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Opening a door on the bleak truth of homelesssness (2010)

Rights Rights and Freedoms

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The following opinion pieces have been published by the President and Commissioners. Reproduction of the opinion pieces must include reference to where the opinion piece was originally published.


Opening a door on the bleak truth of homelesssness

By Disability Discrimination Commissioner and Race Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes

Publication: The Daily Telegraph, Friday 18 June 2010


I thought it was 4am when I woke, but my fingers were so cold - even inside my sleeping bag- that I couldn't quite read my Braille watch.  The concrete under me was hard, and my cardboard box was a poor mattress.  June is not the best month to sleep out in Sydney, but at least it wasn't raining.

So why was I, a Commissioner with the Australian Human Rights Commission, sleeping against a wall at Luna Park, trying to get some shelter from the wind blowing off the harbour? And why am I doing it again later this week?

I am doing it to raise funds for, and awareness about, homeless Australians.

Many Australians regard homelessness as a welfare issue worthy of our attention and our charity.  I don't. 

Homelessness is fair and square a human rights issue- and until we treat it as such, those at least 105,000 Australians experiencing homelessness will remain disempowered, and will remain passive recipients of charity, rather than active bearers of rights.

We all know that access to adequate housing is a serious issue.  A lack of housing is not just a concern for the people traditionally thought of as being vulnerable to homelessness.  Increasingly, families (7,500 homeless) and young people (34,000 homeless) are at risk, and make up a disproportionate amount of people who do not have access to adequate housing.  And forget the "older man" stereotype- 58% of homeless people are under 35 and 85% of these people experience some form of mental illness.

A lack of adequate housing creates countless difficulties, particularly when trying to maintain and carry out a life which includes a regular job, family, privacy, good health, personal safety, an education, and the freedom to pursue advancement.  When one right is not being adequately met, it becomes difficult to meet any or all of them.  It is not easy - for instance - to present yourself to work or school while living out of a cardboard box and a plastic bag.

When someone doesn't have a safe, secure and solid place to live, they are unlikely to be able to enjoy any or all of the human rights most of us take for granted, like the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to health, the right to social security, education, liberty and security, to privacy, to freedom of movement and so on.

Just think, for example, about going to work when on the streets. How do you get a Medicare card without an address? And how do you apply for jobs when you are sleeping -- or perhaps not sleeping -- rough.

How difficult would it be to enjoy the general amenities which make our lives easier - a car without an address to have on your license, a place to shower privately, security to feel safe from violence, a way to store and consume enough food, access to appropriate clothing, and the ability to maintain adequate living conditions?

A rights-based approach to human rights shifts the issue away from a welfare approach.  When a right is identified and asserted, it moves away from the idea that people experiencing homelessness are charity cases, in need of state intervention.  A rights-based approach challenges this idea, and allows a shift of power to the individual asserting a right that we all should have access to.

This is not just a debate about language.  It is changing the reality.  If you give a hungry man a fish, he will eat for a day. If you give him a fishing line, he will eat for the rest of his life.

Human rights will not -- by themselves -- put a roof over the heads of homeless Australians.  But human rights provide us with a language, and a framework, that can help shift the debate from one of welfare and pity, to one of rights and empowerment.  That is an extremely important step.

We all know the difference it makes to be viewed as an equal with an entitlement, rather than as a recipient seeking benevolence.  Changing the way homelessness is viewed is important - because it will empower those people we all want to help.  Just as we parents don't raise our kids to always parenting, we need to assist homeless Australians to address the issues they face themselves.

I'll trade my warm bed for a night to raise funds and awareness – but will Australia give its homeless residents the human rights to which they are entitled?

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