By Jade Lee
When you think of homelessness, what images immediately come to mind? A dishevelled man in the middle of the day, asleep on a park bench clenching a paper bag and few possessions perhaps? Our misconceptions malign our marginalised minorities.
On a wild winter’s night feeling safe and secure under my roof, in my comfortable bed, warm underneath my doona, I’ve often wondered where the homeless are sleeping tonight. Did they find safe shelter, a filling feed and a hot cuppa? When did they last shower, shave or afford a haircut?
How do they find clean and open public toilets, a free meal and constantly carry and protect what few possessions they have? Who spoke to them today or offered them a helping hand? And, more recently, how are they coping with Covid? I feel so frustrated that in this day and age, and in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, we should be pondering these problems.
Homelessness is not just about not having a roof overhead; it’s about having access to a safe shelter and having a stable and secure place to call ‘home’. It’s about having a foundation for the support, security and care needed to become a content and connected, hale and hearty, positive and productive member of the community.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ last census reported that every night more than 116,000 people nationally experienced homelessness, that’s one in 200 people. Whilst our most observable experience of homelessness is those sleeping rough on the streets, this only represents seven per cent of homelessness, mostly men transitioning from care or custody. A higher percentage find substance abuse, mental health, indigenous and legal issues impact their ability to access accommodation.
Of NSW’s homeless population (37,715 at the 2016 Census), 1504 live across the South Coast. Although these numbers are low compared to the state average 50.4 people per 10,000 population, regional and rural centres have their own issues of geographic isolation coupled with a lack of adequate funding for homelessness services.
Southern Cross Housing, who provides social and affordable housing to the South Coast, reports waiting lists reflective of the national data – in 2020 sitting at around 1,856 across all types of housing. Nowra had the largest number with 834 applicants waiting for housing, followed by Bateman’s Bay with 308, Ulladulla with 219 and Bega with 113. Demand for one-bedroom accommodation is overwhelmingly high across all areas in the region.
The NSW Parliamentary Research Service provides homelessness numbers by electorate statistics as shown in table below
However there is a much larger, hidden, displaced population. Those who move from one temporary solution to another: be it between the homes of family members, ‘couch surfing’, with friends or mere acquaintances, relying on refuges, bunking down in overcrowded boarding houses, continually canvassing for cheap motels and caravan parks, even sleeping in their cars.
Living in inadequate, untenable and often intolerable forms of shelter are all forms of homelessness. Uncertainty takes an enormous toll on a person’s self-worth and their capacity to attend educational institutions, seek services and employment, maintain positivity and even stay healthy.
Homelessness can affect anyone, of any age and background, and can happen suddenly and unexpectedly. While social disadvantage, financial hardship and mental health may be the root causes, flow-on contributors such as health issues, substance dependencies, relationship instability, and situational events – the loss of a job, a loved one or an injury - further exacerbate the situation.
Those experiencing or at risk of homelessness are among our most socially and economically disadvantaged. Marginalised, encountering prejudice and discrimination, difficulties arise in accessing mainstream services, and little opportunity exists to participate in the community in a meaningful way.
Domestic and family violence is a leading cause of homelessness in Australia. It can be physical, sexual, emotional, social, verbal, spiritual or economic abuse from an intimate partner or family member. In 2018-2019, service providers reported violence as the main reason why 80,000 people asked for help, representing forty per cent of people seeking accommodation, that near half of them were women with children and that one in six homeless children are under ten years old. Although domestic and family violence affects both genders, three out of four were female.
With many women’s refuges closing and domestic violence services significantly slashed due to funding cuts, options are further limited putting these women and their children at higher risk of predatory problems and forcing many to return to the very situations that had them leave. This type of homelessness has risen by twenty-four per cent. It’s a pretty hard call when a woman decides for herself and her pre-schooler that it’s better living without a home than living in fear daily for their lives.
Many people fall into accepting their homelessness, overwhelmed by the cycles of disadvantage – poverty, neglect, abuse, substance abuse, health issues and mental illness. Specialist organisations tell us someone seeks their services every seven minutes due to domestic violence.
Our youths are incredibly ill-equipped to cope with these sorts of stresses and can enter the juvenile justice system then struggle with homelessness their entire lives. With nowhere to go and no support, isolation quickly takes hold as study, work and friendships become more difficult to maintain.
Small gestures are always appreciated
I remember once delivering beanies to a local shelter and the workers while unpacking them were commenting on how wonderful they looked. A young man living there at the time overheard, his eyes immediately lit up, and he approached saying, “First in, best dressed right? Can I have the purple one?” He put it on his head and paraded around impressed with the fit and thickness of his acquisition then announced the bounty to the other men. It is often simple things that can make a difference in someone’s day.
