Housing is a social vaccine

This opinion piece appeared in The West Australian on Tuesday, 29 December. It is written by Kieran Wong, Chairman at Shelter WA.

It has been quite a year. Amid increased uncertainty, added stress and unfamiliar constraints, we have seen a growing sense of community and compassion, despite our enforced separation.

One thing we have all understood more clearly is the importance of home. During lockdown, it was all we had, our horizons limited to four walls and a roof. More recently, we’ve seen returning loved ones able to get home after months of absence, and how much it means to come home to WA.

Sleeping in a Park

But in recent months we have also seen what it’s like for people, here in WA, who don’t have a home to go to. In this newspaper, week after week, we have met men, women and children who don’t have the basic foundation of a stable, secure home to safely raise their family. We’ve heard their stories and we’ve seen the impact on their lives and the community.

In August we met Maria, who spent the entire pandemic sleeping in a park in central Perth with her family, including two pregnant daughters.

Maria told us that she felt let down and abandoned, as though the duty of care this State owes all its citizens did not extend to her.

“More than 40 people have died on Perth streets this year.”

We heard from Charmaine, just as figures showed that more than 40 people have died on Perth streets this year.

Charmaine lost her partner to suicide last year, and spoke powerfully about the impact of that loss on her, and how she was struggling to keep going herself.

Meanwhile, Anselm was camped out on the steps of WA Parliament.

The People’s House

After months camped at tent city, the sprawling homeless camp in the Perth CBD, Anselm took his tent to the people’s house to demand housing for his people.

His bold and moving sermon on the steps sounded an irresistible call for action, and shortly afterwards it was rewarded with the news that supported, temporary accommodation was coming for tent city — though not until next year.

“Tent City”

Behind the foreground of people living in tents in Perth this year, we have witnessed the unfolding catastrophe of families unable to keep their children safe because they don’t have homes. The horrific tragedy of eleven-year-old Annaliesse taking her own life while her family was homeless led to an outpouring of sadness and outrage that culminated with an open letter from dozens of eminent West Australians demanding immediate action from the Premier to address WA’s Aboriginal housing crisis.

WA’s Housing Crisis

But homelessness is not just an issue that affects Aboriginal people, though it often hits them first and hardest.

WA’s housing crisis affects the whole community, and in the new year that truth is set to really hit home.

There are currently 15,000 families on the waitlist for social housing in WA.

When the moratoriums on increases in rent and evictions end in March, thousands more people face losing their homes.

In a climate where the rental vacancy rate is less than one per cent, the lowest in decades, the private rental market is no refuge for desperate renters.

Housing Insecurity

Queues for existing listings could match the queues we saw outside Centrelink last March, except this time there will be no JobKeeper and JobSeeker will be reduced.

WA has managed the pandemic well, but homelessness is a continuing crisis.

Kieran Wong

With housing insecurity on the rise for thousands of WA families, many may wonder what the new year will bring.

In 2021 we need WA’s housing and homelessness crisis to be treated with the same resolve and common sense WA displayed this year during the pandemic.

Housing is a Vaccine

WA needs a minimum of 2500 new social houses every year of the next government.

“Housing is a vaccine against the spread of chronic social ills.”

Housing is a vaccine against the spread of chronic social ills. It keeps our jails and hospitals clear for those who really need to be there and allows people to reintegrate back into society safely. It keeps families together, keeping kids safe and out of the system and in school. It protects against suicide and a self-harm contagion that has reached epidemic levels on our streets. It prevents outbreaks of violence that impact us all.

In the same way that a COVID-19 vaccine will unlock the world to us once more, a real commitment to social and affordable housing will unlock a home for every West Australian family.

This year we have learnt the hard way the importance of home. Next year we need to ensure that every West Australian family has somewhere safe to call home.

It’s not hard, it’s not complicated, and it’s the most effective way to protect our most vulnerable and keep the whole WA community safe.