By David Smith
18 June 2020
Address to the Federation Chamber, House of Representatives, Australian Parliament
After the parliament rises tonight, I'll be taking part in my sixth St Vincent de Paul CEO sleepout with my three children. My parliamentary colleagues Libby Coker, Tony Sheldon, Jason Clare and Emma McBride will also be taking part. As many of you would know, Canberra winters can be harsh and cold, getting down to as low as minus six degrees.
In the last census, it was estimated that over 115,000 people in Australia were homeless, of which over 1,500 came from the ACT. By the very nature of this problem, though, the census can only estimate what is likely to be a much larger problem. Many of our fellow Australians are living in severely crowded dwellings or supported accommodation, and seven per cent of homeless people are rough sleeping—living in improvised dwellings, tents and sleeping out. So, tonight, along with hundreds of other community leaders across Australia, I'll be taking part in the annual one-night sleepout to raise money for Vinnies emergency support services. The funds raised will help keep the power on, provide beds and feed thousands of Australians this winter.
This year, due to social distancing requirements, we won't be doing it in the same way in the one location, otherwise it would've been at the wonderfully chilly Canberra stadium here. This year Vinnies has taken the opportunity to highlight that homelessness is not just limited to sleeping on the streets; it also includes a range of other unstable and difficult conditions. Indeed, it's estimated that 15 per cent of homeless people rely on couch surfing in the homes of family, friends and acquaintances for a safe place to sleep at night.
There are good stories. The recent emergency response to relocate thousands of homeless Australians to hotels and student accommodation prior to the coronavirus lockdown enabled a high rate of transition to permanent housing in states like South Australia.
However, we are missing an opportunity to invest substantially in the social housing sector in the government's response to the recession. Like Labor's response to the GFC, the government could have taken a decision to invest in people's lives and help people secure the foundation to a better life: a secure home. Tonight, Thursday, when my family and I are sleeping out, I'll be reflecting on what many Australians endure each night and what we can do together, across parties and governments, and with organisations like St Vincent de Paul, to ensure that every Australian has a place that they can call home.