There are a million vacant homes in Australia and 100,000 homeless. It isn’t hard to see a solution.

In a state as prosperous as Queensland, it is almost unimaginable that anyone could be homeless. But there are 19,838 people without a permanent address in the state, according to Think Outside.

Think Outside is an organisation that held a series of debates at the State Library of Queensland with a view to inspire new ways of tackling society’s difficult issues by asking people in the design industry to debate the topic.
The solution is tackling the problem using existing infrastructure rather than building new homes, suggests Raffaele Persichetti, an industrial designer and co-founder of Holloway Eyewear, which uses reclaimed timber and recycled skateboards to manufacture sunglasses.

“There are 100,000 homeless people in Australia yet at the same time there is a million vacant dwellings such as unused rental properties and abandoned homes,” says Persichetti.

“We have the space in Australia to house everyone who lives here.”

Persichetti spoke of a Brisbane organisation called Reset Franchise, which is lobbying the government to change the law to make it easier for vacant properties to be put to good use.

He said if new dwellings are to be built, they can be designed cheaply with recycled materials.

“In Australia, 55 per cent of landfill is from the construction industry. We can use that construction waste,” Persichettis says.

Recycling can go further, such as using secondhand materials to make clothing. “As well as providing something for homeless people to wear, it gives jobs to the homeless and meaning to their lives,” he says.

He used the term ‘biomimicry’, suggesting copying nature is an efficient way of housing and feeding people – such as urban gardens that can provide food and employment.

Sociologist Dr Barbara Adkins offered a different view of the problem, raising the point that homelessness is a state of mind not just the absence of a place to live. She believes more research needs to be worked on to study the process of how homeless people construct a home for themselves.

Dr Adkins, who works in the school of design at the Queensland University of Technology, spoke to a previously homeless man who has been housed through the charity Micah Projects at its block of flats called Common Ground in South Brisbane. What most delighted him about his new place was having a permanent light switch rather than a candle or torch, a mantelpiece (or ‘sentimental-piece’ as he called it) to display personal items, and a doorbell, which represents safety. For him, it was objects that symbolised having a home not just the home itself. “It gives you a sense of pride,” he says.

“Homefullness” is a term coined by independent designer and typographer Catherine Griffiths, who lives and works in Paris and Auckland. Her solution to the problem is that governments need to encourage homeless people to be hopeful.

“It is all about the power of communication on the individual,” says Griffiths. “Knowledge can empower.”

It was acknowledged that homelessness is a complex problem and there is much that has been achieved – such as a 5.1 per cent reduction state-wide since 2006. All three experts are not experts on homelessness but the expertise they have in their chosen design fields allowed them to offer a fresh perspective on a difficult issue.