As a NSW state government politician who grew up in the inner suburbs of Sydney, Alex Greenwich MP is no stranger to seeing people sleeping rough on the streets.
But it wasn’t until the Independent Member for Sydney experienced homelessness for 10 days, as a participant in the SBS series Filthy Rich and Homeless, that he actually discovered what homelessness felt like.
“What you really feel is not sleeplessness or hunger,” Greenwich tells SBS Life. “You feel loneliness and hopelessness.”
Now, months on from filming the documentary, Greenwich shares how the first-hand experience of homelessness moved him. “There was this moment when I was on a park bench in Belmore Park. I saw Sydneysiders walking past looking at me, afraid of me, and me being slightly afraid of them. I thought ‘I could have been that person walking through this park last week’. For me, that moment blurred the lines [between us and them].
“It gave me this strong understanding that anybody can become homeless. …There is no difference between people who are homeless and those who aren’t, except that one has had a terrible life event that has brought them to that point. Behind every person who is homeless, there’s usually a story that can be any of our stories.”
“It gave me this strong understanding that anybody can become homeless. …There is no difference between people who are homeless and those who aren’t, except that one has had a terrible life event that has brought them to that point.”
As part of the social experiment Greenwich was required to abandon most of his possessions, his identity and position in society to experience what it means to exist without a permanent home in Sydney. Yet, unlike the 116,000 Australians who are homeless, Greenwich’s got to return to his home, husband and privileged life once the social experiment ended and the cameras turned off.
So did the politician’s temporary brush with homelessness influence him beyond the 10 days of filming?
Greenwich explains that, post-filming, he took two days to recalibrate and let the experience sink in. “Then I had a massive planning meeting with my staff in my office and we put together a plan of action on what we should be doing on the issue of homelessness.
“We also worked with service providers and social services closely to get a few of the people I met [on the show through the experience] housed. But that took a lot of work. It took three months of hard-core interventions to make it happen.”
During Homelessness Week this month, Greenwich called on the NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian for a state of emergency on homelessness, just as she would for a bushfire, flood or natural disaster, and to commit to ending homelessness by 2030 during question time.
Greenwich proposed a 15 per cent affordable housing target in all major development projects; the establishment of a whole-of-government taskforce to workshop solutions to homelessness, and the elimination of red tape that often prevents people who are homeless from submitting social housing applications.
The premier acknowledged the question and proposals raised by Greenwich in state parliament but did not adopt the call for a state of emergency. The premier agreed with the target of ending homelessness by 2030, and referred to the government’s strategies to address homelessness.
"We can end homelessness…This is something we can fix."
Greenwich, who has publicly committed to working to reduce Sydney-based homelessness, now continues to campaign for action on homelessness with an online petition calling on community-wide support for change.
On a personal level, Greenwich says his experience showed him the realities of what life is like when you don’t have a home that go well beyond policies and politics.
“Before the series, I knew it was a big issue that had a really negative impact of people. During the series, I saw that negative impact on people.
“I also realised we can end homelessness…This is something we can fix. But it’s something that takes hard work and courage.”
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Filthy Rich and Homeless Season Two airs over three nights starting on Tuesday 14 August. The show 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.