How do you eat when you don’t have any money nor a home – and kitchen – to call your own? It’s a question that Australia’s homeless population has to ask themselves every day.
But there’s more than just hunger to worry about. Diabetes, obesity and chronic illnesses are some of the health-related side effects of homelessness; and when you don't have a lot of choices, even the basic pleasure of enjoying the food you eat can be missing too.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there are more than 100,000 homeless people across the country. From couch surfing at friend’s places or sleeping in their cars, to living rough on the street, all of these people struggle to access not just enough food, but the right type of food, too.
Relying on the generosity of family and friends, dumpster diving, visiting soup vans and charities or when things are really bad, begging on the streets, are the most common options for homeless people. There are also ready-prepared, nutritious meals such as curries, stir-fries, roasts and sandwiches, donated by services such as FareShare and OzHarvest, which collect unused produce from supermarkets, restaurants, airports and corporate kitchens.
Relying on the generosity of family and friends, dumpster diving, visiting soup vans and charities or when things are really bad, begging on the streets, are the most common options.
When the most pressing issue for homeless people is just finding a meal, nutrition and quality foods is a luxury that many can’t afford to even think about.
The stress of not being able to eat familiar foods is also significant.
Sue Booth and Alison Smith researched food security and the link to health problems for the Dieticians Association of Australia. They noted that for young homeless people, about half are worried about not eating healthy food, with some going up to five days without eating anything.
Sophie* is one of those people. The 19-year-old lives on the streets of Melbourne and says that food is something that she thinks about all the time.
“I don’t eat at every meal, like breakfast and lunch,” she says. “Sometimes people give me coins and I’ll go and buy McDonald’s or something like that. Other times people leave food, like rolls and sandwiches. It’s just what’s going around.”
When homeless people can afford to buy food, it’s often food loaded with fat, salt and sugar, Marcus Godinho, executive officer of FoodShare, says. That’s because some of the cheapest food available is also some of the unhealthiest. Fast food burgers, two-minute noodles, chips and sweets will hit the hunger pains, but can contribute to serious health problems.
FareShare is a Melbourne organisation that rescues food that would otherwise go to waste and cooks 25,000 free meals each week for Victorian charities.
“When a homeless person has money for food, what they’re buying is something that’s filling and has calories, something like peanut butter sandwiches,” Mr Godinho says. “It’s a shocking diet, and it’s filled with far too many calories. It’s a weird thing, because some people then say ‘that person can’t be struggling, they’re fat’. It’s ignorance. Calories aren’t expensive; it costs a lot more for nutritious food.”
Professor David Ribar and Dr Nicolas Hérault, from the University of Melbourne, research homeless people’s access to food, and note that lack of nutrition is linked with obesity, chronic illnesses and increased hospitalisation and emergency room treatment. This is because the lack of the practical aspects associated with food – such as cooking facilities and storage significantly – limits what many homeless people can eat, Professor Ribar says.
When homeless people can afford to buy food, it’s often food loaded with fat, salt and sugar.
In the US, a report stated that 39 per cent of homeless adults were obese, which may seem like a paradoxical condition for a group of people who constantly struggle with hunger.
“Food provided in US homeless shelters was found to be high in saturated fat and cholesterol,” the report states. “Based on this evidence, the unpredictability and poor quality of food amongst the homeless or those on low incomes may contribute to patterns of overconsumption, and subsequent obesity, when cheap or free food is available.”
Professor Ribar and Dr Hérault’s research also revealed that homeless people ate on average just 14 meals per week, with men reporting having more difficulty accessing food than women. This may be because men on average were homeless longer than women, which might explain the difference in access to food, they explained.
“We see about one in three homeless men using emergency food services, like a soup kitchen. Fewer homeless women, about one in six, use these services,” Professor Ribar says.
There is no data on exactly how many homeless people are migrants, asylum seekers or from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) backgrounds. However, research has proven that these already vulnerable groups are more at-risk of homelessness than the general population. They are also at higher risk of not being able to access food, in part because of their traditional diets. Indigenous Australians are also significantly overrepresented in the homeless population.
However, traditional or cultural ‘comfort’ foods for Indigenous or CALD Australians are not easy to find in an sector that is already struggling to feed an ever increasing number of Australians in need.
But having access to those comfort foods, often associated with home or childhood, would be a great help to people who are already suffering from so much hardship, Kate Colvin, policy manager for Council for Homeless Persons, says.
Homeless people ate on average just 14 meals per week, with men reporting having more difficulty accessing food than women.
“Food has a whole cultural element and has emotional context. That’s why one of the biggest issues that homeless people face is the stress of not being able to eat what they’re used to, or getting that simple pleasure from eating something they enjoy,” Ms Colvin says. “One of the challenges that people face is that it’s much harder to have food choices; you have to make do what’s available or the cheapest.”
Mr Godinho says that FoodShare tries to tailor its options for people from culturally diverse groups, such as creating vegetarian dishes and foods with extra spice.
“We've very sensitive to cultural dietary preferences. We’ve had feedback from agencies that some type of food is more popular than others. So best we can, we incorporate that into what we create.”
However, he adds, most people are simply very grateful to have something to eat at all.
The majority of homeless people live in capital cities and major towns, not just because of the population, but because that’s where most support services are located. Even so, Australian Government research in 2011 found that 22 per cent of all homeless people lived in regional areas, four per cent were in remote areas and 16 per cent lived in extremely remote areas of Australia.
Access to affordable food or meal services is even harder, which explains why the majority of homeless people live in highly populated places.
“Sometimes people will travel to where the food programs are, rather than necessarily live next to it,” Ms Colvin says. “It’s true that people do move into the CBD, but that’s more complex than just access to food, if you’re a rough sleeper, it’s about safety in numbers.”
SBS's new season of Filthy Rich & Homeless is an honest and compassionate exploration of what it’s like to be homeless in Australia today as it shines a light on a part of our society often overlooked and ignored. Watch the trailer below:
Filthy Rich and Homeless airs over three nights – Tuesday 14, Wednesday 15 and Thursday 16 August on SBS from 8.30pm. A special live studio program will air directly after episode three.
Join the conversation #FilthyRichHomeless