In the continued absence of a National Housing Strategy, successive governments have sold off and continue to sell off public housing stock and appear to be unable to articulate a plan to replace once affordable housing. What little public housing remains is poorly utilised, managed and maintained and has depressingly long waiting lists. No amount of acquired community-owned housing stock is going to replace it anytime soon.
In NSW alone, there are 60,000 people on the waiting list for public housing, 200,000 nationwide; many applicants have been waiting for over ten years. Our social housing equates to only four per cent of dwellings in Australia compared to eighteen per cent in the UK. Nearly half of all Australians under 40 now live in insecure rental housing.
High rental prices across our cities have been driving an increase in a number of unrelated adults not just sharing a house but a room. Official statistics fail to record room sharing arrangements accurately, service providers’ knowledge relies on anecdotal stories and periodic media coverage of unacceptable outcomes. Inner-city suburbs records suggest forty per cent of residents live in overcrowded dwellings.
It costs nothing to be human
After dropping into the village for a small bite to eat within my budget, I sat looking at the oversized fish and chips before me. An older dishevelled man shuffled alongside and mumbled something. My first instinct was to ignore him until I saw the strawberry plants atop his walker and realised he was selling them. Then his possible position occurred to me. I said I had no place for strawberries however I couldn’t possibly eat all this fish and chips and would he take some off me. Before I could draw breath, he was sitting beside me; his eyes fixed on what was before him and when I asked him to help himself, it became apparent he was very much enjoying this meal. When he finished, he mumbled a thank you, but his eyes said so much more.
Sharing a room can be a short-term, affordable and appealing option given rent typically includes furniture, utility bills and lower bond payments, appealing in particular to younger populations who need to remain close to amenities, employment and education opportunities. Whilst access is easier as formal requirements such as identity and rental history checks are less likely, this can mean formal leasing arrangements and legal safeguards may not cover tenants. Profitable for landlords but offers little protection for tenants.
Affordable rental is calculated at up to 30 per cent of a person’s income. However, for lower income earners, in particular those living below the poverty line, few rental properties fall within this range, leading to the stress and hardship associated with unsustainable rent payments and the uncertainty of temporary living arrangements.
An essential strategy for authentically affordable housing is policies that progress rental reform of privately let housing to provide secure leases and limits to rental increases. The overall solution requires an increase in public investment and infrastructure to provide affordable, secure and sustainable housing.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are ten times more likely to experience homelessness and represent 20 per cent of the homeless population despite accounting for only 3.3 per cent of our population. They experience much higher rates of overcrowding but more recently they have experienced a whopping thirty-five per cent rise in sleeping rough.
One in seven homeless people are over 55 and there are increasing numbers of older women in Australia who are experiencing or are at risk of homelessness. The cause of this phenomenon is primarily poverty. These women tend to ‘self-manage’ their homelessness through strategies such as partnering up, moving between family and friends, and looking to take on jobs that provide housing as contrasted by older men who are more likely to sleep rough, live in improvised dwellings or in boarding houses.
It can happen to anyone
I met a bright and bubbly woman who shared she’d lost her job not long after a divorce, was struggling to meet her financial obligations and her meagre funds were dwindling fast. She had sold up and took to the road staying with friends, taking an opportunity to look around and come up with a plan.
Disappointed she couldn’t even afford a rundown ruin out west, on a whim she bought a cheap campervan, relieving her of having to rely on friends and relatives or paying unaffordable rent and could now go looking for work. Being alone she found it difficult to find suitable safe places to pull up for the night. There was no rent assistance to help pay for the nights she needed to stop over in a camping ground to shower and wash her clothes. She’d been prepared to pick fruit or housesit but few had been prepared to take her on.
Here she was having to fulfil Centrelink commitments for another few years before being eligible for the pension. She’d been warned the housing list had a waiting list of many years. She had been a wife, mother and part time worker and never imagined that she would be in this position at her age. She had been on the road now for two years and conceded it was no idyllic lifestyle but she didn’t see herself as homeless and was grateful in that she was better off than others.
Housing and homelessness are complex issues and require comprehensive and united responses. People’s needs differ as do the barriers they face in order to avoid homelessness. Our governments need to take responsibility in recognising that market based responses have fundamentally failed and that de-funding community level services that provide an essential safety net is short sighted.
Recognising that homelessness comes at a high social and economic cost to our society, that prevention and early intervention are vital and that whilst accommodation and housing are crucial this may only provide temporary relief if the underlying causes behind homelessness aren’t addressed, especially while ancillary services like family mediation and domestic violence support, drug and alcohol abuse support, mental health support, legal advice, health services and employment assistance remain underfunded.
Housing is a human right and no one should be without a safe and secure place to call home.
Feature image courtesy of Ivaan Kotulsky - City of Toronto Archives