VCOSS CEO Emma King’s speech to the RMIT Engaging for Impact conference
Please check transcript against delivery.
Melbourne, the global experts tell us, is “the world’s most liveable city”.
But we’re all friends here. We can be honest. That title is hollow. It sounds good, but crumbles upon inspection.
Being “the world’s most liveable city” is like receiving a “World’s Greatest Dad” t-shirt. It makes you feel good, and you might even believe it for a second.
But the truth is more complicated.
I want to provide you with some Alternative Facts.
Last year, VCOSS worked with NATSEM to analyse Census data and map poverty across Victoria.
We wanted to understand both the rate of poverty in every local area, but also the characteristics of that poverty.
This was done primarily as a planning tool so that all levels of government, clearly including local councils, and also including community service organisations, can shape and target local services better.
The results were alarming.
We didn’t find one suburb of Victoria that was poverty-free. Not one.
What we did find was more than 560,000 people in Melbourne alone living below the breadline.
More than 200,000 of those were children, teenagers or young adults, under the age of 24.
And we also learnt that the face of poverty was changing. For example, our research confirmed what many of you probably already know, that a job is no longer a guaranteed pathway to comfort.
There are 115,000 people in Melbourne, who are working either part-time or full-time, and still live in poverty.
As our city grows, we can expect these numbers to grow as well.
— RMIT Research (@ResearchRMIT) February 18, 2019
Although it’s not representative, the most visible component of poverty in Melbourne is the number of people who are homeless. According to the last Census, about 20,000 people are homeless in Melbourne. Just a fraction of those people are “sleeping rough”, although they’re of course the ones our media channels tend to focus on.
The majority of people experiencing homelessness are:
- In crisis accommodation,
- Sleeping on friends’ couches, or
- Packed into dramatically overcrowded sharehouses.
You may be aware a fire broke out two weeks ago at a high-rise residential tower on Spencer Street. Combustible cladding helped the fire spread.
I bring this up because of what the firefighters found after the smoke had cleared. They found 10 beds squashed into one single unit. We don’t know if 10 people were living in that apartment, 20 people, or even more.
What we do know is that homelessness is all around us, whether it’s on full display or whether it’s hidden in a tower.
Social housing (primarily funded by the state) and social security (funded by the Federal Government) are meant to act as a safety net against homelessness.
Yet we know Newstart hasn’t gone up in a generation, and in real terms it’s actually going backwards.
And we know social housing–which comprises both public and community housing– is chronically underfunded.
More than 60,000 Melbournians are currently waiting for public housing. They’re on that list.
Infrastructure Victoria estimates we need to build an extra 30,000 new social housing properties over the next decade, simply to meet demand.
This is to say nothing of the tens of thousands of Victorian who are not in crisis, but are still struggling. The people who have a place to sleep, and might even have a job, but still can’t afford the basics, like energy, healthcare, transport or being able to send their students to school with a full stomach.
I want to pause here to make an off-topic point.
I’m hoping at least some of you are familiar with The Late Show skit, The Oz Brothers? You may or not be.
The Oz Brothers spent a lot of time listing all the ways Australia is, in their words, “stuffed”. It’s too this, it’s too that, there should be more of this, etc etc.
But the skit ended with them saying this. I feel a bit like the Oz Brothers when reciting poverty data.
Because at the end of the day, Melbourne is my city. I love Melbourne—and so do many others.
It’s why so many people are moving here, and choosing to raise a family.
The reason we highlight this data is two-fold.
- To remind ourselves that not everybody is sharing in Melbourne’s riches. That for many, Melbourne is not very liveable.
- Because we can do better, and we must do better.
The first thing we must do it stop designing solutions for single problems.
I want to introduce you to a woman that we’ll call Joanne.
Joanne is a victim of family violence. She packs her kids in the car and flees. It’s tough decision because her husband was the main breadwinner.
Because of a lack of crisis accommodation, Joanne’s car is now her home. Life is tough, and Joanne’s mental health takes a dive.
Her children are also traumatised, and begin acting up at school. They’re now being threatened with expulsion.
So, what policy responses would make Joanne’s life easier? More government action on family violence? Better housing options? What about better financial independence in the first place? Or does Joanne need better mental health supports? Or perhaps, a more understanding school system, that pulls her kids closer when they’re struggling instead of pushing them away?
Or how about all of the above?
At VCOSS, we’re about joining the dots. People in need of support often have multiple and complex needs.
No single service or policy response is going to help them overcome all the challenges that they face.
So what we need are systemic responses that address the underlying causes of poverty and disadvantage.
We need to prioritise prevention and early intervention.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean that we should only have broad responses to social challenges.
On the contrary, we need place-based approaches, designed in partnership with local communities.
We often hear stories of so-called “policy solutions” being imposed on a community, or a particular section of the community. And very little thought at times, i think its fair to say, goes into whether the approach is workable in a local context, or whether it might actually inflame other issues.
Policymakers (and researchers) have to get out of the office and talk to local people
The question shouldn’t be “Can I tell you what we’re doing?”
The question needs to be “How can we help?”
So what does all this mean for research? The best policy responses are evidence-based. We need new research models that help us understand how complex problems can be overcome in a joined-up way.
We need multi-disciplinary research that shows us how every section of the community, and how every social issue, interacts.
For example, we need urban planners, demographers, economists, engineers and members of the community sector, sitting together in the same room, trying to solve wicked problems together.
We need more study into co-design. How do we do it better, so that we create the best possible interventions, services and programs?
And by far the most critical research that is needed is that involving people with lived experience of the social challenges we are trying to solve.
If we do all this, and if we do that in partnership, there is not a single challenge we can’t overcome.
So this, I believe, is how we ensure a big and growing Melbourne works for everybody.
So thank you very much for your time, and please remember to follow VCOSS online if you’d like to connect with us, or stay across our work.