City's rough sleepers more common in the suburbs - and just tip of the iceberg

Simon Broadbent moved recently. But not too far.

He's been sleeping rough for two years, mostly on the city streets.

"Me and the tobacconist up there weren't getting along," said the 33-year-old, pointing northwards up Elizabeth Street.

It wasn't hard to get crisis accommodation in Melbourne, Mr Broadbent said. But a few nights in a hotel room or a shelter wouldn't fix his burning need for a permanent home.

"We need a better housing program," said Mr Broadbent, who appeared in an Age story in 2004, aged 20. Back then, he had a dream to be a builder - to "put a roof over someone's head".

He is still trying to find his own home. "I'm on the waiting list," he said on Wednesday. But Victoria's public housing waiting list stands at more than 35,000 people.

A new report makes clear that rough sleepers such as Mr Broadbent are just the most visible tip of the state's homelessness iceberg.

Rough Sleeping in Victoria, completed ahead of a new Andrews government strategy to tackle the issue, was released as part of a two-day conference at Melbourne Town Hall organised by the Council to Homeless Persons.

It includes fresh figures on homelessness, compiled over the last two years, that show 37 per cent of those sleeping rough are in Melbourne's middle and outer suburbs - far outstripping just 8 per cent of the group in the city centre.

And it finds that the focus on rough sleeping in recent years, fuelled by media coverage and proposed new Melbourne City Council rules targeting street sleepers, is only the most high-profile end of Victoria's homelessness problem.

The state's rough sleepers made up just 6 per cent of 22,000 homeless people.

The focus on rough sleeping had masked a sharp jump in the number of homeless people living temporarily in badly overcrowded housing, the report found. Those sleeping in such conditions because they could not afford anything better had jumped by more than half in recent years.

And the city's property boom had also seen the closure of many boarding houses offering a cheap place to stay.

Most who experienced homelessness slept rough for only a short period, the majority less than a month.

"The perception of large numbers of people entrenched in rough sleeping is not supported by the evidence," the report said. "This is not to dismiss the risk of harm involved in any period of rough sleeping."

And a key cause of the problem was simple: not enough affordable places to live for those in crisis housing who are trying to find a more permanent home.

The report, produced by a range of organisations but led by Brotherhood of St Laurence executive director Tony Nicholson, also paints a picture of a typical rough sleeper. About 75 per cent were male, their age was around 40 and more than 80 per cent were Australian born. Thirteen per cent were from an Aboriginal background - who make up less than 1 per cent of Victoria's population.

Melbourne City Council's laws, set to be passed later this month or in October, will outlaw sleeping rough with any sort of bedding, and allow council officers to confiscate unattended items, with a fee charged to get them back, and a potential fine.

Speaking at the Council to Homeless Persons' conference at Town Hall, international homelessness expert Eoin O'Sullivan, from Dublin's Trinity College, warned that laws that punished rough sleepers were both ineffective and "inhumane".

"Using the criminal justice system to deal with a social issue is a trend we're seeing in parts of Europe, and from experience we know that it's failed to reduce homelessness," said Professor O'Sullivan, who is also the editor of the European Journal of Homelessness.

"It's archaic and inhumane and just pushes the homeless into darker and less safe places," he said. "Laws do nothing to fix the cause of homeless, and that's ultimately a matter of lack of affordable housing."

Council to Homeless Persons chief executive Jenny Smith said there were grave concerns about the city council's planned laws, which she said would take Melbourne "down a very dark path".

"Until there is sufficient low-cost housing for people who are very poor, we will continue to see homelessness. It is distressing to see - but sweeping it out of sight helps no-one," she said.

The story City's rough sleepers more common in the suburbs - and just tip of the iceberg first appeared on The Age.