Housing and homelessness were key topics of conversation at this year’s Catholic social services annual dinner held at 53 Southwharf Promenade, by the banks of the Yarra River in Melbourne. More than 110 guests attended the evening on 25 August, enjoying the opportunity to gather in a spirit of celebration and thanksgiving for the important work conducted by staff, volunteers and friends of Catholic social services in Victoria.

The dinner highlight was a panel conversation addressing the housing and homelessness crisis in Australia featuring Bronwyn Pike, CEO of Uniting Vic.Tas, Sonya Smart, CEO of VMCH, and Zachary Smith, National Secretary of the CFMEU (Construction).

Setting the scene for the evening’s panel discussion, Joshua Lourensz, Executive Director of Catholic Social Services Victoria, explained that there’d been a 7 per cent increase in homelessness in the last six months. ‘The sheer amount of people who are homeless in Australia has increased substantially in the last couple of years,’ he said. ‘Communities in rural and regional Victoria have been particularly impacted.

‘From every side and angle, there is stress. We are all being called to think about in our own organisations, in our own communities, in our own parishes, in our own personal lives, what are we doing about this housing crisis?’

He commented on the many Catholic social services agencies that are ‘working creatively’ to address the rental, housing and homelessness crisis, despite limited resources. The Brigidine Asylum Seeker Project has two staff and 100 volunteers and currently houses 170 people in properties that they themselves lease or that a parish or congregation has given them. There are another 100 people across Melbourne for whom they pay rent. ‘That’s a tiny organisation, but 270 people are being supported in a really difficult time,’ said Josh.

VMCH, another member organisation of CSSV, has been providing disability, specialist education, aged care and retirement living services for over a century. It also offers affordable housing. Its most recent affordable housing project in Ivanhoe, in Melbourne’s inner north, has seen 39 accessible units built for people across a range of ages, including people under an NDIS plan who have been ‘squeezed out’ of independent and accessible living arrangements.

According to CEO Sonya Smart, who spoke at the dinner, ‘affordable housing is not just about four walls and putting a roof over someone’s head. It’s about providing housing that is accessible, beautiful, comfortable and which is a home. It’s about giving the residents a really good life and lifestyle, which ultimately leads them to feeling healthy, and having better outcomes.

Offering affordable housing aligns with our steadfast commitment to the principles of Catholic Social Teaching, particularly the belief that every human being should live a dignified life.

In his presentation, national secretary of the CFMEU Zachary Smith said the union is calling on the federal government to invest in social and affordable housing in order to address what he considers ‘the greatest example of inequality in Australia: the inability for every Australian to have a roof over their heads’.

In a recent study commissioned by the union to investigate housing and homelessness in Australia, he said, ‘the results were alarming’. ‘As we sit here, 750, 000 social and affordable houses are needed in this country to fill the gap. What’s more alarming is that the research has found that the gap is going to grow to 950,000 houses by 2041. And that’s when you factor in all of the commitments that we know of from federal, state and territory governments, including the Big Build in Victoria and the proposed expenditure from the Housing Australia Future Fund.

‘So, even when you factor in all the things that governments at various levels have committed to, the gap in housing in this country is going to grow, and that’s the reality.’

From its research, the CFMEU estimates that it will take $500 billion over the next two decades to build enough homes in Australia to close the housing gap.

‘We’re a wealthy country, twice as wealthy as a country (when you look at GDP) as we were four decades ago, but it doesn’t feel like that because the wealth has been concentrated in the balance sheets of a handful of companies. It hasn’t been shared around to ordinary Australians. And there is no starker place that you see this than in housing.

There is no clearer barometer of inequality, there’s no clearer test that we’re failing our most vulnerable than in housing. So it’s about redirecting that wealth to where it’s most needed. And where it’s most needed is housing.

Bronwyn Pike, CEO of Uniting Vic.Tas, agreed that ‘shelter is a basic right for all human beings’ and is essential ‘to the dignity of every person’. It’s also an essential part of being able to live in a constructive, participatory, healthy and meaningful way, she said. ‘When you don’t have secure housing, it’s extremely challenging to be able to participate in a community and in all the good things that society has to offer us.’

Bronwyn explained that often when people think of ‘a housing crisis’, it’s couched in terms of young people not being able to afford to enter the housing market, and that rental affordability is being ‘seriously challenged’. However, the ‘really pointy end of this’ is felt most by those who don’t have either of those choices.

‘In many ways, it’s often a hidden problem in our community,’ she said. ‘It’s people sleeping in cars, people sleeping out of the public view. It’s not necessarily the people that you see lying in the street. And the fact that we do have so many people in our community who can’t find a bed for the night is an absolute national travesty.’

The panellists explained that the leading factor driving the housing and homelessness crisis is a shift in government policy over past decades from the government providing public and social housing to a market-driven approach.

‘Of course, when there are plenty of houses in the market, that doesn’t manifest itself as such a big challenge,’ said Bronwyn. ‘But when you have a crisis of supply, and you can see that trend continuing into the future, then we have a situation where there are just no houses in the private rental market that are available for huge sections of the community.

‘We have less than 1 per cent of rental vacancy. When you have, as my team tell me in Ballarat, not one house or apartment in that whole shire and broader shire that a person on benefits could even think about affording, then you know that the market has failed. And the challenge for government is to really think about the way that we reinvest in the responsibility of government, and that is to ensure that everybody has a roof over their head.’

Zach encouraged those working in Catholic social services to call on the federal government to make housing a top priority.

‘Your organisations do so much good work on the ground,’ he said, ‘And you know more than any statistics, more than any economic research can ever lay evidence to, how bad it is on the ground, how much we need a strong and reliable source of funding for social and affordable housing. We need government to play a role it hasn’t played for a number of decades now. We need our politicians to have courage.’

In closing, Bronwyn reminded all of the call to ‘go back to our roots and theology’, where Scripture constantly reminds us that ‘the provision of housing was not only considered a public good but was in fact a call to the community to express their faith in the provision of those kinds of things that people need to be able to sustain a reasonable life’.

‘I go back to Isaiah 58, such a well-known passage in the Old Testament that really talks about the hypocrisy of people’s worship when it’s not accompanied by actions of justice and compassion. We are called to share our food with the hungry and open our homes to the homeless, and then God will enjoy our sacrifices. It’s at the core of the belief system of Catholic social services and people of all faiths. Religious scriptures all around the world call us to act justly and compassionately. It’s at the core of what it means to be human.’

Catholic Social Services Victoria recently released a discussion paper that focusses on some key recommendations that have come about as it researched and consulted with its 42 member social and community organisations regarding core concerns around homelessness and housing.