Shock cuts to Department of Social Services will hit homeless & housing services

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Colleen O’Sullivan

homeless man
18Months, by A McLin, flickr cc

In the first few months of 2015, community sector organisations and charities have had the added burden of worrying about losing federal government funding and what this will mean for the provision of frontline services.

It began with last year’s budget, when we learned approximately $270 million would be cut from the Department of Social Services (DSS) over four years. Then, in December, organisations were informed they had been unsuccessful in the latest DSS funding round, and on Christmas Eve it was announced that several peak bodies, such as Homelessness Australia, would lose their funds.

Many lobbied – with some degree of success – to have the funding cuts overturned or extensions granted.

In late January, the new Minister for Social Services, Scott Morrison, announced a six-month reprieve for some services and a transitional arrangement for others whose contracts were to end at the end of February.

The Chief Executive of the Australian Council of Social Service, Cassandra Goldie, welcomed the funding extension, but acknowledged it did not mean the $270 million cut to the DSS funding over four years had been “restored, nor that the key policy and advocacy provided by disability, housing, and homelessness organisations had been refunded”.

What is being done about it?

Many organisations are now in the middle of preparing submissions – due in mid-March – to the new Senate Inquiry into the DSS cuts.

Even those frontline services which have secured funding will be affected by the cuts if a neighbouring service has been de-funded, as it is likely to affect demand for their service.

As anyone with knowledge of the sector will know, in some of the smaller organisations, the manager is a social worker, while the policy officer writes submissions to government and types up media releases­. They wear many hats. And while their time is typically spent focused on the provision of services, or advocating on behalf of the most disadvantaged, community organisations are also very familiar with the process of applying for grants, ensuring accountability and best practice.

It was, after all, the charities and services themselves who called for the establishment of the Australian Commission of Charities & Not-for-Profit (ACNC), and have fought to keep it.

What has changed in 2015 is that the cuts to the DSS are widespread and the Hunger-Games style of funding rounds so savage. Consequently, the Senate Inquiry into the DSS cuts will examine the impact on service quality, efficiency, and sustainability of the recent Commonwealth community service tendering processes.

Advocating for the homeless  

misery&poverty
misery & poverty, by Ángelo González, flickr cc

Homelessness and housing peak bodies, such as Homelessness Australia, Shelter Australia, and the Community Housing Federation of Australia, continue to face an uncertain future after also losing federal government funding, due to expire by 30 June 2015.

The effect in 2015 of these funding cuts on the advocacy efforts of the peak homelessness and housing bodies is under question. Some have asked who will hold the government to account when homelessness policy is reviewed as part of the White Paper on Reform of the Federation this year.

“The peak bodies play an important advocacy role, and without them the voice of people experiencing homelessness and housing stress will be severely diminished”, said the Chief Executive of the St Vincent de Paul Society, Dr John Falzon.

The benefits peak bodies provide to service users and not-for-profits were evident most recently, when Homelessness Australia coordinated an open letter signed by the CEOs of more than 50 homelessness and social welfare bodies. They called on Minister Morrison to make a long-term funding commitment to the National Partnership on Homelessness (NPAH), also due to expire on 30 June.

The Chief Executive of Homelessness Australia, Glenda Stevens, said, “It is like groundhog day for these services, as with the past three years, this short-term funding cycle makes it impossible for services to forward-plan, and results in services having to turn away clients from programs with long-term delivery”.

The return to a four-year NPAH would allow the peaks and frontline services to plan for the future, maintain staffing levels and secure leases on facilities.

Homelessness & domestic violence

The future of the NPAH is so important because the issue of homelessness is not going away; it is an increasing social problem in Australia. In December 2014, the Australian Institute of Health & Welfare (AIHW) found the number of people receiving support from homelessness services rose in 2013-14, increasing by nine per cent on the previous year, with 254,001 people assisted over the year.

The AIHW report confirmed what many in the sector knew: domestic and family violence continues to be the single largest reason people sought assistance. As many media commentators have highlighted, the government must invest in the community sector and frontline services if it is to assist women and children in situations of domestic violence.

Aside from the DSS cuts, many in the sector are still reeling from the funding cuts announced last year to community legal services, including Aboriginal legal services and others that help women experiencing domestic violence gain justice. Unless they are reversed, these cuts will take effect from 1 July 2015.

The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS) Executive Officer, Eddie Cubillo, has called on the government urgently to reconsider the long-term effects of cutting the funding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services around Australia. “The Prime Minister has declared his special interest in Indigenous affairs, and we call upon him to intervene to prevent this ‘blow to the heart’ of the justice system – a blow we know will be felt most strongly by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”, Mr Cubillo said.

The Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, is also the self-appointed Minister for Women, and has put domestic violence on the national agenda. How he will prevent the high rates of domestic violence in this country while cutting funding to the very services established to help the victims remains to be seen.

There is but a small glimmer of hope that a government which appointed domestic violence campaigner Rosie Batty Australian of the Year will address the gaps in the system, but at the moment it still seems intent on reducing the budget deficit at the expense of the most marginalised people in our community.

Colleen O’Sullivan works in the not-for-profit sector, and is interested in social issues and politics.

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