As the self-confessed “bleeding heart softie” in season two of Filthy Rich and Homeless, audiences may have been surprised to see how cool, calm and collected Benjamin Law appeared during the first episode of the series.
Being able to wrangle a toothbrush and toothpaste, and dumpster-dive for food, the first couple of nights of sleeping rough didn’t seem too difficult for the Sydney-based writer. However, in last night’s episode we saw a moment that, according to Law, “tipped me over the edge.”
It was meeting Wallace, a Chinese migrant staying in homeless accommodation Foster House, that struck a chord for Law as he couldn’t help but imagine what his own father’s life might have been like had it taken a different turn. “The fact Wallace was Chinese, spoke Cantonese and born in the Year of the Rat made me realise that he could’ve very well been my dad, who’s exactly the same age,” he says.
“I went into Filthy Rich and Homeless being adamant that it was only 10 days, and that I wasn’t going to cry – I felt it’d almost be insulting to people who were actually homeless,” Law says. “But when it’s demonstrated so clearly that this could easily be a family member, and someone you love, I couldn’t not be affected.”
Law’s conversation with Wallace was also a reminder of another layer of struggle for homeless people who don’t speak English—it’s another barrier that can intensify feelings of isolation. “I could’ve been more useful for him if I spoke my family’s language better,” he says.
It’s something he has become increasingly mindful of since wrapping up filming of the series. “Just the other day, I was trying to help a rough sleeper in Sydney, then quickly realised she was deaf. Luckily I knew how to introduce myself and spell my name in Auslan, but the rest was a lot of miming. From the show, it’s obvious to me how hard it can be to access services, but that difficulty’s compounded so much if you don’t speak English.”
Law has since returned to Foster House, but Wallace had unfortunately moved on. "The staff I spoke to weren't too sure where he was now. Needless to say, that's a common thing."
Having embarked on the 10-day social experiment, Law says he already had a lot of "in-built sympathy for folks living homeless," but it was the far scope of its impact that truly affected him.
"Nothing prepared me for the truly infinite ways in which people had become homeless, and how it can really affect anyone—from people who’ve had terrible childhoods of deprivation, to folks who were tertiary educated and really well-off only months before I met them."
Filthy Rich and Homeless continues tonight on SBS from 8.30pm. A special live studio program will air directly after episode three.
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Catch up on episode two on SBS On Demand.