Q&A with Housing for the Aged Action Group

on Monday, 28 April 2014.

This month we sit down with Jeff Fiedler, from the Housing for the Aged Action Group Inc (HAAG), to talk about all things 'older persons' homelessness.

1.    What does your service do?

older tenants 5HAAG is funded by three government departments: Commonwealth Department of Social Services, the state Department of Human Services and Consumer Affairs Victoria to provide a service called Home at Last - Older persons information and support service. Home at Last is a one-stop shop of information and support for older people at risk of homelessness. The main focus of Home at Last is to assist older people struggling in the private rental market to transition to secure, affordable and adaptable housing to enable them to age-in-place.

2.    Who does Home at Last support?

The massive growth of older people forced to live in the private rental market due to reduced rates of home ownership and poor supply of public and social housing. Current trends suggest that this group is doubling in size every ten years. Private rental housing is fundamentally inappropriate for older people as it is insecure, unaffordable and unadaptable as people age.

3.    When was it started and by whom?

HAAG has been in operation as a community group lobbying for affordable housing since 1983. From the 1990’s HAAG has received funding to provide a tenancy advice and retirement housing service (Consumer Affairs Victoria) and an outreach care and support service (Commonwealth Assistance with Care and Housing for the Aged (ACHA) Program). In 2012 HAAG successfully applied for funding to operate Home at Last that brings together existing HAAG services and adds further components to provide a one-stop-shop of housing information and support. Home at Last is an Innovations Action Project that is developing early intervention and prevention strategies to address homelessness and is funded until June 2015.

4.    What is unique about your service?

Home at Last is the only service of its kind in Australia. It is a specialist older persons’ service that understands the housing, health and aged care needs of older people and provides a central contact and intake point for older people at risk of homelessness to ensure that all their housing needs can be met. Clients are provided with information, have their housing needs assessed and may be referred to a specialist agency in their area for continued assistance. If clients live in one of the many places where specialist older persons’ support is not available, then Home at Last provides outreach in those areas. Home at Last takes an early intervention and prevention approach by encouraging older people to take action about their housing circumstances before a crisis occurs and assist them on a pathway to a secure and affordable housing future. Home at Last is outcomes focused with the aim to obtain long term housing. About half of Home at Last clients are seeking information and support at a point where they are just managing to survive in the private rental market and are seeking to act before a crisis occurs. The other half of clients have reached a ‘tipping point’ where they have either received a legal notice to leave their accommodation, can no longer afford their rent due to a rent increase or death of a spouse, or have a health or aged support problem that renders their accommodation inaccessible or unadaptable.

Also, Home at Last has a database of a wide range of older persons housing options and isolder tenants 1 therefore not limited to public and social housing as the only solution to long term affordable housing. Other possibilities include community housing, independent living units, moveable dwellings (granny flats), residential parks, Abbeyfield Housing and many others. These are described in Home at Last’s Housing Options for Older People in Victoria, the only booklet of its kind in Australia.

Another unique factor is that 70% of Home at Last clients are women whose main problem is lifetime economic disadvantage due to lower wages than men, periods of time out of the work force raising families, lower levels of superannuation and often returning to work in casual industries with poor working conditions. They have not built savings during their working life to buy a home yet their low working income is too high for public housing eligibility. Consequently they are reaching retirement age with few assets and an uncertain housing future.  

Further, Home at Last is highly successful in achieving outcomes for clients. In the first 21 months of the service over 1000 older people at risk of homelessness have either been housed in long term affordable housing, or had their current housing stabilised whilst on a short to medium term pathway to a secure housing future. Home at Last has a target to house 90% of clients within 6 months.

5.    What are its biggest challenges? How are we overcoming them?

Home at Last is addressing the needs of new cohort of older people that older tenants 2is emerging rapidly in Australian society. ABS statistics show that in 2011 there were 336,174 older people living in the private rental market, an increase of 44% in the 5 years since the previous population census in 2006. This growing cohort represents a trend showing a combination of factors: an ageing population of renters, lower rates of home ownership, more people retiring with a mortgage and finding them unaffordable, greater reliance on the private market as permanent housing and reductions in public and social housing supply. Most clients are at risk of homelessness for the first time in their lives and have little understanding of the services available to provide help. They rarely make contact with specialist homelessness services that are not well structured to respond to the needs of older people at risk of homelessness. and rely on the short term support of family and friends. Older people are often very stoic and will put up with enormous hardship before asking for assistance and will most likely reply on friends and family for emergency support. The depth of housing poverty and instability of older renters therefore remains a largely hidden problem in society.

Therefore the key challenges are three-fold:

Firstly, there is a need for significant improvements to the provision of specialist services for older people at risk of homelessness. Home at Last is the only central gateway information and support service for older people in Australia and currently is only Victoria based. Similar services are required in all states of Australia to ensure that appropriate assistance is made available to all older vulnerable and disadvantaged older people.

