Our Backyard - Hansard

Homelessness is far too common in our society. The most recent figures show that there are more than 28,000 homeless people in New South Wales. The most common age group is 19 to 25. However, a concerning number—nearly 13 per cent—are under 12. People become homeless for a variety of reasons, but as shadow Minister for the Prevention of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, I am acutely aware of the role that domestic violence plays in causing homelessness. For this reason my colleagues and I have consistently rejected this Government's Going Home Staying Home policy, which has stripped funding for specialist women's refuges run by women. In New South Wales, 31 per cent of homeless people report that they became homeless as a result of domestic violence or family conflict. This was the most frequent reason given by respondents and compares to 7 per cent of people who report substance abuse or mental health issues as the primary cause of their homelessness.

Women make up 40 per cent of all homeless people in New South Wales, although that proportion increases in rural and remote locations. In the Hunter region we are used to seeing innovative approaches to addressing issues. I note the work of Our Backyard, which is a homelessness service operated by a not-for-profit organisation called Macquarie Care. Our Backyard has a new approach for addressing homelessness for individuals and families who are living in their cars. The program offers a safe space for individuals and families to stay in their cars while they await access to private or supported rental accommodation. Without this safe space, people find themselves attempting to find a level of privacy whilst parked on the street, in alleyways or parks. People who use the allocated space have access to bathrooms, hot showers, kitchen facilities and computer facilities to assist them with job hunting, which would not be available to them if they were parked in public spaces.

Recently I visited Our Backyard and met three male clients and their caseworkers. The importance of a safe place for those men was impressed upon me. One man had had a series of knocks and health issues which had made him homeless. Before coming to Our Backyard he had experienced repeated thefts of the contents of his car while stepping away from it. Those experiences made him feel that he was unable to leave his car and he told me of the effect this had on his emotional wellbeing. Being unable to shower and spending all of his time in the car meant that he and his car became one and he told me that the Our Backyard program was essential to his mental wellbeing.

When I toured the facility, I was told of a woman who had been offered emergency accommodation. However, she spent the evening looking out the window at her car because it contained all of her worldly goods. She had an immense fear that it would be stolen or damaged. The goal of homelessness services must always be to assist people to access long-term, stable accommodation. The reality is that far too many people are in need of emergency accommodation but the fear of losing their independence that having a vehicle provides as well as losing their possessions from their vehicles while staying in emergency accommodation necessitates other approaches.

Individuals and families who use Our Backyard facilities have access also to caseworkers who can assist them in accessing ongoing secure housing and the Our Backyard team have been successful in supporting a number of individuals and families to achieve that goal. Sadly, funding for caseworkers is in doubt beyond September. I will be working with Our Backyard to help establish ongoing funding for its important work.

The homeless situation in America dwarfs that in Australia. Some cities in America approach the problem by making it illegal to sleep in cars on a public street; others have found more innovative approaches—for example, the Safe Parking Program, which works with churches, businesses and other groups willing to host a small number of homeless people in their car parks overnight. The introduction of that program has helped to reduce tension with police, connected people in need with supported services, and helped to provide the stability needed to turn someone's life around. Many of those homeless people are working yet still unable to pay for accommodation. Fortunately, in Australia we have a minimum wage and a social safety net, but for those who slip through that safety net we are grateful to non-government organisations such as Macquarie Care.