The Homeless Ye Shall Always Have With You

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Par­don the Bib­li­cal open­ing from an agnos­tic, but there’s wis­dom in Jesus’s say­ing that is rel­e­vant here: what­ev­er we do to reduce home­less­ness, there will still be home­less.

At the most basic lev­el, it’s a sim­ple func­tion of turnover. Even if we could house every­one who was home­less today, there would be home­less peo­ple liv­ing on the streets tomor­row, because there are always peo­ple leav­ing where they live and hav­ing nowhere to go.

It may be because they are escap­ing an abu­sive rela­tion­ship, and being nowhere is bet­ter than being “home”; or they might have a men­tal ill­ness, or an addic­tion, that leads to evic­tion with no notice–and results in them being turned away from oth­er pri­vate accom­mo­da­tion, and unable to find space in a home­less shel­ter.

So though it may be a noble social aim to house every­body, there will always be some peo­ple sleep­ing rough. And the cur­rent plight of the home­less in Australia–and the rest of the world–is a long way from ide­al. The ABS 2006 Cen­sus esti­mat­ed that on aver­age over 16,000 Aus­tralians were sleep­ing rough on any giv­en night, out of the over 100,000 who are home­less. Char­i­ties and shel­ters are not cop­ing with the demands for emer­gency accom­mo­da­tion, with 4 out of 5 fam­i­lies and 3 out of 5 indi­vid­u­als being turned away from home­less shel­ters every day.

This real­i­ty is what pro­pelled Tony Clark to estab­lish nation­al char­i­ty Swags for Home­less. If it was impos­si­ble to house all the home­less, then even if there was a polit­i­cal com­mit­ment to abol­ish home­less­ness, some­thing had to be done for those who were home­less now.

Tony’s solu­tion was a portable bed or “Back­pack Bed” that pro­vid­ed far more com­fort and safe­ty than the usu­al home­less per­son­’s solu­tion of card­board box­es, papers, or old blan­kets. The Back­pack Bed he and his co-design­er wife Lisa designed is so inno­v­a­tive that it is now the ‘Best of the Best’ win­ner in this year’s Red Dot awards, the worlds largest and most pres­ti­gious inter­na­tion­al prod­uct design com­pe­ti­tion that has pre­vi­ous­ly been won by the Apple iPad and Dyson vac­u­um clean­ers. Tony and Lisa will col­lect the Award on behalf of Swags for Home­less on July 4th in Essen, Ger­many.

Giv­en this inter­na­tion­al recog­ni­tion, and the fact that over 100+ home­less char­i­ties dis­trib­ute the Back­pack Bed
- it is rather galling that Swags for Home­less is receiv­ing zero fund­ing assis­tance from the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment, and has to rely instead on pri­vate tax deductible dona­tions to pro­vide the A$68 need­ed to pro­duce each Back­pack Bed (why not con­sid­er donat­ing today–there’s still time to get the tax deduc­tion for this finan­cial year). If the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment made a mere $2.1 mil­lion avail­able, Swags for Home­less could pro­duce enough study-proven life sav­ing Back­pack Beds for every rough sleep­er in the coun­try to have a bet­ter night’s sleep. This com­pares to the mul­ti-bil­lion p.a. com­mit­ment that the gov­ern­ment made to reduc­ing home­less­ness in its 2008 Whitepa­per.

The stat­ed aim of that Whitepa­per is to “Halve over­all home­less­ness; and Offer sup­port­ed accom­mo­da­tion to all rough sleep­ers who need it” by 2020. But that noble aim will still leave half those sleep­ing rough on park bench­es with­out decent cov­er, and it will take a dozen years to get there even if it suc­ceeds (par­don my cyn­i­cism. but I do recall a pre­vi­ous Aus­tralian Prime Min­is­ter declar­ing that “by 1990 no Aus­tralian child will be liv­ing in pover­ty “; that tar­get was declared a mere 3 years before it failed to be achieved).

The Gov­ern­men­t’s reluc­tance to sup­port Swags for Home­less seems to emanate from the “if we do this we under­mine our noble objec­tive” syndrome–even though the objec­tive is a future goal rather than a cer­tain­ty, and even though it would still leave 50% of the home­less with­out accom­mo­da­tion even if it suc­ceed­ed.

This is sil­ly: polit­i­cal grand­stand­ing is get­ting in the way of sim­ple, afford­able prag­ma­tism.

If you’d like to help prag­ma­tism win over grand­stand­ing, email the Min­is­ter for Social Hous­ing and Home­less­ness Mark Arbib and sug­gest that he make a dona­tion of A$2.1 mil­lion to Swags for Home­less. Would­n’t it be great if, when Tony and Lisa accept the Award, they can announce this sup­port from the Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment?

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About Steve Keen

I am Professor of Economics and Head of Economics, History and Politics at Kingston University London, and a long time critic of conventional economic thought. As well as attacking mainstream thought in Debunking Economics, I am also developing an alternative dynamic approach to economic modelling. The key issue I am tackling here is the prospect for a debt-deflation on the back of the enormous private debts accumulated globally, and our very low rate of inflation.