Ask an Expert: David Pearson of AAEH on viewing homelessness as a healthcare problem
David Pearson is the current chief executive officer of the Australian Alliance to End Homelessness. As one of the foremost experts in homelessness, Third Sector has invited him to be one of the speakers for the upcoming National Homelessness Forum to be held on 27 to 29 April 2021.
For this article, Third Sector sat down with David to talk about his experiences in working to end homelessness and why it should be viewed as a health problem. Below is the interview edited lightly for brevity.
What inspired you to take the job as AAEH CEO and work to end homelessness in Australia?
When I realised that there just wasn’t widespread acknowledgement or acceptance that homelessness is an eminently solvable issue. Communities around the world are solving this problem. Too often it’s just assumed that more of what we’re already doing, and what we already know works, will solve the problem. But we need to constantly be seeking to do better because homelessness is a dynamic ever-changing problem.
Rough sleeping homelessness is also the most visible manifestation of inequality in our society.
In case you missed it: COVID-19 worsened homelessness, underemployment in Melbourne, report reveals
Ending homelessness is doubtlessly a complex problem arising from several interconnected problems. Which ones are you keen on addressing first and why?
The issue is complex, because we are seeking to help highly vulnerable people with complicated lives. But the solutions aren’t. The greatest cause of homelessness is ignoring it which all to often as a society is our response. We can’t just leave solving this problem to housing and homelessness organisations, it’s required a whole of community, whole of government response.
Say hypothetically you wanted to vaccinate the whole planet from a deadly virus. If you sought to vaccinate everyone at once, everywhere, and things got worse you might think that defeating the virus was impossible and just focus on helping the people in front of you by treating their symptoms rather than seek the eradicate the virus. But that’s not how we do it when comes to infectious diseases, first we start with small clinical trials, demonstrate the vaccine works – with a heavy reliance on evidence and data. Then we triage vaccinating people based on vulnerability, front line heath workers first, the elderly, etc.
We need to treat homelessness like a virus, we need to use the same rigour with evidence and data, to break the problem up and start small and are need to triage limited housing & support on the basis of vulnerability. That’s why the focus of our work at the AAEH is to end all homelessness, starting with rough sleeping. Unfortunately, most communities in Australia can’t even tell us how many people are sleeping rough at any given time. We support communities to develop accurate, comparable and real time data on the rates and frequency of homelessness, enabling communities to break free of just treading symptoms and focus on the root causes of the problem.
As stated in your website, we stand more to gain as a society if we end homelessness. Why do you think the problem persists to this day?
Not enough people know about or accept the evidence that that ending homelessness is possible by making it rare, brief and a one-time thing. That’s what an end to homelessness looks like, it’s been demonstrated in 14 communities in the USA and Canada so far.
I also think the problem persists because the complexity of the issue all too often leads to despondency which sees us leave the issue in the too hard basket. People also don’t know how they can help. We need greater efforts to help people contribute to the solutions to ending homelessness, rather than just helping people while experiencing homelessness.
Can you share some milestones that you are truly proud of in your time working with AAEH?
More than 1300 people have been housed though zero projects around the country
We have supported the first three communities outside of North America to reach a data quality standard for their by-name lists (a list of every person sleeping rough in a community), a significant milestone that every community that has ended homelessness has reached.
We have also doubled the number of communities seeking to implement this approach in Australia over the past twelve months and have interest from enough communities to double the interest again over the next twelve months.
Last but not the least, we’ve developed a range of tools and resources to help localised and implement this approach in Australia.
Getting the government to take action against homelessness is probably one of, if not the most effective way to achieve the goal of your organisation. What actions have AAEH taken in this regard?
We try to improve understanding of the scale of the problem, by creating public dashboards that show how many people are sleeping rough in a given community. So far Adelaide and Brisbane have such dashboards.
We continue to make the case to local, state and the commonwealth government that ending homelessness is possible, but that it relies on all three levels of government working together.
We keep making the case that when it comes to chronic rough sleeping homelessness in particular that it is more expensive to leave people on the streets than it is to provide them with the housing and support they need.
We continue to make the case that rough sleeping reduces life expectancy by up to 30 years.
Whist the commonwealth government takes the view that housing and homelessness are a state government responsibility, a view we don’t agree with given the commonwealth governments historical involvement in housing and homelessness, we point out with local data the number of people who are sleeping rough that are veterans, have a disability, need primary health care or aged care because these are all areas where the commonwealth is 100% responsible.
What are you planning to focus on in your talk as one of the speakers in the upcoming 3rd Annual National Homelessness Forum?
That we need to treat Homelessness like the health care issue that it is. That it is solvable but only if we set that ambition and work collaboratively in new ways to achieve it.