Home is More Than Where the Heart is…

December 18, 2007 at 3:15 am (Uncategorized)

Sometimes it’s just the roof over your head. And as we all lurch from store to store in search of those perfect stocking-fillers and gifts, it’s worth pausing for a second, even if it’s only on the way to the cash register, to reflect on the fact that there’s currently an estimated 100,000+ homeless Australians.

Imagine them all lined up. How much of Pitt St Shopping Mall would they fill? I wonder what it would look like if every homeless Australian stood shoulder to shoulder (well, as shoulder to shoulder as possible when you’re also dealing with little ones – 10% of that 100,000 is under the age of 12, and 36% are between the ages 12 and 24) in the busiest Sydney CBD shopping strip in the last days before Christmas. I wonder how it would impact on our zeal for buying Christmas gifts. I wonder what we’d all do, trying to edge our way past that gridlock of 100,000 human, homeless bodies to get into David Jones or Myer.

I just did a freelance article on homelessness for this week’s WHO magazine, which is why this topic is on my mind. It was good timing, because I was already thinking about the article I read a fortnight or so ago in The Weekend Australian about Kevin Rudd’s low-key visits to several crisis housing centres earlier this year, before the election had even been called and certainly before he became PM. I was interested to know that he’d just gone in minus an entourage and just acquainted himself with the facts and the facilities. There’s a lot more to know, of course, and a lot more to do.

Someone said to me last weekend that “Some people want to be homeless, you give them somewhere to live and they wreck it, they don’t appreciate it, they don’t want it, they’d rather be on the street.”

This is someone who has done volunteer work with homeless people and who is not lacking in compassion generally. It’s not the first time I’ve heard someone say something like that, and I think it goes some way to exhibiting a certain latent impatience Australians have toward homelessness, like we just don’t get it. What have you got to be so homeless about, anyway? Don’t you know we’re the Lucky Country? Don’t you know you’ve never had it so good?

What that comment says to me is that there’s a real lack of understanding about the myriad issues that lead to homelessness. There are usually other things going on, like drug and alcohol addiction and mental illness. Sometimes it’s housing affordability; people try to fix it and keep their heads above water without help because they’re proud and because they mistakenly think they can handle it, and then find it’s an alarmingly short slide to being out of their home and on the street. It’s not that all these people don’t want to be happy, and don’t want to have a warm and safe and dry roof over their heads and a home filled with people who love them, it’s that they are battling their demons the whole time instead.

And long-term homelessness begets long-term homelessness. Attempting to house and resocialise someone who has been on the streets for a long time is gruelling, thankless, and unfortunately often unsuccessful. We’re not dealing with those root causes. At present, as Lincoln Hopper from Mission Australia told me during the research for the WHO article, Australia does not have a national housing strategy. This is hopefully something that will change now that PM Rudd has made a commitment to develop a $150-million plan to address Australian homelessness.

Lincoln Hopper said in a country as prosperous as Australia, one homeless person is too many, and he’s right. But imagine that one person and then multiply them by 100,000. That’s how many Australians are out there needing more help than perhaps the rest of us do. Food and shelter. Food and shelter : these are fundamental to our survival. We are so fortunate, we are so lucky, we are so wealthy, but look at that number. It is huge. And it means that at present, we’re not doing something right. We’re not adequately funding the means to address drug and alcohol addiction (a youth epidemic), depression and suicide (same again), other mental and physical health issues, long-term unemployment, family breakdown, housing affordability for families, and on it goes. These are just a few of the things that lead people to a state of homelessness. From there it can be a spiral. A cycle that gets harder and harder to break.

Aren’t we better off trying to equip people with the means to battle those demons before it reaches that crisis point? I think we are. Some people simply like being homeless? What a load of absolute shit.

If you’re interested in donating or volunteering or learning more, check out Mission Australia or the Salvos.

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