Homelessness: Request for Urgent Action from UN Special Rapporteurs

Report to and Request for Action from UN Special Rapporteurs From 31 July to 16 August 2006, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing conducted an official country visit to Australia.  In his Preliminary Observations regarding implementation of the right to adequate housing, the Special Rapporteur noted that there is a ‘serious, hidden national housing crisis in Australia’.

Following his visit, the HRLRC and the PILCH Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic produced a detailed report to further inform the Special Rapporteur for the purpose of completing his final report.  The report also draws attention to the ongoing serious human rights violations experienced by people who are homeless in Australia and urges investigation of this situation by the Special Rapporteurs in the areas of the:

  • right to the highest attainable standard of health;
  • the right to be free from all forms of discrimination;
  • the right to be free from extreme poverty;
  • the rights of Indigenous people; and
  • the right of women to be free from violence.

By its own measure, Australia is a wealthy, developed and prosperous nation.  The report contends that, despite this, it is not discharging either its progressive or core obligations in relation to these rights.  The report demonstrates the way in which inadequate public housing programs, chronic under-funding of the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program and crisis accommodation services, as well as a lack of available, affordable and quality housing in the private market jeopardise the right of many Australians to adequate housing, and particularly the right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity.

The right to health is also an area of great concern and the report highlights the strong associations between homelessness and poor health, particularly poor mental health.  Poor health, both mental and physical, can be the cause of, a contributor to, and a consequence of homelessness.  The report argues that people experiencing homelessness confront a range of barriers to adequate health care and that Australian governments, at federal and state levels, must adopt legislative and practical measures to ensure that those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness are able to access health care and the benefits of good health that much of the rest of the community enjoys.

According to Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize Winner for Economics, 'inadequate income is a strong predisposing condition for an impoverished life'.  The report develops this idea and argues that, in Australia, the absence of a guaranteed minimum income and inadequate income support and social security arrangements contribute significantly to people either living in or being at risk of poverty and homelessness.  The report is also critical of the punitive reforms introduced by the Welfare to Work legislation and contends that the human and social consequences of inadequate income support those who need it can be devastating.

In his Preliminary Observations, the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing described the lack of housing and civic services for Indigenous people in Australia as a 'humanitarian tragedy'. The report provides detailed information about the situation many Indigenous people face with respect to housing, health and discrimination.

Women escaping domestic and family violence account for about 33 per cent of people who seek assistance from homelessness assistance services in Australia each year.  The report deals with this issue, demonstrating the associations between homelessness and violence against women in Australia.  It also highlights the considerable difficulty women in this situation face in securing safe and adequate accommodation, as well as access to civic services, and the impact this has on their physical, mental, emotional social and financial wellbeing.

Finally, the report submits that the Australian government is failing in its legal and moral responsibility to protect and fulfil the rights of persons experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness and requests urgent investigation by the relevant Special Rapporteurs. We are hopeful that the report will prompt investigation, action or comment on their parts.

We are very grateful for the important contributions of a number of community and non-profit organisations that have enhanced the report considerably and have helped ensure that it provides a comprehensive overview of the situation in Australia.