In addition to the $9.3bn in last week’s federal budget for social housing (discussed in ToT 208 last week), there’s another $1bn for homelessness. Good intentions. Presuming they mean to alleviate, not increase, it. But the idea is fraught.

That’s nowhere near enough money to decently house our 120,000 currently homeless, it would take eons to build, even if we could, and crucially we don’t need ‘specialised homeless housing’. In short, building more homes won’t solve homelessness, because it’s not solely a housing problem.

Homelessness has many causes: social alienation, mental health issues, loss of income, loss of spousal support or family illness or death. There’s no one cause, and no one fix. Many, such as older suddenly impecunious women, should have regular housing. Hence the urgent need for much more social housing.

But many, such as long-term, street based homeless, need specialised  ‘wrap-around-services’ before they need a home. For them, the solution to homelessness is not necessarily a home first up, but rather its services. We ask: “what is it that a home provides without necessarily providing a home?”

In answering that call, we might have a better solution with more immediate impact.

Ablutions. The local public toilets. Never a good call. Washing: yourself and your clothes. Sometimes provided by mobile services such as Orange Sky. Subject to weather vagaries. Food. Lots of providers in churches, halls and vans. Mobile phone charger. The poorest find them a pillar of social support. Pets. Some homeless bond more closely with dogs than people, and both need support.

Our work on the Wayside Chapel in Kings Cross gave us some insight into the possibility of a ‘one-stop shop’ for all that, and more. A community centre that supports the whole community, with one hand washing the other, almost literally.

Showers and toilets? Tick, with free undies which are a boon. Food and drink? Tick, but not a free handout with a loss of dignity. A modest charge enables the homeless to take ownership of a space within the café. Haircuts? Tick. Vet? Tick. Wayside’s ground floor is given over to all the facilities a home normally provides, without providing homes.

And vitally, with all that comes the wraparound services to provide advice, support, contact. Assistance with health or hospitalization? Tick. Drug counseling? Tick. Police or prison system contacts? Tick. Fleeing DV and need safety? They know how. Bed for the night, week, or permanent? They’ll do their best.

Wayside teaches ‘standing by’, not seeking to give help or proselytise, but rather, by offering physical services the requests for social services will follow. It has become a staging post for people getting off the street, from under bridges and out of cars, with services to reestablish dignity, and then help find the appropriate form of housing.

In this way, a well-designed and targeted community centre provides the interim steps between homelessness and a home. It is admirable that the Wayside Chapel is seeking to extend its model into other cities and towns.

My hope is for that huge lump of announced money to be directed to establishing community centres, with an emphasis on homelessness, in every local government area. A grand response to solve an urgent issue. A solution that must be both widespread and localised, and delivered urgently. But by whom?

It is the myriad of not-for-profit philanthropic organisations, particularly churches, that have provided the food kitchens, the mobile laundries, the support services and emergency shelters. It is they who should be tapped, and funded, to deliver the homeless community centres across the country.

On the other hand, my fear is that such a grand idea would be seen by the government bureaucracy as a ‘single super solution’ and, just like social housing, they would bring in a tier 1 developer, redolent with project managers, to roll out the program. Nothing could kill it more quickly. The institutionalised bureaucratic approach, typified by Robodebt, is antithetical to the needs of today's homeless.

Let’s not forget the failures in the BER (Building the Education Revolution). How NSW’s big end of town had a top-down approach with massive waste and profit gouging, when compared to WA’s small scale, bottom-up approach. The Neoliberals will argue a big market player does best. When it comes to social service, I’d argue philanthropic does better.

Homelessness takes many different forms; to house the homeless, we need the right home. The only way to do that is through continual, ongoing wraparound services.

Title image: The street frontage of the Wayside Chapel, whose minister Graham Long, steered environa studio through more than ten years of learning to create a new type of community centre. Great client, great project. Milo Dunphy award in 2014.

Next week: Much has been said about the missing middle. Finding out what’s missing in the muddle is the subject of next week's Tone on Tuesday.

This is Tone on Tuesday #209, 21 May 2024, written by Tone Wheeler, architect / Adjunct Prof UNSW / President AAA. The views expressed are his. Past Tone on Tuesday columns can be found here. You can contact TW at [email protected].