Jody Letts travelled the arc from middle-class security to homelessness in what seems like a blink of an eye.
Three years ago, the former decorated East Timor army veteran, now 45, found herself in an unimaginable situation: living on the streets in Melbourne with her teenage daughter after a long battle with mental and physical illness left her unable to continue working in her once secure public sector job.
Struggling to afford even the cheapest of rental accommodation - “I applied for over 48 rental properties, and every one of them said no” - Letts, then 42, and her then 13-year-old daughter were eventually forced to sleep in her van, visiting local services every day trying to get into safe housing while juggling medical appointments.
“We had one of those delivery vans, with two handmade beds in it. The size of the vehicle meant we couldn’t get into many multi-storey car parks. And for parking reasons, you can’t stay too long because you will get booked. It was unimaginable.”
Letts and her daughter are the faces of the so-called 'hidden homeless' in Australia.
Now with her own home, Letts, 45, wants to spread the word.
Letts, then 42, and her then 13-year-old daughter were eventually forced to sleep in her van, visiting local services every day trying to get into safe housing while juggling medical appointments.
Many of us associate homelessness with older men with mental health or substance abuse sleeping rough on the streets, she says.
The reality is that they make up only a tiny slice - not more than seven per cent - of the homeless population.
Many Australians are not aware of how quickly and easily people can slip through the cracks, she says. “I went from a $100,000 income and secure employment for over 20 years, to sleeping in my car. I didn’t associate myself as someone experiencing homelessness because I wasn’t on the sidewalk in Flinders Lane. But that is the picture of homelessness for many Australians.”
Homelessness is nuanced.
It can entail everything from couch surfing with relatives or friends, to staying in crisis accommodation, shelters or cheap motels, to sleeping in your car. It can mean living in overcrowded and inadequate housing such as rooming houses and caravan parks, which are forms of homelessness. It can mean a mother and child sleeping rough on a train rather than risk going home to a violent home. It can mean washing in park toilets, and trying to protect your young daughter, as Letts did, from seeing a man shooting up heroin on the doorstep of their motel.
“We were in different motels all the time, one night, two nights, three nights. We had to wait each day for allocations for temporary accommodation. One motel had no water, most had no kitchen facilities, so we would make a cup of noodles with the kettle. We were struggling with sleeping and eating. I started losing the plot mentally.”
I didn’t associate myself as someone experiencing homelessness because I wasn’t on the sidewalk in Flinders Lane. But that is the picture of homelessness for many Australians.
The causes of homelessness are complex. It can be the result of everything from a sudden job loss accompanied by a lack of a financial safety buffer, to substance abuse and mental health issues, to lack of social housing and rental affordability, to domestic violence.
According to Mission Australia, 1.9 million Australian children are affected by family violence in their early to middle years, with one in two domestic violence victims turned away from refuges because of a lack of beds.
Increasingly, even a high socio-economic status is no barrier to homelessness. Across the wealthier suburbs of northern Sydney, Mary’s House, a refuge on Sydney's lower North Shore, provides crisis accommodation for women and their children, while Mission Australia works with hundreds of local at-risk youth aged 12 years facing homelessness.
Homelessness is a growing national problem, with the number of Australian school children seeking help from homelessness services increasing by more than 80 per cent over the past three years, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
Over 39,155 children enrolled in preschool, and primary and secondary school presented at homelessness services last financial year, among the 279,000 people who sought help nationally.
The cohort which saw the largest increase was primary school students, but teenagers are also heavily represented.
Based on the ABS Census of Housing and Population, 2011, this includes almost 18,000 boys and girls under the age of 12.
Homelessness Australia says those under the age of 18 make up 27 per cent of this group and are heavy users of specialist homelessness services.
The Council to Homeless Persons, Victoria’s peak homelessness body, says affordable housing is a key factor driving the crisis.
Rental affordability in Melbourne has reached critical levels with a dramatic fall in the amount of properties suitable for low-income earners over the past decade, says chief executive Jenny Smith.
Just six per cent of rentals across the city are affordable to someone on a low income, compared to almost 25 per cent 10 years ago, according the latest Department of Health and Human Services Rental Report.
As a wealthy nation, we urgently need to lift our game, Smith says.
Homelessness comes with huge social cost, leaving some children with permanent emotional scars due to it profound social impact - from disruption to education to social isolation due to the loss of community links to friends, extended families, hobbies and activities.
Research shows that some homeless children have poorer physical and mental health and lower educational outcomes than their peers, and also suffer more developmental delays, behavioural stress and lower self-esteem.
Letts becomes emotional when she recounts driving over the West Gate Bridge one day, listening to her daughter cry. “She was saying, mum, I want to go to a hotel, I need something to eat, mum, I’m hungry, when are we going to have a shower, mum, I want to watch a TV show, why can’t we just have our own home?”
“I kept promising her, this will soon be over, I’ll fix it. One more day. But my mental health was failing, and it kept going.”
While there have been various state funding initiatives this year for early intervention programs and homelessness services, Smith says a national, cross-agency approach dedicated to the issue is needed, particularly in terms of boosting affordable housing stocks.
‘We don’t have a national housing strategy or a homelessness strategy. We don’t have a national housing minister. There is no plan.”
I kept promising her, this will soon be over, I’ll fix it. One more day. But my mental health was failing, and it kept going.
A home is more than just four walls and a roof, Letts says - it is an anchor and lifeboat. Everyone deserves the dignity of secure and safe shelter. She is proud of her modest little home in Werribee, in outer Melbourne, which she purchased after a case worker helped her secure an early superannuation payment along with the disability pension. “I feel like I’ve hit the goldmine with this house, being stable.”
The stability has allowed her daughter, who turns 17 this month, to treat her substance abuse issues, resume schooling and to work towards a future career in drug and alcohol counselling.
Now a volunteer worker with the Council to Homeless Persons, Letts pays tribute to her daughter. “She had to become an adult at 14. Homelessness has had traumatic impact on her and will be with her for a huge amount of time, but she has been able to achieve great things, despite what she experienced. And she will be capable of even more good things. I’m so proud of her.”
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.