By Dr John Falzon
Helder Camara, the Archbishop of Recife in Brazil, famously said: 'When I give bread to the poor I am called a saint, but when I ask why they have no bread I am called a communist.'
The St Vincent de Paul Society has no ideological axe to grind but we have been in the habit, since 1833, of asking why a significant number of people, even in prosperous countries, don't get to enjoy the necessities of life. Our founder, Frederic Ozanam, a French university student, wrote: 'Charity is the Samaritan who pours oil on the wounds of the traveller who has been attacked. It is the role of justice to prevent the attack.'
This is why we refuse to accept the dystopian vision of an Australia in which people experiencing poverty are made to shoulder the burden of expenditure cuts while the people who have the least need for assistance enjoy overly generous tax concessions. From time to time someone comes out of the woodwork and accuses us of being communists but that's the least of our worries.
What does worry us right now is the perpetuation of the myth that people living in poverty are to blame for their own situation. This position is ideological and it flies in the face of everything we see.
We see people desperate to make ends meet, people who are locked out of both the labour market and the housing market, often without even a place they can call home. We see a housing market that is notoriously bad at providing affordable housing for low income families and individuals.
Our members recently met a mum with three boys under the age of ten, who had to sleep on the floor in the lounge area because the bedroom regularly flooded. There was no written lease agreement and no hot water for six months. It's easy to sit back and blame the mother for moving her children into a hovel, but there's the rub. When income is severely constrained and choices are non-existent, it's often a matter of accepting grossly inappropriate and insecure housing or sleeping in a car.
Instead of gleefully bagging the National Rental Affordability Scheme let's do something to ensure that people don't have to chose between a hovel and a Holden as the place they call home.
By all means, let's improve the NRAS where improvements are to be made, but if we are serious about ensuring that housing is enjoyed as a human right by all, and not a matter of luck for some, then we actually need to invest more in the NRAS and in other means of increasing the supply of social and affordable housing.
We also need to increase Rent Assistance, indexing it to changes in the average private rental costs, which, over the last five years, have seen increases 12.3 per cent higher than the CPI. And we need to look seriously at the current structure of negative gearing so that rather than increasing speculative investment we actually increase the supply of affordable housing.
The Government's silence on the future of homelessness funding is a disturbing sign. This Government has the opportunity to demonstrate a strong commitment to halving homelessness by 2020. This means consolidating and improving on gains rather than creating uncertainty even over the funding status quo. It is homelessness itself that we must cut, not the spending on homelessness. Everyone has the right to a place to call home. The housing market fails to deliver on this basic human right. Governments must therefore do what markets cannot.
Dr John Falzon is the CEO of Vinnies. This opinion piece was first published on the Eureka Street news website on March 26, 2014.