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Homelessness is an entrenched problem across the developed world. In Australia, the problem has increased significantly over the last decade, and has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Between 2011 and 2016, incidents of homelessness increased by between 14% and 22% with a further increase of 8% during the pandemic years (2017/18 to 2021/22).

Notably, these increases are occurring despite growing investment in specialist homelessness services. These are predominantly small-scale, targeted and crisis-oriented programs that governments fund to address homelessness. This suggests that existing responses to homelessness are failing to adequately address its root causes. There is therefore an urgent need to rethink our approach and to consider radical alternatives to business-as-usual interventions.

In a recent research paper, I considered the role that a universal basic income (UBI) could play in helping address homelessness. A UBI is an unconditional cash payment made to every individual in a community on a periodic basis. Being unconditional, it does not require people to meet a means test, complete job-search requirements, or demonstrate special needs. Its objective is to ensure that all members of a society can meet their basic needs, regardless of status or behaviour.

Long considered a utopian fantasy, UBI has recently gained traction as a plausible response to growing social and economic insecurity. Indeed, several UBI trials have taken, or are currently taking, place across the world, and the idea has recently been promoted by some prominent business leaders and mainstream politicians.

Why existing approaches are inadequate

In order to understand the possible utility of a UBI, it is necessary to consider why existing policies and programs are failing to prevent or reduce homelessness.

Liberal democratic countries like Australia respond to homelessness through targeted interventions aimed at supporting people unable to secure housing from the private market. In this context, support is mostly reactive and tightly calibrated to (what support providers identify as) the needs of homeless households. The needs such services are equipped to address tend to be personal or circumstantial in nature. They include things like:

  • personal financial crises (precipitated by unemployment, relationship breakdown and others),
  • a lack of financial literacy or living skills (such as budgeting and managing bill payments),
  • health problems (including mental health and addictions),
  • and barriers to accessing rental housing (such as poor rental history).

In all but the most acute cases, their aim is to support homeless households to address their personal circumstances and transition back to the private housing market.

The problem with reliance on targeted interventions is that it assumes the causes of homelessness lie with homeless households themselves. It presumed that housing markets are efficient and well-functioning, and that people only fail to access market housing when there is something wrong with them. Most homelessness services, therefore, attempt to fix homeless people—through job training, financial and emotional counselling, brokering access to health services and other measures—rather than addressing the structural drivers.

Given this, existing homelessness interventions do little to address the social and economic structures that generate homelessness. More than anything else, homelessness is a housing problem resulting from an insufficient supply of affordable and safe homes. Housing costs have skyrocketed across the developed world thanks to chronic underinvestment in social housing and policies that encourage people to treat housing as a vehicle for wealth accumulation. People’s incomes have also become stagnant and insecure, driven by the liberalisation of the industrial relations system and policies rendering income support payments both inadequate and highly conditional.

Targeted homelessness programs can help ameliorate the worse impacts of this crisis but do little to address its underlying causes. Moreover, by foregrounding personal problems and circumstances, targeted measures perpetuate the stigma that comes with homelessness: the assumption that the homeless are deficient and irresponsible and a burden on society.

How can a UBI help address structural drivers of homelessness?

UBI can, however, play a role in addressing the structural drivers of homelessness by addressing the income side of the housing affordability crisis.

If paid at a sufficient level, UBI payments can supplement the stagnant incomes of both working people and people out of work. According to Anglicare’s annual Rental Affordability Snapshot, of April 2022, only 1.6% of advertised rental vacancies were affordable for a single person earning minimum wage, and only 0.7% if that person is a single parent. There were almost no advertised vacancies (eight in 45,000) affordable for a single adult receiving unemployment benefits, and only slightly more for people receiving the aged pension or disability support payments. By bolstering the incomes of these vulnerable households, a UBI can help bring a greater proportion of listed properties within reach.

A UBI can also help address the problem of income insecurity. People on casual employment contracts face fluctuating incomes and employment insecurity, affecting their ability to meet their housing costs. People receiving income support risk having their payments suspended for failing to adhere to the various behavioural conditions imposed on them, for example attending appointments and meeting job search requirements. Failing these obligations has been identified by service providers as a factor pushing some people into homelessness. Given that UBI payments are regular and unconditional, they help offset the impact of income insecurity in these other areas.

However, a UBI cannot overcome the structural drivers of homelessness on its own. To be effective, it needs to be coupled with measures addressing the housing cost and supply side of the housing affordability crisis, such as a significantly expanded social housing sector and the regulation of rent increases. Without such measures, gains achieved on the income side would likely be undone by the continuous increases in housing costs.

How can a UBI address stigma?

A UBI would help reduce the stigma associated with targeted homelessness programs. Given that it is paid to everyone in a community, a UBI does not position experiencing homelessness as uniquely deficient or burdensome. Indeed, research on historic basic income trials demonstrates that it is perceived as ‘more normal’ than targeted welfare measures.

However, a UBI should not completely replace targeted interventions. Like the housed population, some people who have experienced homeless will desire support to address personal issues like mental illness, addiction, and financial literacy, in addition to having their housing needs met. But whilst a UBI won’t replace the need for such services, it can augment their effectiveness and reduce the stigma experienced by homeless households who access them.

Many existing homelessness initiatives require people to engage with programs to address personal issues as a condition of providing them with basic resources like shelter, food or access to hygiene facilities. These programs are experienced as coercive and stigmatising, as they reinforce the idea that people are homeless because of their personal failings. To the extent that a UBI assists people in securing stable housing, it will enable them to engage with personal support services in a voluntary and on-stigmatising way—just like the rest of us.

Time for a radical change?

A UBI is not a panacea when it comes to homelessness—but it does offer some clear improvements on the status quo. Perhaps most radically, a UBI offers a different way of thinking about issues like homelessness. It acknowledges that the roots of homelessness lie in social and economic structures, rather than individual circumstances and pathologies. It also highlights the power of universal and unconditional protections to ensure everyone in our society can live with dignity and security.


Journal article

Clarke, A. (2022). Can a basic income help address homelessness? A Titmussian perspective. Journal of Sociology, First online.

This article has 1 comment

  1. One could have a social dividend if all land and natural resources were treated as Crown property funding all public services (eg via Federal-State land rates). This would be similar to Alaska’s oil dividend. But it makes little sense to tax a man into the dirt via GST, income tax etc and then send him a cheque. GST, for example, was “sold” with “compensation” by way of increased family allowances. But these were then wound back. However, the fundamental question is why have taxes which you have to “compensate” for? “Primum non nocere” is a good direction to politicans as much as physicians.

    Incidentally, one suspects a lot of homelessness is due to family breakdown. It is not surprising familes crumble apart under tax, rent or mortgage stress – two, three or more cannot live as cheaply as one and many marital arguments are over money. One advantage of shifting revenue raising from GST and income tax to land values is that housing prices would be reduced just as the after tax purchasing power of wages would be raised. Land hoarding becomes expensive when you have to pay its annual value to the Crown.

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