On a walk through streets of Sydney with Father Chris Riley’s street team, I heard the story of a young girl they found addicted to heroin and living on the street.
She was injected with heroin for the first time by her mum when she was 12 years old. Just imagine a life like that. Most of us take for granted that our parents will love us and protect us. This girl couldn’t even do that.
But that little girl isn’t dead. Father Chris and his team found her, gave her a place to live, got her off the gear and back in school. Today she’s a school teacher.
It’s a story with a happy ending, but not all stories end like this. Not everyone has a Father Chris who comes to the rescue or a roof to shelter under.
Last year, 10,000 mums and kids trying to escape domestic violence were turned away from refuges because there wasn’t a bed. The inn was full.
Where do they go? They sleep in a car, they sleep at a friend’s home or they reluctantly go back to the violence they tried to flee.
And if you are fortunate enough to get a bed in a refuge you will probably be there for a long time because there isn’t enough social housing.
Tonight, one in ten people sleeping on the streets of Sydney will probably be a veteran. Think about that: the same person who walks up George Street on Anzac Day sleeping on the same street that night. We train them, we send them off to war, and then we forget them.
Last year taught us that if we really want to, we can do something about homelessness.
It took a virus to teach us that, but we did it. Thousands of people living on the street, sleeping on cars and on trains, forgotten by many of us, were scooped up and put in empty hotel rooms.
Why? Not because of some newfound compassion. It was done to keep the rest of us safe. To stop a cluster spreading on our streets. It was done because last year having a roof over our head was more important than having a mask on our face.
But just as fast as the virus has retreated, so have those roofs. Many of the people sleeping in hotels last year are back on the street today.
Last year also reminded us who the real heroes in our community are. They certainly aren’t politicians. They are the people who can’t work from home, people who put on a uniform every morning and do the jobs that kept us going and kept us safe.
You know who I mean. People like nurses, aged care workers and cleaners.
They don’t earn big bucks and often they can’t afford to live near where they work because it’s just too expensive. So they get up early and get home late, spending too much time on the train or in the car.
Last year reminded us how valuable these Australians are. They could also do with some more help to get more affordable housing, closer to where they work.
We have a housing crisis in Australia at the moment. The Government doesn’t like to talk about it but’s here and it’s real.
It’s harder to buy a home than ever before. It’s also harder to rent than ever before, and there are more homeless Aussies than ever before.
There are many things we need to do to fix this. One of those is we need to build more affordable housing and more social housing.
That’s why, if Labor wins the next election, we will establish the Housing Australia Future Fund.
This off-budget $10 billion fund will be invested and the money it makes will build homes, create jobs, and change lives.
In the first five years, it will build 20,000 social housing homes. Four thousands of them will be for women and children fleeing domestic violence.
In the first five years, it will also build 10,000 affordable homes for the heroes of the pandemic, our front line workers, and more housing for the heroes we have forgotten, our homeless veterans.
This is a future fund that will give more Australians a future. Australians like that 12-year-old girl that Father Riley’s team found.
It’s the sort of thing this tired eight-year-old Liberal Government should do, and could do, but never will.
This opinion piece was first published in The Canberra Times on Friday, 21 May 2021.
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