What does it mean to be homeless? Some people call the streets or the city their home, travellers carry home in their backpacks, some people say they have no home. The word homeless carries implications of exclusion, yet it does not convey the dead end people living on the streets face. With no fixed address, they can’t access help from Centrelink or Medicare, rental properties, employment, not to mention showering, sleeping under a roof, safety, or warmth. Without a home, you are bereft from most opportunities society offers. And it’s not easy to get back on your feet. But my only experience of homelessness is glimpses of it as I walk home through the city. A ragged blanket covering an anonymous sleeping figure: someone’s sister, mother or friend. A hand holding out a takeaway coffee cup for donations. A plea for the generosity of strangers because nobody else will help. I don’t understand what it feels like to have no more options left, and I don’t understand why homelessness exists, even though I walk past it every day. So I took this opportunity to explore how a country as economically stable as Australia can fail so many people in the simple matter of housing. The ‘simple’ matter that that leads to an unequal quality of life.
Homelessness is Melbourne’s elephant in the room. The tragedy that we walk past every day, yet barely see. But in the city voted most liveable six years in a row, it seems like an oxymoron that so many people are living on the streets. Why, I wondered, isn’t anyone doing anything about this? I decided to do some research about the services for homeless people, and found surprising results.
A study commissioned by Melbourne University found that it is cheaper for governments to provide last-resort housing rather than have people sleeping on the streets, as reported by the ABC News. The article explained that the accumulated costs of healthcare, emergency services and the police force required to maintain the safety of homeless people costs more than it does to provide government housing. A Google search for ‘homeless accommodation Melbourne’ found a wide range of crisis accommodation, boarding houses, community housing, hostels and specialist housing available for homeless people to use for little to no cost. There are also the well-known charities that operate op shops throughout the city, such as The Brotherhood of St Lawrence, Sacred Heart Mission and St Vincent De Paul, which all donate their profits towards services for the homeless as well as providing safe spaces to sleep, soup kitchens and clothing. From this preliminary search, it seemed that there wasn’t a shortage of housing opportunities for homeless people living in Melbourne. Why, then, are so many people living on the street? It was clear to me that the best way to understand the issue more would be to talk to someone who lives on the street.
The next time I walked along Swanston St, I didn’t avert my eyes as I passed the people sleeping or sitting on the sidewalk next to the constant stream of people going somewhere. I began to really look at them as people. The brothers and fathers and sons. Many homeless people have cardboard signs explaining their situation, others just ask for compassion. Some have blankets that constitute a makeshift bed, or faithful pets, or trolleys of possessions; others have nothing but their clothes. I approached two people, asking if they would be willing to share their story; the first woman told me that she’d had enough bad experiences with journalists, and the second man didn’t give an explanation. The third time I was lucky.
John didn’t look like he should be homeless. With blue eyes, steady hands and a genuine smile, his demeanour caught my attention as I walked past. His neatly folded blanket housed his few possessions, and his cardboard sign stated that he would really appreciate anyone’s help. I found him at his favourite location, outside the 7Eleven on Bourke St. When John agreed to talk to me, I sat down and saw the street from his perspective. Seas of legs endlessly walked past. I discovered that a series of unlucky circumstances led to John having nowhere to live. When he found himself unable to afford rent anymore, his only option was to live in community housing. But far from feeling like home, the community housing was a place of drug use and violence. “You’re better off out on the street. It’s a lot safer out here,” John said. Finding a quiet street to sleep on during the night, and setting up his blanket and cardboard sign on the street in the daytime, John seems to be resigned to the only option left to him. “I haven’t had any trouble myself. I sort of keep to myself, because I know there are some idiots out there that just want to take you for what you’ve got.”
John didn’t elaborate on the “idiots” he mentioned, but I had a few ideas. With police brutality making the news more and more frequently, I couldn’t rule out the possibility that this is what John was talking about. In fact, rumours had been circulating in the news about a proposed homeless camping ban and fines for people who leave their possessions on the street. The camping ban had already gained criticism from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Leilani Farha, who said to The Age “The criminalisation of human rights is deeply concerning violated international human rights law.” She continued “The proposed law goes further and is discriminatory – stopping people from engaging in life-sustaining activities, and penalising them because they are poor and have no place to live.” Many organisations have submitted official letters of opposition, including the Sacred Heart Mission, which stated in the letter published on its website “We are concerned that the amendment may lead to people being demonised and displaced, resulting in further marginalisation and exclusion”. Earlier this year, a group of Melbournians staged a protest outside Mayor Robert Doyle’s house in opposition to the law proposal. However, it is yet to be released whether the law has been passed.
The next time I saw John, I asked him if he has had any trouble with the police. All of the police officers I approached for an interview declined to talk to me. “No, not as yet,” John said. “It probably will happen but it hasn’t yet. But as long as you keep your nose clean and quiet they don’t really hassle you.” With police brutality out of the picture, I was able to focus on something else that John had mentioned: drug abuse.
