Housing first

UQ research spurs new pilot program that is getting some of the Australian capital’s most vulnerable people off the street.

Child's drawing with chalk on the pavement: a house with windows and roof

Image credit: Getty images/Elen11

Image credit: Getty images/Elen11

Nearly 20 years ago, Cameron Parsell was working in a homeless shelter and asking himself questions that would trouble him for years.

Why do homeless people who regularly seek shelter in emergency accommodation rarely get what most people take for granted – a permanent place to call home?

Why do the best intentions of charities and governments often result in homeless people with complex needs becoming even more vulnerable?

And if homeless people are not getting housing, who benefits from this system?

Fast forward 20 years, and Cameron Parsell is now Associate Professor Parsell, a nationally recognised expert on poverty, homelessness and social services based at The University of Queensland (UQ).

He’s spent years searching for the answers to these questions – and now, he is advocating a ‘Housing First’ approach, that is making a real difference to the lives of some of Australia’s most vulnerable people.

Street light in a park at night.

Image credit: Getty Images/Daniel Steffen/EyeEm

Image credit: Getty Images/Daniel Steffen/EyeEm

Evidence-based homelessness research

Building on a program of Australian Research Council (ARC)-funded research, in 2017 Associate Professor Parsell and fellow researcher Dr Andrew Clarke received funding from the Australian Capital Territory government to conduct a study into how the ACT’s homelessness service system was working for people who had high and complex service needs, particularly mental health and substance management issues.

Their research found that despite the relatively small number of people with complex needs experiencing homelessness in the ACT, the system was struggling to address homelessness for this cohort.

They identified two reasons for this: 1) an inadequate supply of social and affordable housing in the Territory; and 2) policies that required homeless people to prove they were ‘housing ready’ before permanent housing was provided to them.

“Most public housing is provided to homeless people based on a series of strict conditions,” Associate Professor Parsell says.

“But their lives are often so disadvantaged and the system so complex, they can never meet the conditions for public housing, so they move from shelter to shelter for most of their lives.”

Through their research, Associate Professor Parsell and Dr Clarke developed a picture of the homeless and at-risk populations in the ACT and identified a range of models and options for responding to their needs.

Importantly, they identified the structural barriers in the current system, accompanied by policy guidance on how to fix them, with a focus on how to make solutions affordable and achievable.

Based on this report, the ACT government launched a pilot program in 2019 to provide immediate housing for 20 homeless people with complex needs – without the conditions that would usually stop them from getting a permanent roof over their heads.

This will mean that people will have the material condition to assert control over their lives. The housing first approach recommended by Parsell and Clarke is a positive step that aligns with the international evidence base, as well as the aspirations of service providers and people experiencing homelessness in the ACT.

A more cost-effective solution

One of the reasons the ACT government funded the pilot project to immediately house 20 homeless people was because the research has proven it is cheaper to house them than to allow them to stay homeless.

Previous research by Associate Professor Parsell showed that over a 12-month period, people who were chronically homeless used state government-funded services that cost approximately A$48,217 each.

Over another 12-month period in which they were tenants of permanent supportive housing, the same people used state government services that cost approximately A$35,117.

The research confirmed that people use A$13,100 less in government-funded services when securely housed compared to the services they use when they are chronically homeless.

Image credit: Getty Images/Neha Gupta

City lights reflected on the pavement on a rainy day.

Wide-reaching societal benefits

But Associate Professor Parsell says the benefits of finding permanent supportive housing for people with complex needs aren’t just monetary.

“Our data shows that when people are tenants of supportive housing, many aspects of their lives improve,” he says.

“Their low level criminal behaviour and reliance on crisis health and temporary accommodation services that characterised their lives while homeless, reduces.”

UQ research, supported by research in other jurisdictions throughout the world, suggests that a ‘housing first’ policy — providing housing and person-led supports immediately without conditions — usually results in homeless people stabilising their lives at multiple levels, and subsequently meeting the conditions of their tenancy.

For example, affordable housing – compared to being homeless for a year – was associated with a 52% reduction in criminal offending, a 54% reduction in being a victim of crime, and 40% reduced time spent in police custody. Use of short-term crisis accommodation reduced by 99%, and mental health service use declined by 65%.

“When people have access to housing that is safe and affordable, they no longer have to live as patients, criminals, inmates, clients, and homeless people,” Associate Professor Parsell says.

Key with trinket in shape of a house on wooden background.

Image credit: Getty Images/Witthaya Prasongsin

Image credit: Getty Images/Witthaya Prasongsin

Housing for all

The introduction of the pilot program in the ACT is not the first time Associate Professor Parsell’s research has led to policy change.

In 2016, the Queensland Government announced it would wind back its Anti-Social Management Policy, also known as the ‘three strikes’ policy, after Associate Professor Parsell and his team at UQ’s Institute of Social Sciences Research (ISSR) found that the policy was counterproductive to the government’s primary objectives – to provide safe and affordable housing to those in need.

As a result of ISSR’s findings and recommendations, the policy was replaced with the Fair Expectations of Behaviour Policy, which aims to balance the rights of tenants, neighbours, service partners, department staff and the community while offering additional support to social housing tenants with complex needs or mental health issues.

As the ACT pilot progresses, Associate Professor Parsell and Dr Clarke say they would ultimately like to see the introduction of rigorous, evidence-based housing policies for homeless people throughout Australia, replacing the well-intentioned but values-based housing policies that often unintentionally discriminate against the very people they were supposed to support.

“Our research proves that governments need to change the way they create pathways to permanent homes for homeless people,” Dr Clarke says.

Contact details

Associate Professor Cameron Parsell (left), and Doctor Andrew Clarke (right)

Associate Professor Cameron Parsell, School of Social Science

Email: c.parsell@uq.edu.au
Phone: +61 7 336 52765
Web: researchers.uq.edu.au/researcher/1840

Doctor Andrew Clarke, School of Social Science

Email: a.clarke4@uq.edu.au
Phone: +61 7 336 52038
Web: researchers.uq.edu.au/researcher/16030

Headshots of Associate Professor Cameron Parsell (left), and Doctor Andrew Clarke (right)

Associate Professor Cameron Parsell (left), and Doctor Andrew Clarke (right)

Associate Professor Cameron Parsell (left), and Doctor Andrew Clarke (right)