Housing and Homelessness

From the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, via United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Regional Office for Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Newsletter, Edition 1/2010

Housing and homelessness are amongst the greatest challenges facing asylum seekers in Australia. Asylum seekers who have applied for protection can live for years in the community without stable accommodation and without access to any mainstream housing services. Homelessness is a challenge not only for asylum seekers but for many Australian citizens and permanent residents, with the  Australian Bureau of Statistics reporting over 105,000 homeless people in Australia each night.

Australia wide, there are a number of not-for-profit support agencies who work with asylum seekers to  address their basic welfare needs. Collectively, not-for-profit services meet the legal, health, social and basic welfare needs of asylum seekers, but all of this well-integrated support comes undone when an  asylum seeker has no place to live. For all of these services, access to appropriate housing is the missing link.

During the refugee determination process, people seeking asylum are arguably the most marginalized of all groups of homeless people. This is due largely to the fact that they are denied access to public housing and Centrelink and have no safety net to ensure ongoing income to pay rent. In addition, current housing policy renders asylum seekers ineligible for many mainstream services leaving them reliant on the support of charities to avoid homelessness whilst awaiting an outcome of their protection claim.

Key housing issues faced by asylum seekers

The process of seeking asylum is neither instantaneous nor a permanent state. It is transitional and asylum seekers need transitional housing during this time.

Key issues faced by asylum seekers needing emergency and transitional accommodation include:

  • The struggle to gain access to housing agencies for emergency and transitional
  • The lack of understanding and willingness of housing agencies to provide an adequate emergency and transitional accommodation response;
  • A (well documented) lack of safe rooming houses and emergency-type accommodation options;
  • No current entry point to access mainstream transitional housing.

In Victoria, the funding for emergency accommodation is allocated predominantly through the State Government’s Housing Establishment Fund (HEF). While the HEF guidelines do not disqualify asylum seekers from accessing emergency accommodation, many housing services that distribute HEF reject asylum seekers on the basis that they do not have access to income. It is assumed that they have no ‘exit options’ from housing services and therefore they are denied entry. As this report demonstrates, this is simply not true.

The Department of human services in Victoria has authorised a small amount of recurrent funding to assist asylum seekers with emergency housing. This is a good start and will assist a small number of asylum seekers in housing crisis, however all Housing Services providing HEF need to respond to asylum seekers when they present in housing crisis.

Accessing transitional (medium term) housing proves just as diffi cult. Whilst assistance is helpful in overcoming an immediate emergency housing crisis, this accommodation is available only for a minimal amount of time (generally two weeks). The type of accommodation sourced is crisis/emergency accommodation, which is not suitable or sustainable for ongoing tenancy. Currently asylum seekers are refused access to transitional housing programs.

In Victoria the State Government has recently responded to asylum seekers presenting post-Homeless World Cup by providing an excellent model of support including transitional housing. This is to be
applauded and ideally used as an example of how to respond to all asylum seekers in need of transitional housing.

The impact of homelessness on settlement of on-shore refugees

While homelessness is a key issue when someone is seeking asylum, it would be wrong to assume that their housing troubles disappear when they are granted permanent residency. Our experience informs us that asylum seekers who are granted a protection visa don’t rejoice for long as they face a new set of diffi culties. The effects of living in destitution and uncertainty for a prolonged period of time in the  Australian community (and for some in detention), do not disappear with the granting of a visa. Without the proper information and support, making the transition can be very difficult.

Asylum seekers who are granted a protection visa have immediate and full access to the entitlements of an Australian permanent resident, such as Centrelink, Medicare, etc. As for public housing, asylum seekers are entitled to ‘join the queue’ only once being granted permanent residency regardless of how many years they have already lived in Australia.

Once granted a permanent protection visa, an individual or family is faced with the task of sourcing housing quickly, but rarely has access to the much-needed IHSS program offered to newly-arrived offshore refugees. Sourcing housing is very difficult for people who have been forced to rely on charity, may have language barriers and frequently will not have the multiple private rental referees required for entry into the highly competitive private  rental market. Without dedicated one-on-one support to source housing, many people fail at this crucial stage of their settlement.

Asylum seekers’ homelessness needs to be included in a national response

Social inclusion cannot be achieved without access to housing.

The housing sector has a key role to play in creating social inclusion. The Federal Government’s willingness to approach social issues holistically is encouraging and the desire for collaboration between sectors is a welcome step. These principles need to apply to all who lawfully reside in Australia, including asylum seekers.

While the Federal Government has shown its readiness to tackle the housing crisis in Australia – the White Paper ‘The Road Home’ (2008) promising to halve homelessness and to provide supported accommodation for all in need by 2020 – there is no mention of asylum seekers, despite their well-documented housing challenges and regular presentation at housing services. In its current form, this appears to be a truly ‘white’ paper.

A key feature of ‘The Road Home’ is a ‘no wrong doors’ system, which states that “There should be no wrong doors for people who are homeless when they seek help”.

To date asylum seekers have been told by mainstream and specialist housing and welfare services that they are at the ‘wrong door’ when attempting to access emergency and transitional accommodation. Now is the time for all levels of government to affi rm their commitment to ending homelessness by providing the resources and collaborative support to prevent asylum seekers from becoming and  remaining homeless. This will have long-term benefits by helping the many asylum seekers who are granted permanent residency to successfully meet the challenges of settlement and become fully fledged citizens of their new country.

You Can read this article and many more in the UNHCR Newsletter. You can also download the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre’s Position Paper on the homelessness of Asylum Seekers living in the community, Locked Out,  from their website.