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Testing our assumptions... who are the 'homeless'?

Updated: Mar 14

The Australian Human Rights Commission states that 'Every night, roughly 1 in 200 Australian find themselves without a safe, secure or affordable place to sleep.'

So - who are these people and how did they end up as statistics?

I'd wager you already have some solid ideas, especially if you've been overly exposed to the pervasive idea that rough sleepers are drug addicts / gamblers / anti-socials who have made some BAD let's unpack the stats with a little detail, a little information...and a little storytelling.

One third of homeless people in Australia are under 18 years old.

Young people are more likely to become homeless because they often experience difficulties securing long-term accommodation and are particularly affected by poverty and the shortage of affordable housing in Australia. When faced with the need to leave their family home, young people often have little option but to end up on the streets.

And, ...Older People

Older Australians experience homelessness too. Seventeen per cent of homeless Australians are aged over 55 – that’s almost 18,000 people. People in this age group are also over represented among those living in temporary and insecure housing and at risk of homelessness.

There is a chronic shortage of age-appropriate and affordable housing for older people who have been homeless, and this problem is likely to grow worse with an ageing population placing increasing pressure on the aged care system and community services generally.

Family and domestic violence is a significant cause of homelessness among women. When family violence happens, it is generally women who flee rather than perpetrators who leave. Women might be with children in their care, or without children.

So why are older women in danger of being the new face of homelessness? It’s important to remember that these women aren’t born and raised homeless, they become homeless for a range of reasons – caring for children interrupts working lives, reduces income, lessens job options and shrinks superannuation. Divorce leaves these women worse off than their partners – especially when they are the ones literally carrying the baby. Adult children don’t necessarily support ageing parents as they might once have. Fleeing domestic violence and abuse is a fundamental driver of homelessness. These are all reasons that are specific to women who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

And, ...Generally

The causes of homelessness are numerous and complex. Homelessness can be caused by poverty, unemployment or by a shortage of affordable housing, or it can be triggered by family breakdown, mental illness, sexual assault, addiction, financial difficulty, gambling or social isolation.

And what about...

Persons with a disability have a greater exposure to the risk of homelessness than the general population.

For individuals whose disability is related to mental illness or brain injury, there is an increased likelihood of these individuals having higher relative homelessness risk.

Historically, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have experienced much higher rates of homelessness and have been over-represented among clients seeking homelessness and social housing services than non-Indigenous Australians. These higher rates of unstable housing relate to complex and interrelated factors including the lasting impacts of colonisation on Indigenous Australians, exposure to family violence, substance disorders, unemployment, low education levels and poor health—which are both contributors to, and outcomes of, insecure housing circumstances.

What's my point...?

Sometimes we see the chicken before the egg - 'Being homeless puts an individual at increased risk of many health problems including psychiatric illness, substance use, chronic disease, musculoskeletal disorders, skin and foot problems, poor oral health, and infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, hepatitis C and HIV infection'

...and when we stumble across a person experiencing homelessness who might display the issues above we assume that what we see is the cause, rather than the consequence.

Major factors...notes...and a little story..

In November 2019 ABC News reported that 'Adelaide is now the second-most-unaffordable capital city in the country for rental affordability, with experts pinning the blame on slow income growth and cost of living.'

Regional South Australia is still the most affordable place to rent in the state, but even there, someone on the Newstart allowance cannot afford to lease a single property.

In fact, figures show there is not one place in Australia where a Newstart recipient can rent easily....

So, the COST and AVAILABILITY of HOUSING really is a significant factor to consider when discussing homelessness.

Stable and secure housing is the primary platform for connection to economic and social community life. High housing costs limits people’s opportunities more than any other factor. Increasing rents and house prices mean people struggle to stay housed, are forced to live in sub-standard homes or live far from jobs and services. Excessive housing costs make it difficult for them to cover other basic living costs.

Homelessness is largely an issue because people cannot find safe, secure affordable housing. There are 37.5 homeless people per 10,000 population in South Australia according to Homelessness Australia. A Productivity Commission report on Government services in 2016 found that 35% of South Australians on low incomes were experiencing housing stress-

This leads us (or at least should) to challenge the notion that people who experience homelessness are unemployed...

Census data shows the rate of homelessness has been steadily increasing in recent years, but men and women sleeping rough on the street only tells part of the story.

Australia is experiencing a dramatic rise in the number of people working either part-time or full-time who are turning to homelessness services to get by.

In Australia, the number of employed people approaching homelessness services has increased by 25 per cent over four years to reach 21,938 in the 2017-18 financial year.

The greatest number of employed people seeking support last financial year were in Victoria (9,550), followed by New South Wales (5,705), Queensland (2,200), Western Australia (1,786) and South Australia (1,327).

Much of the problem boils down to the fact the cost of living, particularly rental prices, is outstripping wage growth.

Now add to this... the impact of the 2020 bush-fires, followed by a pandemic;

The 2020 bush-fires destroyed hundreds of homes across the country. The flow on impact has created supply issues for affordable housing, and it caused sharp increases in demand for social housing and exacerbated already long waiting lists. The experience of the recent fires demonstrate the level of disruption to families including people being forced to live in cars and other forms of temporary dwellings. In many areas affected by fire there were already only a very small proportion of rental properties.

Mission Australia reports ' Community services were at capacity or were unable to cope with the demand during the bush-fire season where they were able to lean on any reserves available or refer people to other services in different parts of the community that were not directly impacted by the fires. With COVID 19, the whole service system is strained. Therefore, careful planning is needed to ensure adaptation strategies are in place to support people in times of disaster and prevent people and families from entering a cycle of homelessness'.

So actually, my point is this...

You have no idea HOW MUCH I would LOVE if we, as a community, could leave all judgement aside when interacting with 'the homeless' not make any assumptions about how a person came to be where they are at right now, or limit our expectations about where they might be in the future !!

And that little story I eluded to before...?

Over the last few months, in the wee hours of the morning I have run past a chap (a very tall chap) who has been sleeping rough in the Port. EACH time I saw him, I sung out a cheery 'good morning!' - which he seemed to ignore; but not be perturbed by.

I did wonder if perhaps, like me, he was deaf...but I am a persistent little pain in the backside so I started to wave and sing out a little louder..and he continued to ignore me (which by-the-by is completely fine and acceptable!).

BUT....then he started to be in the same place at the same time on my morning runs, rather than scattered around the suburb...and the other day, for the FIRST time, he turned to me and smiled, looked down at his feet and then waved back! Cue happy dance - all the way home.

For me.. I can hope that this chap feels seen - in positive way - and he might understand that I am actually happy to see him each morning - and he might understand that someone cares about is morning, and him in general...which is both a LITTLE and a LOT !

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