How do you end family homelessness? Try rent subsidy, experts say

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Rachael Newton, who was homeless for two years. Photo: Eddie Jim Rachael Newton, who was homeless, with her son Thomas Martin. Photo: Eddie Jim
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When Rachael Newton finally left her toxic, 15-year relationship, a bag of clothes in one hand, she had to trudge nearly 40 kilometres along country roads to catch the train to Bendigo.

You might have thought this was the low point, but it got much worse.

At her journey’s end Rachael – who has three children now aged 22, 17 and 14 – couldn’t find anywhere to live.

Private landlords rejected her because she had no rental history (for 15 years she had shared a mortgage with her ex), and no job (she had worked in the family business).

The only option was an expensive room ($200 a week) in emergency housing for men and women. It was chaotic, noisy and frightening; a halfway house for people leaving prison and those abusing alcohol and drugs.

After a woman was raped and a man beaten, Rachael decided her then 12-year-old daughter would be safer living with her father.

We’re often told the answer to family homelessness is affordable housing. But what does this actually mean?

Rachael Newton, who was homeless for two years, with her son Thomas Martin. Photo: Eddie Jim

New US-based research has followed more than 2000 homeless families to determine the best way to solve the problem.

It found a “permanent housing subsidy”, which combined help to find housing with an ongoing rent subsidy (at 30 per cent), cut subsequent emergency shelter use by half.

This approach had other social benefits too: it halved the rate of family violence and subsequent emergency shelter usage compared with the business-as-usual approach of an extended stay in a shelter.

And the cost? Researchers were expecting that a permanent housing subsidy would be expensive, says lead researcher Professor Marybeth Shin, from Vanderbilt University, who is in Melbourne this week to lead a conference on housing run by the Council to Homeless Persons.

But when the costs of extra support services that families relied on to cope with their time in emergency housing, the costs were the same over the 20 months of the study.

“Homelessness, at least among families, is largely a housing affordability problem. There are lots of ways to reduce the gap between what poor families can pay and the cost of housing,” says Professor Shin.

The research shows the answer to homelessness lies in increasing affordable housing, says Council to Homeless Persons policy manager Sarah Toohey.

“If you’re looking at the effectiveness of the reduction of homelessness, and increased wellbeing in the families, they were so much higher in this single intervention,”

For decades Victorian public housing properties have been in decline and affordable private rental is increasingly rare.

The state’s latest figures showing the public housing waiting list hit 34,500 in the June quarter of this year.

But there are other ways to make housing more affordable to those who desperately needs it.

These include specialised real estate agents helping vulnerable people secure tenancies, rental subsidies, or encouraging landlords to consider different tenants (sometimes with financial incentives).

Rachael moved from the emergency hostel into share housing, then spent four months in a motel ($480 a week).

Eventually, two years ago, she found a townhouse in Kew with help from Homeground Real Estate, Australia’s only not-for-profit real estate agency.

The agency covered the cost of Rachael’s bond and first month of rent. She has full-time cleaning work and pays the rent of $300 a week herself.

“It gives you back your independence, your sense of self-worth,” says Rachael.

“The government want to shine more light on domestic violence and irradiate it, (but) unless these forms of housing are available, it’s not going to happen. For a lot of women it’s too hard.”

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