Editorial: The Long Road Home

29 October 2015 Melissa Cranenburgh

Editorial: The Long Road Home

IN JUNE I flew into Seattle, landing in the middle of a heatwave and celebrations following the ruling that state bans on same-sex marriage were unconstitutional. Seattle wore its rainbow colours with pride. Change was in the air. A good time and place for a meeting of the International Network of Street Papers, and for delegates to share their stories about helping people out of poverty.

But while Seattle is undeniably progressive, it also became clear that this was the site of some of America’s most visible homelessness. Seattle is a small, but quickly growing, city of some 650,000 – with as many as 10,000 homeless residents, 3700 or more of them sleeping on the streets. It is a small city with a massive problem.

To combat this, the council designated spaces for people to set up basic accommodation. Essentially, tent cities. Now several such plots exist. One has been ironically named Nickelsville (a back-hander at former mayor, Greg Nickels) – and it’s hard not to make comparisons to the Hoover towns of the American Great Depression. It’s a stark metaphor in a city that is home to the head offices of Amazon, Microsoft and Starbucks. And, at best, the encampments are little more than a band‑aid measure to combat a vast and growing issue.

But while this is the most visible attempt at a solution, there are others. The Housing First model, which achieved staggering results in Utah (a more than 70% drop in homelessness) has made some inroads, albeit small, into the Seattle landscape.

For the close to 80 formerly homeless residents of 1811 Eastlake, Housing First has been a huge boon. The project – the first of its kind in Washington state – targets the most vulnerable, people debilitated by prolonged alcohol addiction and chronic homelessness. The methodology behind the 1811 Eastlake project is staggering in its directness: people in dire need were identified, tracked down then offered a simple choice: do you want somewhere to live? Those who did were handed the keys to their room. No strings attached. Controversially (for some), residents are not required to stop drinking. But, if they choose to do so, they can access services to help them. And, it’s been a success. A year-long study found that, compared to similar people still on the streets, there was a marked reduction in costs to health and emergency services. And, importantly, nearly 80 people now had a safe home.

For delegates attending the event, it was hard not to look at the situation in Seattle as a microcosm for problems around the world. In Australia, we may feel smug about our supposed ‘welfare state’ approach to some issues, but we are lagging badly when it comes to affordable housing. More than 100,000 Australians don’t have a place to call home. And with a lack of commitment to affordable housing on a state and federal level, that number is set to rise. In this edition, we address some of the issues related to housing – which many consider a fundamental human right. Housing expert Carolyn Whitzman (p14) takes us through the breadth of the issues, and some of the proposed solutions – including The Big Issue-led initiative Homes for Homes, which aims to use the private sale of houses to raise revenue to build homes for those who need them most (visit homesforhomes.com.au to find out more). Editor Alan Attwood (p18) questions government spending priorities, with billions going on defence projects. And staff writer/editor Katherine Smyrk (p21) ponders whether she’ll ever have a patch of earth to call her own, where she can watch her veggies grow – without fear of being uprooted. We don’t pretend to have the answers to this overwhelming problem. But perhaps this edition will encourage readers to ask the pressing questions.

Melissa Cranenburgh, Associate Editor

This article first appeared in Ed#497 of The Big Issue.