The third season of SBS documentary series Filthy Rich and & Homeless delivers a sobering reminder of the challenges faced by Australia's rough sleepers and homeless population.
The social experiment's five new participants – emergency doctor and businessman Dr Andrew Rochford, Deputy Lord Mayor of Melbourne Arron Wood, restauranteur and entrepreneur Pauline Nguyen, comedian and radio presenter Ciaran Lyons and actress and model Ellie Gonsalves – each experience different forms of homelessness throughout the three-part series.
The experience gives them, and Australian audiences watching along from home, a unique insight into sleeping rough on the streets, as well as what it's like to live in crisis accommodation and marginal housing.
Here are eight of the most surprising facts we learnt watching the series:
1. Young Australians are being hit hard by homelessness
In the first episode we learn that age doesn't render someone immune from falling through the cracks. This hit especially close to home for 23-year-old comedian and radio presenter Ciaran Lyons, whose health suffered after sleeping rough.
One of the key drivers of child and youth homelessness is family breakdown, says social researcher and homelessness expert Dr Catherine Robinson, who appears on the show. “When you’re young, you’re reliant on the family unit to keep you alive. If those relationships break down, you’re in a difficult situation without access to independent income.”
Child homelessness is critical for us to confront because the earlier a young person experiences homelessness, the greater the likelihood it will continue throughout their life, explains Dr Robinson.
In Filthy Rich & Homeless, we meet young people who reflect on their experiences of homelessness and the traumatic events that led to it. “We tend to think about rough sleeping older men, but in fact 14,000 children aged 10 to 17 presented alone to homeless services in the last financial year,” says Dr Robinson. “It’s a real blind spot in the nation’s understanding of homelessness.”
2. Rates of homelessness in Sydney are skyrocketing
While there are lots of organisations working to help those most in need, the number of homeless people increased by 160 per cent in the state electorate of Auburn, 108 per cent in East Hills and 104 per cent in Lakemba between 2011 and 2016. Across NSW, homelessness increased 35 per cent in the same period.
There are many economic drivers that have contributed to the upsurge in homelessness in Sydney. One is the city’s property boom that has seen property prices rise steeply throughout the 2010s, creating a housing affordability crisis that has particularly affected households that receive minimum wage or government income support. The 2020 Anglicare Rental Affordability Snapshot, which was conducted before the introduction of the JobSeeker and JobKeeper program, found that less than 1 per cent of rental properties in the Greater Sydney and Illawarra areas were affordable for households that relied on government payments.
In March, the NSW government committed $34 million to address homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic, including $14 million for temporary accommodation. Rough sleepers are being moved into the city’s empty hotel rooms for a minimum of 30 days at a time, a policy shift that Dr Robinson applauds and hopes continues. “It’s recognition that homelessness is a health issue,” she says. “It is not acceptable that we have humans living on the street in this country…We need to take care of them and provide them with permanent supportive housing.”
3. There are rough sleepers in the country, too
There's a common misconception that rough sleepers tend to live in central city areas. However, there are as many rough sleepers in regional and remote Australia as there are in the cities, as Ellie Gonsalves found out on the journey to her first mystery destination – Wollongong, south of Sydney.
As many as 40 per cent of rough sleepers in NSW live outside of major cities, according to the NSW Homeless Strategy 2018 – 2023.
4. More than 40 per cent of Australians experiencing homelessness are women
A number of issues are contributing to the growth in homelessness among women in Australia. One is domestic and family violence, the biggest driver of homelessness among women and children in Australia.
Another is the combined effects of an ageing population, a lack of affordable housing and the gender gap in income and retirement savings that sees women retire with 37 per cent less super than men. Homelessness among older women—those aged 55 and over— increased 31 per cent between 2011 and 2016, making them the fastest growing cohort of homeless Australians.
5. In Melbourne, begging is technically illegal
This surprising fact, revealed during the program, is part of the reason it's so interesting watching Deputy Lord Mayor of Melbourne Arron Wood experience the struggles and systemic shortcomings faced by Australia's homeless. Another interesting fact? Overall, just one in three Australians give to homeless people who beg on the street.
Victoria is not the only place where begging is illegal. It is also an offence to “beg or gather alms” in South Australia, Northern Territory, Queensland and Tasmania. Some believe outlawing begging is necessary to reduce antisocial behaviour in public places. Others argue that slapping someone who is homeless with a fine for begging is a pointless exercise.
“[It] fails to achieve sentencing goals, and is likely to impose further hardship upon those who are already experiencing severe disadvantage,” writes Paula Hughes, a lawyer from LawRight’s Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic in Queensland. “It also burdens the justice system with the impossible task of enforcing a debt against someone who has no means to pay it.”
Laws that ban begging criminalise social suffering and poverty, says Dr Robinson.
“That law needs to go.”
Being forced to confront social inequality in the form of a person begging on the street can be disturbing, she acknowledges. “You can afford to be kind…or not give anything and stop and say hello,” she says.
6. Homelessness is causing mental disorders
It's estimated that around 80 per cent of rough sleepers have some form of mental illness, with research showing that these disorders are often caused by homelessness – not the other way around.
Homelessness and mental illness are irrevocably intertwined.
“If people have a significant mental disorder, it’s hard for them to go to school, to work and to get an income,” says Dr Robinson.
While “there is absolutely a causal relationship between having a mental illness and finding it difficult to access housing,” Dr Robinson says that homelessness also leads to the development of mental health issues.
“The level of psychological and physical stress is horrific, particularly in the context in rough sleeping. The vigilance and the hours of awake time required to ensure your safety – it’s like torture.”
7. The average life expectancy for a rough sleeper is only 47.
Sleeping on the street is a precarious way to live. Rough sleeping is physically and emotionally draining, and with limited access to food and water, people inevitably develop health issues.
"These are the basic necessities of the human body that can't be attended to in the context of rough sleeping," explains Dr Robinson.
Ciaran reflected on the toll the experience had already taken on his body, telling Dr. Robinson: "Yeah, it has affected me a lot. Just like, mentally going back to that isolation and the rejection you face."
Among people living in such tough circumstances, “you would expect a rapid decline in physical and mental health, and that’s what we see,” says Dr Robinson.
8. LGBTIQ+ Australians are at least twice as likely to experience homelessness
Sadly, according to LGBTIQ+ homelessness organisation Street Smart Australia, the main reason cited for homelessness among LGBTIQ+ young people is "running away" from home, often due to rejection or being kicked out by families who don't accept them.
People in the LGBTIQ+ community face a higher risk of homelessness than the general population. According to the NSW Homeless Strategy 2018 – 2023, in 2014, “more than one third of lesbian/gay people and more than 20 per cent of bisexual people had experienced homelessness, compared with less than 14 per cent of heterosexuals.”
Filthy Rich & Homeless airs over three nights – June 9, 10 and 11 – on SBS at 8:30pm and SBS On Demand after broadcast.
Filthy Rich & Homeless Season 3 will also be subtitled in Simplified Chinese and Arabic and will be added to the subtitled collection on SBS On Demand, available immediately following its premiere on SBS.