"I want you to ask yourself this one question: how hard is it to be a parent?” says Melbourne-based mum, Vicky Vacondios.
“Now imagine you became homeless and you had children to look after.
"Where would you go, what would you do, how would you feel?"
“It’s hard enough to be a mum without having to be homeless as well,” Vacondios, 44, explains, recalling the years she spent living homeless – with three kids in tow – residing in a mix of crisis and temporary accommodation.
“My life has just been about surviving day-to-day to make sure that our experience of homelessness wouldn’t affect my children…I personally never thought at any time in my entire life that I would become homeless. But your life can change within 24 hours. What you have today could all be gone tomorrow.”
Vacondios tells SBS she grew up in a ‘normal’ family, with Greek parents who worked hard and eventually owned their own home. Vacondios also used to have a job, husband and was once happy. But due to domestic violence in two former marriages, she ended up experiencing homelessness twice.
“Homelessness feels like you’re basically just a shell,” Vacondios says. “You have no emotions. It’s like your soul just dies. That’s how it felt to me. I wasn’t even living although I was physically alive. But my kids reminded me that I was a person.”
Female homelessness is different to male homelessness, she says. Firstly, as a woman living in temporary accommodation with children, you’re exposed to more dangers than those faced by men. As we see in the new series of Filthy Rich and Homeless, crisis accommodation may be laced with violence and drug exchanges.
“You just feel, as a woman, so much more vulnerable because we are not as physically strong as men and there’s so many rapes that go on…So it’s always in the back of your mind. You need to have eyes everywhere and you’re on constant watch.”
CEO of Mission Australia, James Toomey, says the causes of homelessness for women may be unique to them and their children.
“We see domestic violence and family violence as a leading cause of homelessness for women and children together,” explains Toomey. “That’s because women more likely to leave their family home and then find themselves homeless.”
Toomey explains that if, as a woman escaping domestic violence, you haven’t worked in a while or, while being employed you’ve earned less than your male counterpart in wages and superannuation, you may not have the money required to attain and sustain a rental on your own. Add a chronic lack of social and affordable housing in Australia to the mix and homelessness can easily result.
As we hear in episode two of Filthy Rich and Homeless, almost half the homeless population in Australia is female. Toomey agrees with this figure, however he estimates that this statistic is just the tip of the iceberg.
He explains that many ‘homeless women’ don’t believe that sleeping in a car or living with family in overcrowded circumstances equates to being ‘homeless’. The outcome is that they don’t report being homelessness and their cases are not included in national statistics.
“When you talk about homelessness, you may picture a rough sleeper and think that’s the total of homelessness in Australia,” says Toomey. “But that’s only 6-7 per cent of all homeless people across the country.
Around 93 per cent of homeless women in Australia are ‘the hidden homeless’
“The rest are hidden, living in unsuitable temporary accommodation, or in an overcrowded accommodation, or moving on from place-to-place.
“Around 93 per cent of homeless women in Australia are ‘the hidden homeless’.”
Vacondios tells SBS how she lived in emergency accommodation – hotel rooms with other homeless people – with her children for three months back in 2011.
“It was terrible,” Vacondios recalls. “Once there was a 16-year-old who overdosed. My kids witnessed that. There were always fights. You were always worried that your door was going to be broken down and you slept with one-eye open.
“…Then one day I got a call from a domestic violence service. My ex had gotten in touch with me. They saw that as an alarm bell so the service called and offered me temporary housing.
“I ended up accepting a property in communal living. We lived among drug dealers and encountered even more domestic violence. So here I was: I had tried to break the cycle of domestic violence [by leaving my marriage and starting anew] but then I had to live with it again with my kids through my neighbours in accommodation."
Vacondios lived in the property waiting for a more permanent home to become available. “Every day I’d go to the letterbox thinking ‘maybe I’ll have a house today’. But I’d try to just be positive and teach the kids to have an appreciation that we are alive.”
It took 4.5 years but eventually, Vacondios was offered and accepted a three-bedroom house for her family where she now lives. “I just had to get out of there.”
My hope is for my children. I want us to have the home we’ve always wanted and to one day, travel with them
She says although her current home is more secure, the location is far from ideal.
Vacondios is now working in paid employment and has attained a diploma of community services and a certificate four in training and assessment.
She tells SBS that one day, she hopes to work in the homelessness sector and use her personal experiences to improve the system for others.
“I do have hope. My hope is for my children. I want us to have the home we’ve always wanted and to one day, travel with them.
“I don’t want to let them down. I have to find a way to get there, as I want my children to know that perseverance can make a big difference in your life. They need to know that you should never give up and always fight for what you want.”
If you are in immediate danger, facing an emergency situation, contact Emergency Services on 000.
If this article has raised an issue for you or you/someone you know is in need of support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.
If you have experienced sexual assault or domestic and family violence, you can also receive counselling, information and support through 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732).
Filthy Rich & Homeless season 2 airs over three nights starting on Tuesday 14 August 8.30pm on SBS. You can also stream the show anytime on SBS On Demand. Join the conversation with #FilthyRichHomeless.