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Tackling homelessness in Melbourne: a Q&A with Launch Housing

From a lack of affordable housing to war veteran PTSD, there are many reasons for Australia’s homelessness crisis. We talk to Launch Housing CEO, Tony Keenan, about what can be done and the importance of accepting donations online.

According to a recent article in The Age, homelessness in Melbourne has reached emergency levels, with the city overwhelmed by rough sleepers and welfare agencies unable to meet the surging demand for housing. But they’re trying. Launch Housing is an independent Melbourne based community organisation with a single mission: To end homelessness. It was formed from the merger of two of Melbourne’s largest and most respected homelessness services, HomeGround Services and Hanover, in July 2015.

Launch Housing’s CEO, Tony Keenan, gives us the lowdown about Melbourne’s current homelessness crisis, what his organisation does and how they find and facilitate donations.

Homelessness is very visible in Melbourne at the moment – has the situation got worse recently and if so, why?

It has got worse. The Melbourne Street Survey that the City of Melbourne does every two years showed an increase of 74 per cent between 2014 and 2016. We’re suspecting that the recent census will show the same sort of figures.

The biggest driver of homelessness at the moment is housing prices – the decline of housing affordability and the decline of marginal or cheap housing. We started to see this in about 2012. Around the same time a number of people were also moved from the disability pension to Newstart Allowance and that may be driving it also.

Also Commonwealth Rent Assistance hasn’t increased at the rate of rents; we’ve seen massive population growth in Melbourne without the same increase in housing; and we’re also seeing global capital investing in housing and then leaving it vacant rather than renting it out.

What steps can the Victorian Government and decision makers take to eradicate homelessness?

Credit where credit’s due – the Victorian Government has been responding well but they’re dealing with 30 years of neglect from both sides of government. So it’s going to take time.

The Victorian Government needs to invest large amounts of money into social and affordable housing. They need to look at measures such as inclusionary zoning which happens in most other countries, so that when approval is given for new developments there is a requirement that some affordable housing be included in the development.

We could also explore a vacancy tax, which they have in Vancouver and part of the UK. This means that if people choose to leave vacant properties unrented for more than a period of 12 months they are taxed – the funds of which go towards affordable housing – or they rent out the property.

Negative gearing as it stands now is of little use – all it does is put pressure on house prices. If it continued it would be good to insist on some social benefit on it like a requirement to offer lower rent.

Last month 2900 people searched ‘Homelessness in Australia’ in Google – people obviously care. How can we help you?

There are many ways people can help. Obviously with donations – even though homelessness has never been a sexy issue I’m always amazed by the generosity of people.

We have a not-for-profit real estate agency that manages rental properties so if people have a property to rent they can do that through us and any profit we make goes back into the mission. They can also look into our recent ATO tax ruling, which allows landlords who rent their property with us at a discounted rental rate (e.g. less than market rental) to claim the gap as a tax deduction at the end of the year.

We have a range of volunteering options from one-off things like backyard blitzes to ongoing support such as tutoring, mentors … we’re always keen for people to volunteer their skills and help us with projects.

What common misconceptions are there about homelessness and is the stigma turning?

One of the things that’s reducing stigma is that people are more aware now of family violence as a main driver of homelessness. However, polls show that people still think the typical homeless person is male and middle aged with a drinking problem. That was the profile of homelessness when our organisation started in 1964 but it’s now not. The average age is people in their 20s and a third of our clients are children.

The main drivers of homelessness are family violence, poverty and people not being able to pay rent, health crises, mental health issues, drug and alcohol issues and we also see a number of returned veterans from the Iran and Afghanistan wars.

What services does Launch Housing provide?

We provide 24-hour crisis accommodation – we have four of those, with one specifically for families and one for women. We manage about 600 transitional houses and some rooming houses. We provide a lot of different personal support to help people deal with the issues that contributed to their homelessness. We run entry points in three regions – for anyone who is homeless – for triage and service referrals.

We run two Education First Youth Foyers for young people who are homeless between the ages of 16 and 24 and they can stay there up to two years on the condition that they continue with their education. We have outreach programs to engage with people who are sleeping rough and get them back into housing. We run Common Ground on Elizabeth St, which is a 10-floor high rise for people who have been chronically homeless, providing a home for them for the rest of their life.

Where does your funding come from? Do you rely to a certain extent on donations and how is that going?

About 90 per cent of our funding is government contracts and about 10 per cent is private funding such as donations. Donations are very important to us because they enable us to do extra things that government funds don’t cover. For example, we set up a program where we make up the difference between private rent and what people can afford and then work with them to get back on their feet and eventually pay the full rent. That has actually been so successful that the Government’s now introducing the program. We can help families with school books and excursions, medical expenses … a range of individualised care.

You use SecurePay in your donations payment gateway – have you been happy with us?

We’ve used SecurePay as our online donations portal for a number of years now. We’re really pleased with the service provided, especially in relation to the reporting and management of regular donations. These services in particular allow us to accurately identify and report on donations through our website each month and effectively manage regular donor relationships.

Did you know?

If you run a not-for-profit organisation, speak to SecurePay about our special rates for charities. Call us on 1300 786 756.

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