Homelessness has increased to 116,000 people in Australia, according to a report by Melbourne-based housing support agency Launch Housing.

In the five years to 2016, the report found, homelessness jumped by 48 percent in Sydney, 36 percent in Darwin and 14 percent nationally. The number of people sleeping rough rose by 20 percent.

According to Launch Housing CEO Tony Keenan, “Australia’s housing market is at breaking point. More people are experiencing homelessness than ever before. People face rising costs of living, high rental costs and harsher income support penalties”.

The report’s authors – researchers from the University of New South Wales and the University of Queensland – note that government housing policy has significantly contributed to the problem.

Skyrocketing rents have priced many low income earners out of the market. Yet Commonwealth Rent Assistance payments are far too low to bridge the widening gulf between incomes and rent. 

Those priced out of the private rental market usually can’t secure public housing, either. In Victoria alone, nearly 80,000 languish on the waiting list for public housing. Despite the growing demand, government investment in “social housing” (an ambiguous term that refers to both public housing and not-for-profit private housing) dropped by 8 percent in the four years to 2016-17. 

Social housing stock grew at half the rate required to keep pace with population growth. 

The report also blames the government’s cruel welfare policies for rising homelessness. Increasing numbers of people have been pushed off the Disability Support Pension or other payments onto Newstart. Newstart payments are lower and have not increased in 21 years. Fifty-five percent of recipients live below the poverty line, meaning secure, long-term housing is increasingly out of reach. 

What’s more, recipients are made to jump through endless bureaucratic hoops or face sanctions such as having their payments suspended. The number of such benefit sanctions increased fivefold between 2011 and 2016, a situation that can easily lead to people falling behind in their rent. 

This punitive approach combined with successive governments’ refusal to invest in housing and welfare underpins the increase in homelessness. It is a social problem that could readily be addressed, yet governments continue to cut social services while lavishing the private sector with subsidies and corporate tax cuts.