Today, more than 100,000 Australians are currently homeless and exist day-to-day without a permanent home.
In major cities, such as Melbourne, the number of rough sleepers on the city’s streets has increased by almost 75 per cent in the past two years.
These statistics are significant. But, does anyone really care about the plight of the homeless?
According to a 2015 Salvation Army Poll, four in 10 Australians think that the homeless are ‘lazy freeloaders’, ‘stupid failures’ or ‘not working hard enough’.
These might seem like easy conclusions to those of us who have never experienced the plight of being homeless and the devastating repercussions.
"The process of becoming homeless is traumatic in itself, and with that comes particular behaviours, reactions and high stress situations.”
“If I was homeless every piece of money I’d make, I’d try and find a job, buy some nice clothes, do something to get myself off there” is one conclusion offered by 'Filthy Rich and Homeless' participant, Kayla Fenech, at the outset of appearing on a new TV series exploring the issue. Her comments reveal a broad but common misconception that finding a way out of homelessness is just a matter of simply trying harder.
When describing a typical client, Kerri-Anne Williams, who works at two critical support services through St Vincent De Paul, tells SBS that these kind of negative opinions couldn’t be farther from the truth.
“The clients that I work with are probably the hardest workers that I’ve come across,” says Williams. “It may not be in the traditional sense of working 9-5, but in terms of trying to navigate systems, trying to find employment, attending countless appointments, managing health issues and looking after children - while living in crisis, I don’t think there’s ever any chance to rest.”
“One of the biggest issues is being able to get out of homelessness once you are in it.”
Williams describes the challenge to get back on your feet once becoming homeless, as being incredibly tough with red tape impeding the services that should be there to provide support. “One of the biggest issues is being able to get out of homelessness once you are in it.”
Gaining access to critical services requires also proof that can take weeks or months. “To get help through the Department of Housing, you often need to provide month’s’ worth of evidence to show that you need that support. That involves going to doctors’ appointments and being turned down by at least five-10 properties per week in the private rental market over a period of a couple of months.”
The damage to self-esteem and the disconnection from society can have devastating consequences. “The process of becoming homeless is traumatic in itself, and with that comes particular behaviours, reactions and high stress situations.”
This compounded trauma can impact some in worse ways than others. Around half of all rough sleepers in Australia are dependent on drugs and/or alcohol, but two-thirds develop these habits after becoming homeless.
Lack of affordable housing is a major factor driving the rise in homelessness, says Adam Robinson, CEO of StreetSmart – an organisation committed to taking action against homelessness.
“In Australia finding affordable housing is a huge challenge,” says Robinson.
“Anglicare’s annual report on rental affordability study sets out to find properties that low income renters can afford, recently there have only been a handful on the city fringes available.”
"Where does a young person who hasn’t any family support go to live? Where do women and children fleeing domestic violence go?"
When looking for short-term accommodation the situation is just as dire, with emergency services stretched beyond capacity.
“Emergency accommodation is unable to meet demand. Where does a young person who hasn’t any family support go to live? Where do women and children fleeing domestic violence go? Where do refugees and new migrants go? Boarding houses are often unsafe, and many rentals are actually unsuitable for habitation. Where do you find housing if the only work you can find is part time, on a low wage?”
Robinson suggests a holistic approach that addresses emotional, physical and housing issues – from the community to the federal government level - is needed to address the complexities. “We need to provide more ‘Housing First’ model accommodation for people experiencing long term homelessness with complex needs. This model provides housing wrapped around by critical services to support that person maintain the tenancy and address underlying issues. This model works.”
Here's how you can help
With one-in-three Australians saying that they would not give food, money or drink to a homeless person on the street – what then, should we be doing to help?
Williams says the reality is a lot closer to home than we might think. “In my work, I see women who have been in 30-40 year relationships, have kids, lived in suburbia, and so - it could be your neighbour, or the person that you have done the school drop offs with or see at the shops every day.
“There isn’t a magic solution, but I would say treat them like you would anyone else. When they are homeless they are feeling isolated and ostracised from the community. If you want to do something, it should be to let them know they are still part of the community and we still care.”
If this article has raised issues for you and you would like to talk to someone, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit their website by clicking here. For information about services from St Vincent De Paul, click here or for services offered by Salvation Army, click here.
'Filthy Rich and Homeless', a new three-part documentary series, will explore the experience of homelessness when it debuts on SBS on Tuesday 27, Wednesday 28 and Thursday 29 June at 8.30pm. Each show will be available to view on SBS On Demand after broadcast.