When Blackfella Films first contacted me about participating in the upcoming documentary series for SBS, Filthy Rich and Homeless, I was concerned. I was being invited to be involved in a challenging new television production that would observe five wealthy Australians as they took a therapeutic tour through the underclass. In short, my concern was that I was being asked to contribute to the self-development of an already privileged group.
I talked to a lot of different folk about the ethics and politics of being involved in such a series. And not one person tried to talk me out of it. What my community of scholars, advocates, and practitioners alike focused on was the fact that this experimental new format seemed to offer viewers and participants an opportunity to explore and humanise the everyday experience of homelessness. Despite my doubts, it turned out they were right.
Given the stark emotional and physical impacts of homelessness, immersion as a means to encourage empathy with those experiencing homelessness seemed hugely promising.
Television is powerful because it has a unique capacity to show rather than tell. And the educational hope for Filthy Rich and Homeless was seen to lie in its ability to inform participants about homelessness by immersing them in it, rather than by lecturing them about it.
At stake – for both participants and, by default, the broader viewing audience – was a potentially profound engagement in experiential learning; an opportunity to learn through sensory exposure. Given the stark emotional and physical impacts of homelessness, immersion as a means to encourage empathy with those experiencing homelessness seemed hugely promising.
The series format encouraged those actually experiencing homelessness to tell their own stories. The series enabled homeless individuals to directly teach and mentor the non-homeless and through them, teach and mentor a wider national audience.
The participants proposed for this experience were well-screened and supported, and they volunteered to be involved. And if these wealthy participants were prepared to engage with homelessness, then I felt prepared to inform and extend this engagement.
But what was particularly compelling about the production format of Filthy Rich and Homeless was the opportunity it offered for homeless people to use their own voice. The series format encouraged those actually experiencing homelessness to tell their own stories. The series enabled homeless individuals to directly teach and mentor the non-homeless and through them, teach and mentor a wider national audience. It was a fascinating concept.
Like the show’s non-homeless participants, those experiencing homelessness who were involved in the production were supported in doing so. The production team arranged for homeless participants to be connected to trained outreach workers and other service providers before, during and after direct involvement. I also spent time with production crews highlighting the key issues those homeless may be experiencing.
The result was a holistic experience that challenged the five wealthy participants to better understand what it feels like to be homeless, which in turn challenged their notions of homelessness and deepened their compassion for those experiencing it.
What Filthy Rich and Homeless ends up offering viewers is a deeply sustained insight into some of the core experiences of being and feeling homeless: insecurity, disorientation, isolation and frustration. Watching the chain reaction of corporeal change in the non-homeless participants over a very short period of time – their slumping demeanour, their self-protective stance, their growing anxiety and self-doubt – is both horrifying and compelling.
What they could not fully experience was the cumulative toll of being discarded – from family and community. These experiences belong to those in the series who describe, in some cases, ‘lifetime homelessness’.
Each day they seem to shrink a little more, curve in on themselves. Basic tasks become difficult, there are moments of confusion, and a striking loss of orientation – both geographical and social. There is physical exhaustion, embarrassment, loss of control, and a sense of erasure, a strange disappearing from the lives of family, friends, children and passers-by. As a condensed demonstration of what the loss of home effects in people’s lives, it is nothing short of brutal.
What couldn’t be fully registered by the participants over just 10 days was the cumulative toll of lives lived hard through poverty, trauma and illness. What they could not fully experience was the cumulative toll of being discarded – from family and community. These experiences belong to those in the series who describe, in some cases, ‘lifetime homelessness’.
Of course, no one ever expected the participants to truly understand what it means to be homeless as their experience was always going to be temporary: homelessness is an experience which ultimately can’t be ‘played’. The five participants were always meant to return to their lives at the end of the series. But the aim was to ensure that they would be more empathetic to the realities surrounding homelessness than they were at the start of the experience.
So we can admire the spirit in which the five participated in the series: not because they endured the same degree of hardship that someone who is homeless endures but because viewers are able to learn about the longing for safety, autonomy and belonging through them. If we can empathise, as viewers of this new documentary series, we may also start to discover a disturbing truth: homelessness reflects weakness – not the weakness of those who survive it (far from it) but a weakness in the Australian resolve to end it.
Dr Catherine Robinson is a Social Researcher with the Social Action and Research Centre (SARC) at Anglicare Tasmania. She is also a Co-Host and Series Consultant on SBS's new three-part documentary series, 'Filthy Rich and Homeless'.