Housing affordability is one of the main political battlefields in the upcoming election.
But while the two major parties fight over negative gearing policy and how it might affect house prices and rental rates, Melbourne’s most vulnerable face a more critical concern.
Homelessness – and the issues that often come with it such as unemployment, ill-health and personal safety concerns – have been largely absent from the attention of party leaders.
Serafina (not her real name) has experienced homelessness.
She was living in crisis accommodation, but although making a huge effort to find a new home, found the rental prices impossible.
“My partner and I were trying to move in together. Every place we found they would increase the rent. Although that’s understandable, it made it very hard to find a place,” she says.
The staff at the crisis accommodation recognised their efforts, and put the couple on a path to secure a publicly-subsised inner city flat.
However she still finds it difficult to balance her household budget.
“When you’ve only got $600 a fortnight between two adults and a child for bills, public transport, phone, food, everything you need – you’ve got to find those vouchers and those op shops.”
Safety is an issue too, particularly with Serafina’s young daughter. She ‘locks down’ the flat early in the evening for security, avoiding leaving or entering the building after dark.
“Although I didn’t report it, because the last thing I need is trouble, I did at one point see a man standing on the stairwell with two syringes,” she says.
“I do assume that there’s a certain amount of drug taking there, but I just keep to myself. The neighbours seem to be of a similar mind-frame.”
She admits that there are attempts to create positive change around the flats with markets and barbecues, but with limited success.
“They do seem to encourage community, but everyone here has been through a bad experience. You don’t know in what way they’ve had to toughen up. So it’s safer to keep to yourself,” she says.
Labor’s plan to remove negative gearing on investment properties is expected to lower rental prices– if Labor is elected. But that is little comfort for people like Seraphina who struggle to afford even subsidised housing. And she’s one of the ‘luckier’ ones.
Statistics compiled by Homelessness Australia indicate that as many as one in 200 people find themselves homeless on any given night, with more than 100,000 in need.
It can be a largely invisible issue. Only 6% of homeless people will ‘sleep rough’, and most of those out of the public eye. The bulk stay in crisis housing, overcrowded accommodation, boarding houses, or rely on the generosity of friends as they ‘surf’ from one couch to another.
Aside from a short-lived protest in central Melbourne last month, there has been very little public discussion of the issue in this election campaign, and no significant policy announcements from either major party specifically related to homelessness.
Stephen Jolly, a Councillor for the City of Yarra, believes that the political establishment has forgotten some of the most vulnerable members of society.
“I think the vast majority of people – young people, working class people, public housing tenants, the homeless and those people who are struggling every day just to pay the high rent – aren’t really represented by a proper party.”
“Those people are really feeling the impact of cuts to education and health,” he says.
Jolly says that only a challenge to the Australian political system itself will create any positive change and he doesn’t believe the Greens have the answers.
“The Greens have kind of positioned themselves as Labor’s junior partner,” he says. “They’ve even aligned with the Liberals in some cases.”
“What we need markedly in Australia is a new third force.”
“It’s got to be the kind of people power movements that we’ve seen in the ‘black lives matter’ campaign, earlier the Occupy campaign, and now reflected politically by the [now extinguished] Bernie Sanders’ campaign.”
Serafina is more pragmatic and focused on her own situation.
“I hope that my partner and I will get jobs that are secure, save up and get our own house,” she says. I don’t like piggybacking off someone else when I can avoid it.”