that’s 2004, we had the National Rental Affordability Scheme, and I know in the Shoalhaven at that time, there were quite a number of new properties that would being built for affordable housing. But since that scheme (inaudible) that scheme was axed, we just haven’t seen that growth in affordable housing, and we are where we are now. So, look it takes it takes courage. It takes investment by the Federal Government to help the states and ultimately the local area as well. 
JOURNALIST: 30,000 homes is obviously a really great start but arguably, we need thousands in our region. Will you look to grow that fund? 
CLARE: Look, it starts with leadership. It starts with recognising that there is a problem and that the Federal Government has to play a role in fixing it. If you’re going to shift the dial here, if you’re going to make housing more affordable for people who are trying to buy or rent or are homeless, then you need the Federal Government involved. At the moment, the Federal Government doesn’t even meet with the State Governments to talk about this sort of stuff. When you ask them whether they’re prepared to put any money into building homes for homeless Aussies, they say it’s not their job. It’s the State Government’s job. But that’s wrong. It’s always been the Federal Government’s role to provide funding here.  
You can go back to the end of World War II when Ben Chifley and the Labor Government then, was reconstructing Australia after the war, putting money into housing. Now, the Future Fund is the start of this. It is a big injection of funding to build more housing and have the Federal Government more involved here. But it’s just one of the things that we’ll do if we’re fortunate enough to win the support for the Australian people at the next election.  
We’ve been through this health catastrophe, this economic crisis over the course of the last 12-18 months. Remember, the Government injected, I think $100 billion into infrastructure last year – not one extra cent into housing for homeless Aussies. You think about that missed last opportunity to do so much good here.  
What’s happened is, things have just got harder, and they’ve got worse. In addition to the Fund, what we would also do is put in place a National Housing and Homelessness plan. People who work in this sector, who know more about this than me, have been calling for decades for the Federal Government to step up, to put in place a national plan to be developed with State Governments, but also with Local Governments. Your question is so right. And with the people who are providing on the ground frontline services, with community housing organisations, as well, as well as organisations like superannuation funds, to put in place a big long-term plan to tackle this issue, and we’ll do that as well. 
JOURNALIST: Do we also need to start looking at things like rent assistance? If we say, well, Shoalhaven’s rent, I think it’s increased by 24 odd percent over 12 months. Do we need to start looking at either rent assistance, what help we give people who are in the rental market? Do we need to start looking at Council regulations? Do we need to start looking at planning laws – that whole range of things that can ease up the housing market? 
CLARE: When you do a national plan, you’ve got to look at all of that. There was a report that was presented yesterday, an independent report, to the State government about the regional housing crisis. The crisis I just described is worse in regions than in big cities at the moment. I’m glad the state government commissioned that report, it recommended a bunch of different things. But the two big ones were what role can all levels of government play in accelerating the supply of land for housing, that’s one part of it, it often gets delayed either because of developers or by local governments, state governments, federal government’s not having the money to invest, have to put the sewerage in, or the electricity or the kerb guttering.
But the other big one that they mentioned in this report was the lack of affordable housing. In the last census 400 people here on the South Coast ticked the box that they were homeless. You can bet that number is higher now, and it will be higher when that census number comes out in a bit over 12 months’ time. And many more times that number of people who are on the social housing waiting list here, who are waiting for social housing for five or 10 years. If you’re going to do something real and practical then I think you’ve got to, as a Federal Government, stand up, put money up to build affordable housing. That’s a real practical thing you can do. That’s what that report recommended. That’s what the Federal Government is refusing to do. That’s what we will do. 
JOURNALIST: Are you saying the government, the government, you are part of, will actually build or partner with private enterprise to build? 
CLARE: Partner with. The way this model would work, and it’s a bit like the New South Wales Government Social and Affordable Housing Fund, is $10 billion is invested. The dividend from that is used to build social and affordable housing. We provide that money to community housing organisations, and we provide them a gap fee. The gap between the rent that the tenant pays, and the cost to repay the mortgage.  
So with social housing, tenants will pay 20% of the income that they receive, often from the Government, a relatively small amount of money. This fund helps to fill that gap so you can build housing for people on the lowest of incomes in Australia. For affordable housing, tenants will often pay 20-25% below the market rent. You need to pay the gap there, if you’re going to be able to finance the construction of that home. It’s a model that’s worked. It’s building homes across New South Wales at the moment, but that’s a relatively small fund. This would be 10 times that size. 
JOURNALIST: I don’t know whether you’re the right person, it might be Fiona, I know there is an affordable housing, I think it’s through Southern Cross, actually, but an affordable housing block in Bomaderry that they’re looking at building, that was sort of decided on in 2017, and that hasn’t even got a DA, in at Council yet. So, it’s apparently been funded, but do you have any idea what’s going on with that project? 
PHILLIPS: I think we discussed it at Southern Housing. 
CLARE: Yeah, maybe the guys at Southern Cross might be able to give you more information. 
PHILLIPS: Yeah, I wasn’t aware it was funded. So, I thought it needed funding. 
JOURNALIST: Jenny, you talked about women fleeing, being homeless because of domestic violence. Over the years, the police have announced a lot of programs about taking the offender away making sure the family can stay in that, in the accommodation. Is that not happening, has that never happened? 
MCALLISTER: There are programs operating in a number of state jurisdictions where the perpetrator is removed from the home, connected with behaviour change programs, if that’s suitable, to try and create a circumstance where a woman can stay home safely.  However, unfortunately, the availability of programs like those men’s behaviour change programs, is very limited, and the ability to pursue a model of that kind remains quite constrained. Women fleeing violence still need access to housing. It is the number one issue that is raised with me as I go around the country and speak to workers on the frontline. It’s immensely important that a Labor Government will make an investment to not only improve the availability of refuge services, but also improve the availability of long-term accommodation for these women as they recover and rebuild. 
The one thing that is quite extraordinary is that when I speak to the Minister for Women’s Safety, Minister Ruston, and I ask her about housing, she is very clear. She says, this is the responsibility of the States and Territories. And that’s just not good enough. It’s not historically true. And it’s certainly not an adequate answer to the crisis that is confronting us at the moment.
JOURNALIST: Actually, on that, further north, they’re trying to get a domestic violence trauma recovery centre, it’s been recommended to the Federal Government. But they have been said it should be funded by the State Government. I mean, we seem to be getting no movement for that sort of long-term recovery for victims of domestic violence. What do you think about that?
MCALLISTER: The Commonwealth is presently revisiting the National Plan to reduce violence against women and their children. My hope is that, in doing that, they look at violence in a systematic way. 
What we need is not a hodgepodge of initiatives, like we saw in the last federal budget – we need a really systematic approach to tackling violence at its cause. And that means thinking about prevention, looking for opportunities to intervene early, where families are at risk, creating crisis services, like the ones that are offered here, but also investing resources in recovery. And thus far, unfortunately, over the last eight years, we really haven’t seen any momentum at all from the Commonwealth Government in terms of women’s safety policy. 
In fact, it’s been characterised by a weird lethargy. We’ve got women raising their voices right across the country. Hundreds of thousands of women marching for justice – they can’t even get a meeting with the Prime Minister. So, while I hope that the National Plan does deliver a systematic approach that can contemplate the value of projects like the one that you’ve just raised, my fear is that we will not get real movement on women’s safety policy until we get a change of government.
ARLEY BLACK (CLARE) 02 9790 2466