The only specialist homelessness support program available for older people is the poorly funded Assistance with Care and Housing for the Aged (ACHA). At $6 million nationally, it represents about 2% of the total budget for homelessness services in Australia. ACHA has been operating since 1995 but has never been properly resourced, documented, evaluated or reviewed. It has patchy representation across the country. For example Queensland have only four services and Tasmania just three, with large gaps in availability across all states. They operate without brokerage funds, interpreter costs, vehicles and other basic needs. Many agencies receiving ACHA funds have had to incorporate their services into generalist service provision due to the low level of funding and therefore the program has lost much of its robust aims and objectives.

Secondly, stronger linkages are needed between housing services and housing supply. To ensure effective outcomes are attainable, more affordable housing is needed for older people. Such housing needs to ensure that eligibility guidelines address the needs of thousands of older people who will enter a housing crisis as soon as they retire from the workforce and their income is reduced.

Third, a wide range of housing supply options are needed that assist older people to age-in-place. Creative models of aged care housing need to be developed with universal design principles such as the inspirational Humanitas model from The Netherlands. Humanitas ensures that the vast majority of residents can remain living independently in their homes as their health and aged care needs change and increase over time.    

older tenants 66.    Tell us about some of your organisation’s achievements and/or good news stories

In the first 21 months of the Home at Last service we have assisted over 4000 older people with information, advice, support and housing. As stated previously over 1000 clients have been assisted with direct housing support. Approximately 500 clients have been housed in affordable housing by Home at Last directly or by a referral agency. The other 500 clients have had their current housing stabilised by negotiating with landlords, seeking extensions of time at the tenancy tribunal, or the provision of brokerage funds for rent and bills. This ‘holding pattern’ is maintained until housing is found in the public, social housing, not-for-profit living unit sector, or other specialist housing option.

The work of Home at Last staff is very satisfying due to the dramatic transformation that occurs in the lives of clients. Whilst many people present to the service very distressed and often in poor health, the housing outcomes achieved repeatedly demonstrate the vital role that decent housing plays in the general well-being of older people. Clients report that once their retirement housing future is sorted out they can then get on with living productive and enjoyable lives. This often results in less visits to the doctor, hospitalisation and premature entry into residential care.

7.    What are some of the new things you have been doing?

Two key projects of Home at Last are being developed as key targeted strategies based on the learnings of the first 18 months of the service.

a)    Establishing protocol agreements with key mainstream agencies that are well placed to identify older people at risk of homelessness

Home at Last has created strong links with a number of health and aged care services that are seeing older people when they are in either a health crisis or needing aged care assistance. An example of such collaboration is the work we are doing with Transition Care services that enable hospital patients to return to their home after their client has had an illness, fall or stroke. These services often find that their clients need alternative housing and are referring many clients to Home at Last.

Home at Last has access to Department of Health data that identifies the numbers of older people receiving home care services who are living in private rental accommodation. This database on the Home and Community Care (HACC) Program is organised by local government area and has provided the opportunity to liaise with each HACC service and target Home at Last information direct to their clients.

b)    Working with key agencies in the Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) communities

Approximately 35% of Home at Last clients are from a CALD background. Home at Last has established a project with the Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria to analyse Australian Bureau of Statistics data to determine the highest need CALD groups in regard to ageing renters. Funding has been obtained from the Ross Trust to begin this analysis that will firstly identify and then work with up to six high need communities. An additional funding application has been submitted to another philanthropic trust to conduct an extension of the original project over a further two year period that will work closely with the identified communities to target communications, hold talks with groups, develop protocols with specialist agencies for referrals and provide pathways to Home at Last so assistance can be provided.

8.    What other organisations do you work with?

Home at Last is working with government at a number of levels to ensure the housing needs of older people are addressed. At a Commonwealth level the Living Longer, Living Better aged care strategy and the development of an Aged Care Gateway provides a significant opportunity to improve integration with housing services to ensure that housing becomes a a fundamental pillar of the new aged care system that is being developed. As the ACHA Program has been funded as an aged care program its future is also to be determined by this strategy.

Home at Last is also working with the state government to ensure that the learnings of the Home at Last project are incorporated into the current evaluation of the wider homelessness sector as part of the government’s Victorian Homelessness Action Plan Reform.

Home at Last also works closely with many key community organisations such as Council to Homeless Persons, The Tenants Union, Council on the Ageing, specialist homelessness services and aged care agencies.

A particular focus of Home at Last has been the development of research partnerships to provide evidence links to service practice. In particular the recent ground-breaking work of Dr. Maree Petersen and colleagues from the University of Queensland that has focused closely on the issues facing older people at risk of homelessness, has provided significant national information on the current and future problems facing older people in the private rental market. Maree’s most recent report are Addressing Later Life Homelessness (June 2013) and Older Women’s Pathways out of Homelessness (February 2014).

10.    Does your organisation have any big plans/changes coming up?

As Home at Last is a unique service, HAAG believes that there is a need for comprehensive specialist support services for older people right across Australia.  To this end HAAG is engaging with the Commonwealth and State governments, as well as key NGO’s to encourage the development of a strategy of comprehensive housing service provision for older people. This must also include a broader older persons housing plan to ensure that governments develop a clear future direction for housing options to suit the needs of an ageing population.