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Dear Friends

Over the past several months, we have been promoting the Australian Catholic Bishops’ forthcoming Social Justice Statement for 2018–19, titled ‘A Place to Call Home: Making a home for everyone in our land’. The Statement will be launched on 6 September, and will be available on the websites of the ACSJC and the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.

As we have said, this year’s Statement tackles the housing crisis in Australia – both the numbers of people experiencing homelessness in its various forms and the enormous pressures that runaway house prices and rents have placed on low-paid Australians. Homelessness and housing stress are taking a terrible toll on people all over Australia, whether in our major cities or in regional areas.

The classic image of a homeless person is the ‘rough sleeper’ – a man or woman dossing in a doorway or a park, with a few belongings in a bag beside them. But homelessness includes others in precarious or dangerous situations – those in desperately overcrowded accommodation, those sleeping on someone’s couch or floor, or those in temporary accommodation like boarding houses or hostels. All these situations disrupt and erode personal and family life, making it difficult or impossible to maintain relationships, to study or to find and keep a job.

From the 2016 Census we know that more than 116,000 people are experiencing homelessness in Australia. That figure has grown from the more than 102,000 people shown as homeless in the 2011 Census.

Beyond these, there are many thousands of Australians for whom homelessness, while not yet a reality, is a real threat. In a letter to parishes around Australia, the President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Archbishop Mark Coleridge, writes:

‘House prices and even rents are spiralling out of reach of too many families and placing huge financial stress on ordinary people, even when they are employed. For those living on pensions or allowances, finding secure housing can be a far greater challenge – one that often takes a terrible toll on social wellbeing and mental health.’

During the 1960s and 1970s, the dream of owning one’s own home was within the reach of ordinary Australians, but it is now becoming unrealisable for thousands of people – even for those in the prime of their working lives. It is now likely that many people now in middle life will reach retirement either not owning a home or still paying off mortgages.

The Bishops’ Statement shows that more than 875,000 households are in housing stress, having to devote more than one-third of their income to housing. The Government’s own figures reveal a shortage of community and social housing throughout Australia. And specialist housing services were unable to respond to more than 53,000 requests for help in 2017.

For this Briefing, I would like to focus on three groups whom the Bishops mention as being seriously at risk in a ruthless housing market. They are:

  • people who are unemployed or working on minimum wages, and struggling to survive on the Newstart Allowance;
  • women, particularly older women, who find themselves at risk of homelessness, some for the first time in their lives; and
  • refugees and asylum seekers living in Australia, who are likely to be at risk because the government is proposing to deprive them of the meagre support they currently receive.

Unemployed people and low-paid workers
For years now, the ACSJC and many other advocacy groups have been campaigning for an increase to the allowance paid to people experiencing unemployment. In this year’s Pastoral Letter for the Feast of St Joseph the Worker, our Chairman, Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen, wrote that ‘650,000 people on the Newstart Allowance are trying to survive, many on just $40 a day.’ And, Bishop Long wrote, it is not only people experiencing unemployment who are struggling: ‘Low-paid workers and their families who rely on the National Minimum Wage and award safety net are falling into poverty.’ The Statement points to research that shows how ballooning rents and house prices mean low-paid or unemployed workers would struggle to find affordable housing anywhere in Australia, let alone in a major city. Homelessness or insecure housing increase the difficulty of finding work in an already tight market.

Women facing homelessness
Women are particularly vulnerable in situations of housing insecurity or homelessness. The Statement points out that women and children who are subject to domestic violence make up over 40 per cent of the people seeking crisis support. The lack of secure alternative accommodation means that women and children are either forced to remain in violent situations or are driven to look for shelter in unsafe locations. In particular, the Bishops mention that older women make up the fastest-growing group of people at risk of homelessness. They too can be subject to domestic violence. Often such women find themselves in poverty following separation or divorce. Older women can frequently find themselves with little in the way of financial resources. A new report from the Mercy Foundation, Retiring Into Poverty, highlights how older women are at greater risk of financial and housing insecurity due to lower levels of superannuation, receipt of lower pay than men, and due to time out of the labour market to raise children and care for family members.

Refugees and asylum seekers
Refugees and asylum seekers living in the Australian community are another group at serious disadvantage in the housing market. Few have any financial resources when they arrive. Many have families in desperate need overseas and feel the need to send money back. Lack of English or of employment or rental history puts them at serious disadvantage when they seek accommodation. All these problems are now magnified by the government’s policy of cutting such people off the Status Resolution Support Service (SRSS), which has provided refugees and asylum seekers with a mere 89 per cent of the lowest weekly Newstart payment. The Director of Jesuit Refugee Service Australia, Carolina Gottardo, writes in the September issue of Justice Trends: ‘As part of the most recent policy change, at least 7,000 families, women, and men across Australia will likely be found “work ready” in coming weeks and months and given 28 days to find jobs before losing all support … Should the policy continue to be implemented, the impacts will be devastating. This is a humanitarian crisis in the making’.

These are only some of the issues raised in the 2018–19 Statement. The Bishops emphasise that access to housing is not merely something desirable in a modern society – it is a basic human right affirmed both by the UN Declaration of Human Rights and by Catholic social teaching. Their starting point is Jesus’ famous parable of the Good Samaritan – Jesus’ story about the outsider who, unlike others, stopped in his journey to help a wounded stranger and bring him to safety.

In his introductory message, Bishop Long writes:

‘We are reminded that we have the same experience as the Samaritan: we see people in the street who are in need of help, wounded by violence, misfortune or poverty. We face the same choice: do we walk past or do we stop and help?’

All this month we will be distributing the Statement to parishes, communities and groups throughout Australia in preparation for Social Justice Sunday on 30 September. It’s not too late to order – you can do so by visiting the ACSJC website or by phoning us on (02) 8306 3499. The Statement will also be available for download from our website and that of the Bishops Conference. As in previous years there will be associated resources to accompany the Statement: a prayer card, a leaflet ‘Ten Steps to Making a Home for Everyone in our Land’, a PowerPoint presentation and video, and community education resources.

I believe that you will find the Statement a stimulating and challenging document and that it will repay thought, prayer and discussion in homes, schools and parishes. It will make an important contribution to the national conversation on this vital topic.

John Ferguson
National Executive Officer

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