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Australia: Advocates say housing delays, lack of support services to blame amid WA homeless crisis

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Claudette Smith's cousin was found dead outside the Perth CBD train station in August.  (ABC News: Greg Pollock) © Provided by ABC NEWS Claudette Smith's cousin was found dead outside the Perth CBD train station in August.  (ABC News: Greg Pollock)

The pain still runs deep for Claudette Smith as she remembers her cousin Jennifer, a homeless Noongar woman found dead outside Perth train station on August 12.

The two grew up as sisters.

"One lost little girl, that grew up and just kept to herself. So sad, really," Ms Smith laments.

Jennifer's father died when she was young, and it had a profound effect on her.

"She never, ever went back home after her dad died," Ms Smith said, in the first public comments by Jennifer's family since her death.

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"She started sniffing first, and that's the reason why she didn't come home."

In later years, if Ms Smith — who is also homeless — wanted to find Jennifer, she would look around the train station and Yagan Square.

Jennifer was just 34 when she died, and Ms Smith said it still shocked her to think she would not see her anymore when she went to the city.

"She was the last person I thought would have died in the city out of all the Indigenous mob that drinks around and carries on, because she's a bright girl, happy-go-lucky, never gets into a fight," she said.

Ms Smith would like to see an inquest held to shed some light on how and why her cousin died.

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Jennifer's death was the latest in a spate of homeless deaths over a two-week winter period, sparking protests demanding more housing and better services.

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At the end of October, at least 56 homeless people had died in the city since the start of the year, according to data collected by the University of Western Australia's Home2Health researchers.

The average age of the people was 49 and one third were Indigenous.

In late October, a man died in a car park across the road from Boorloo Bidee Mia, the McGowan government's medium-term accommodation for rough sleepers, which is still ramping up to its 100-bed capacity.

The By-Name List, a government-funded project which tracks the number of people moving in and out of homelessness, estimated there were currently 973 homeless people in Perth, Fremantle and surrounding areas, including 448 sleeping rough.

There were 131 newly homeless people, while housing had been found for only nine people experiencing homelessness.

The By-Name List is part of a larger effort to end rough sleeping and chronic homelessness by helping community organisations share information and work together to better provide support services and housing.

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Individualised support seen as key

One of those organisations is Homeless Healthcare, which has been providing primary healthcare to homeless people in Perth for the last 13 years.

On a recent early morning walk through the city, nurse Mel Werner met a woman in her mid-50s who she knows to be recurrently homeless.

She has a history of mental health issues and intravenous drug use and has become estranged from her family.

The woman told Ms Werner she had her belongings stolen from her.

"Unfortunately, she's presenting with no footwear, wearing a towel, so I guess the first thing I'm going to provide is some essential hygiene products and some underwear, and see if we've got some clothing for her in our van," she said.

She was able to bring the woman clothing and a care pack. But she was told there were no rooms available when she tried to find the woman emergency accommodation that day.

The work that Homeless Healthcare does, getting to know individual people and what their needs are, is seen as best practice across the sector and underpins many service providers' work.

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The Housing First approach, as it is called, giving individualised support and access to stable accommodation, is also key to the government's 10-year plan to address homelessness, developed with the sector.

"I understand that homelessness frustrates everyone," Communities Minister Simone McGurk said.

"They see us as a state with a lot of wealth and a lot of material resources but still we have people who are homeless.

"We are not only doing more than any other government, but we've invested the time to look at evidence to how to deal with homelessness."

Further investment 'absolutely critical'

Community groups have praised the government's $875 million spend on new social housing, but are calling for a similar significant investment in intensive support services for homeless people.

At the same time, the public housing waitlist continues to blow out, prompting criticism that it is still taking too long to house people.

Shelter WA chief executive Michelle Mackenzie said the government's social housing funding would make a big difference, but delivery lags needed to be addressed and support services boosted.

"More investment in the service system is absolutely critical, so we can really target our approach and really reach out and have that relationship on the streets and then when people are ready to move into their home, that they've got the right support,' she said.

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"It's having the services know who's on the street, know who's there by name, why they're there, and what they need to support them to get off the streets."

Associate Professor Lisa Wood from UWA's Health2Health project agreed.

"There has to be critical supports around for people to get onto the list, to stay on the list and then to help them to adjust and be prepared for housing when it comes up," she said.

The government gives community groups $108 million each year for specialist homelessness services, including emergency accommodation, free meals, health and mental health supports and legal advice.

Ms McGurk said those contracts were being reviewed to ensure they aligned with the government's homelessness plan and the Housing First approach.

"I am confident that we've got a range of different measures in place where we are in the best place that we have been as a state to start to make inroads into assisting people who are homeless," she said.

'Tricky situation' amid wait for social housing pipeline

Despite the massive investment in social housing, Professor Wood said it was still taking too long for people to get housed.

"We've got this tricky situation at the moment," she said.

"We've got great investment in more social housing, but obviously it's going to take a while to get it built, and what do [people do] in the meantime while they wait?

"I think a really key thing for that money to make a difference, is that it literally is able to house people first and house them much more rapidly than it is at the moment."

The government's own figures, released by Housing Minister John Carey last week, showed the average waiting time for public housing had risen to 105 weeks at the end of October, the longest it had been since 2017.

The number of people on the waiting list reached almost 18,000, up about 2,500 from the same time last year.

Mr Carey said he was doing everything he could to boost housing stock, including looking at modular buildings and expanding spot purchasing.

The government has promised to deliver more than 3,000 social properties over coming years.

As well as Boorloo Bidee Mia, the government is also building two Common Ground supported-housing facilities in East Perth and Mandurah, with more than 160 apartments for rough sleepers and people at risk of homelessness.

Claudette Smith just wants a home.

"Somewhere where we're stable for a long time," she said.

"All I'm worried about is where's the next place we're going to be sleeping."

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