Drug use and possession was receiving a lot of attention from the media at the time. Victorian police had recently begun a crack-down on drug use along Chapel St in Prahran, using sniffer dogs and random testing to find, and persecute, people on or with drugs. Twenty people had already been arrested at the time of writing. Superintendent Phillip Green promised the Herald Sun that “We will prosecute as long and as hard as we can.” While the news stories about the arrests mentioned club-goers using party drugs such as cocaine, ketamine, MDMA and marijuana, it did not mention the use of harder drugs, such as heroin, ice and speed that are more typically used by homeless people, nor the arrests of any homeless people. However, I couldn’t ignore the stereotype embedded in my mind of homeless people as drug users, and wondered if there was any correlation between drug use and homelessness.
Kevin, who spends nearly all day, every day on the street, believes that there is a direct link between homelessness and drug use. However, he is not homeless; Kevin is a jewellery-maker and his stall is located on the Bourke and Swanston St intersection. He has spent years working on the street, getting to know the locals, and witnessing their lives from an insider’s vantage point. He sees more than most do. According to Kevin, the cycle of homelessness and drug use has been going on for a long time. “Homelessness and particularly the begging in Melbourne is fundamentally caused by drug addiction,” he said. “95-99% of the people are on a heroin addiction. They raise between two-hundred to three-hundred dollars a day by begging on the street.” As we sat down to talk about this issue, many times Kevin nodded at acquaintances walking past. He seemed to know all types of people in the city, including those living on the street, and I assumed that his knowledge of the situation was rooted in stories from the streets.
Although I have read news articles about Melbourne’s drug problem, I felt uncomfortable making the assumption that homelessness and drug use are inextricably linked. Perhaps, like John’s story, the two are more commonly circumstantially linked. I had come across stories similar to John’s, such as the 2014 case when authorities found tenants of community housing in Fitzroy dealing ice from their apartments. The community house was consequently closed and its tenants were made homeless, sadly contradicting the purpose of community housing. Many studies, such as one conducted by the National Coalition for the Homeless, have found that although substance abuse is more prevalent among homeless people rather than in the general population, this information must be kept in context and should take consideration of the circumstances that led to the homelessness.
Cameron, a twenty-nine year old musician who has experienced homelessness in the past but now lives in rental accommodation, explained his perspective. “Backpackers [accommodation] and hostels have become the modern day debtor’s prison to those who can’t afford affordable housing on welfare, those of which who probably had previous mental health issues… You spend long enough in those scenarios [i.e. being homeless], the notion of a normal existence becomes further and further away. All the things these people consider luxuries are basics; having your own space, knowing that people won’t steal your food, sleeping well.” Cameron then showed how drug use can be linked to homelessness, saying “With the uncertainty of the situation it can become more of a temptation to alleviate anxiety by drug use, which further compounds mental health and poverty issues”.
Or as masters student Michael put it more bluntly, ‘If I was homeless I would spend my money on alcohol or drugs because it would be a horrible life.” Of the studies I researched about this issue, most came to the conclusion that drug use can be both a cause and result of homelessness. The chicken and the egg.
But my original question had only been partially answered. I learnt that there are a lot of services available for homeless people in Melbourne, that drug addiction and homelessness go hand in hand, and that some people feel safer sleeping on the streets than in community housing. Puzzle pieces that don’t quite fit together. But perhaps the fact that this equation doesn’t make sense is a clue in itself; it shows that this is a complex issue that has no easy answer. Maybe the numbers of people who are still homeless tell a story of a society that has many deep-seated problems. So, when there is no obvious way to eradicate homelessness, what can we do to mitigate it?
Cameron had an idea about why the system isn’t working. “The services that the government offers, like NewStart [which offers $527.60 per fortnight], don’t keep up with the cost of living. Once you pay your rent for the week, buy groceries, pay the bills, and pay for transport or whatever other necessary costs there are, you’re left with nothing. It’s fine that you’ve got accommodation, but if you need to buy new clothes or shoes for work, you just can’t afford it.” This is just one idea to mitigate homelessness: to raise government payments to be able to keep up with the cost of living, especially in the city. Another option would involve ensuring that developers create affordable accommodation through inclusionary zoning, which requires developers to make a proportion of new dwellings (5 or 10 per cent, for example) low-cost or affordable. This is practiced in South Australia with apparently successful results. Among the many issues that perpetuate homelessness, the affordability of permanent accommodation is crucial because, as I learned from Cameron, the living conditions in crisis housing or hostels is too far from normality to sustain a beneficial environment to live in comfortably.
Another way to reduce homelessness would involve stopping it before it starts, by offering more services for drug addiction, mental health issues and transitions from school to work. As I have learnt throughout the research for this article, once someone has fallen into the spiral of homelessness, it is extremely difficult to get out of it. This isn’t a simple problem, and there are no quick fixes. It requires support and dedication from the government and whatever services are available to ensure that from the moment of birth, we are all able to access the same opportunities and standards of living. Nobody deserves to be ignored. Nobody deserves to be homeless.