There is no definition of homelessness. The state of living without a place to sleep, wash or eat regularly perhaps? That doesn’t even begin to cover it. Open the dictionary and you won’t find an all encompassing term, instead stigmas and assumptions riddle the word.
Instead homelessness should be regarded as an experience, not something laboured to individuals as a mark of failure or exclusion. The reality of homelessness is made astoundingly worse by its perception.
In the face of their adversity instead of a helping hand all they receive is disdain, an avoided moment of eye contact, an eyeroll, or total ignorance.
On any given night 1 in 200 Australians are homeless, taking to the streets for reasons that tend to be simplified. It is often assumed that those experiencing homelessness are a product of their own misgivings, a gambler, a cheat, a perpetrator not a victim. From walking past someone on the street outstretched arms silently begging for help the well-intended stranger lumps assumptions, building a story so colourful to reason this person’s place on the street.
In a 2014 Price Waterhouse Cooper survey when questioned about homelessness, stereotypes and stigma swayed perception away from reality and into misunderstanding. The picture of homelessness from the comfortable perspective of those questioned understood the homeless as a street dweller, mainly male, without a home at the fault of their own mistakes. Substance abuse, poor decision making and mental health issues the cause.
The facts illuminate a different picture, most often homelessness is living in severe overcrowding, swamped by those who can’t afford a place of their own. Being homeless is paying by the week in a boarding house or spreading yourself between friend’s houses indefinitely. Women are affected by homelessness too, often young, often with children. And there is far less Indigenous Australians homeless than those questioned believed. Read the results for yourself here.
Those in the midst of homelessness are victims of family or domestic violence, ill health, financial misfortune, inappropriate living arrangements, or the housing crisis. In the face of their adversity instead of a helping hand all they receive is disdain, an avoided moment of eye contact, an eyeroll, or total ignorance.
Homelessness doesn’t exist solely on the streets, living in inadequate housing, jumping from short term leases or couch surfing or living in boarding housing or caravan parks; all of these living situations qualify as homeless.
Whether a patch of pavement with a four pawed friend as your only companion or restlessly taking hold of a new couch each night has worn your friendships thin, being without a home is excruciatingly isolating.
Mission Australia CEO Catherine Yeoman says “It is unacceptable in 21st century Australia, that there are more than 44,000 children and young people homeless on any given night,” adding we shouldn’t have the amount of homeless youth in Australia today that we do.
15% of those sleeping rough are aged 19-24 and without education and occupation pathways youth experiencing homelessness are the greatest at risk of sleeping rough long term. The cost of youth homelessness outweighs the government’s entire homeless services allocation, totalling $626 million a year.
How do people get out homelessness? Insistence to get a job, rent a place, get a life, is ineffectual to pull someone out of such a dark space. Whether a patch of pavement with a four pawed friend as your only companion or restlessly taking hold of a new couch each night has worn your friendships thin, being without a home is excruciatingly isolating.
Hopelessness, depression, worthlessness and anxiety are ill-minded accompaniments to those living homeless, a constant barrier to getting out. The solution is not simple, nor is it the responsibility of the government, a charity or a thoughtful church initiative. Education offers a ladder into stability, a map to a happier existence, but first we must acknowledge homeless people. More than just numbers on study, faceless individuals when considering survey questions of shadowed gazes on the street; those experiencing homelessness count.
Homelessness Awareness Week runs 1-7 August, hashtag #homlessnesscounts to join the conversation.