families: Sydney’s hidden homeless

THE number of homeless families in Sydney has risen alarmingly, says a report. Families are the hidden face of homelessness, making up between a quarter and one-third of Australia’s homeless population, says the Wesley Mission, which provides crisis accommodation to about 500 people each night.

Contrary to the popular image of homeless people as male, single and sleeping on the streets, the report, based on interviews with 50 homeless families, finds that just 7 per cent of Sydney’s homeless sleep rough, with the rest in crisis accommodation or “couch surfing” with family or friends.

Women are just as likely to be homeless as men and mothers, while children make up more than half of all homeless families.

“Alarmingly, the population of homeless families is on the rise,” the chief executive of Wesley Mission, Reverend Keith Garner, said.

“They are in our suburbs, sleeping on the floor in a relative or friend’s house, sleeping in their car, living in a refuge after they’ve left a violent partner, sitting patiently at Centrelink trying to arrange emergency accommodation or living with their three kids in a motel room until a vacancy comes up on the long waiting list for public housing.”

Domestic violence is the number one cause of homelessness in families, followed by relationship breakdown or divorce.

“They’re mostly young, more often than not women, and are almost always accompanied by young children,” Dr Garner said.

This was worrying because there is a strong intergenerational link to homelessness: more than half of the adults in the 50 homeless families surveyed for the report had been homeless as children. Children raised in homeless families often became “socialised” by the experience, repeating the pattern as adults.

“It is clear from these results that having a parent who has been homeless is a significant predictor of being homeless as an adult,” the report says.

“Poverty and alcohol are also common links, with more than half having had parents who had financial problems and issues with alcohol abuse.”

Of children aged more than 10 in the families surveyed, six in 10 had been arrested or incarcerated, compared with just 1 per cent of all children aged 10 to 17.

Wesley Mission proposes an 11-point plan to tackle homeless families, including a “tell us once” approach from government agencies so that the families do not have to repeat their histories ad nauseam and a single access point to government services and payments. It also proposes better training for those working with the families, more, and more flexible, housing options and more effective management of NSW public housing properties, which often are empty or underused.

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