We all need a roof in the rain

Everybody needs good neighbours

The streets surrounding my inner-city house have restricted parking hours. The maximum three-hour limit – designated between seven in the morning and eleven at night – is an attempt to encourage those who frequent the nearby pubs and restaurants to walk and not deprive locals of our on-the-street car spaces. Or perhaps it is a revenue raiser?

I spot one of my neighbours most evenings just after eight o’clock. He slowly circles the block in his battered station wagon until he finally settles on a spot. He gets out of the car, goes to the back of the wagon and opens up. The rear section of the car is crammed with boxes and bags stuffed full of his belongings: clothing, cooking gear, books and magazines, and bits and pieces he collects on the streets. He takes a large black plastic bag from the back of the car and empties its contents onto the road: lengths of reflective plastic sheeting, roughly cut to fit the front and side windows of the car. He opens the side doors of the car and carefully fits the reflective sheets to the windows, securing them with worn strips of gaffer tape. He returns to the back of the car, takes a seat on the tailgate and removes his shoes and socks. He sometimes gives the socks a good sniff before dipping them in what looks like a Tupperware container, half-filled with soapy water. From a length of wire strung across the back window of the car he removes a fresh pair of socks from a peg and also gives them a sniff before putting them on. He leaves his shoes in the back of the car, lifts the tailgate, locks the back window and tiptoes in his socks to the side of the car. He hops in, places the final piece of reflective sheeting against the front window and beds down for the night.

I sometimes see him again in the early mornings when I’m out for a run. He is usually wringing out his laundry from the night before, or sitting back on the tailgate rolling a cigarette. On other mornings he has already driven off, only to be seen a block or two away, where he absorbs his maximum three-hour claim on a parking space before moving on again, and again, several times throughout the day, one step ahead of the ever diligent parking inspector.

Close to Melbourne University and RMIT, my suburb retains its share of student houses, despite the rent increases of recent years. Students come and go from the small terraces with a regularity that surprises me. When they vacate a house, they leave a stack of household goods behind, which they or the next tenants dump in the street. I have spotted my station-wagon neighbour poring over items. Once an egg slicer, another morning an electric kettle (where would he plug it in?) that he placed to his ear and rattled, as if it held a secret. Just last week I saw him retrieve a Penguin paperback from a garbage bag. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and carefully wiped the front cover of the book, tucked it under his arm and trotted back to his car. He always trots, rather than walks. He is a man on a mission.

Continually on the move from street to street in his old bomb, he may have avoided any census; not statistically one of the homeless, but one story amongst 100 000 spread across Australia’s cities, suburbs, regional towns and the bush. His station wagon provides him with nightly shelter. But is it something more valuable than this? This may appear an unnecessary, even patronising question, but can a car be a home? No, it cannot, once we contemplate a person’s basic entitlement to human decency and a semblance of social equity. I have been reading about the poor and homeless, observing them, listening to them speak in public and chatting with some of them on the street. They have a lot to say, sometimes expressed with anger, frustration and confusion. One point is patently clear. A shelter is not a home, whether it is a few sheets of cardboard up a back lane in the shadow of a city church steeple, or a valued bed for the night provided by one of Melbourne’s welfare or charity organisations.

Let me be clear. The homeless people I have spoken with recently expressed only gratitude for the workers out on the streets each night feeding and assisting them with accommodation. The dedication of workers is remarkable. And yet, what homeless people are most desperately in need of has become increasingly unattainable. A home of their own. My occasional neighbour on the street spends most of his day keeping himself and his car in reasonable order. He tidies it, adds to it with decoration and moves it about like a truly mobile home. I believe he does it to maintain a sense of independence and dignity. He also has a home he is attached to. I doubt that he would give it up for shelter alone.

Some background

Following his election as prime minister in 2007, one of Kevin Rudd’s early statements was that his government would tackle the issue of homelessness in Australia. In the previous year the Commonwealth census had found the number of people living homeless in 2006 was 105 000. Four years after the initial Rudd pledge, the 2011 census concluded that the number of homeless had increased by eight per cent, despite genuine efforts to deal with the problem. Rudd had acted quickly after his election, establishing a reference group in early 2008 that held public hearings and consultations in the following months. It released an extensive discussion paper later in the year, The Road Home: A National Approach to Reducing Homelessness. The report highlighted a point that policymakers were well aware of, that homelessness is historically and deeply entrenched in Australia. It is also a complex issue, impacting on particular age, gender and cultural groups in varying ways.

The definition of homelessness itself is more complex than most of us would realise. This point was passionately articulated to an audience attending a forum on homelessness at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne in early 2013, when a former homeless man who advocates for people in the predicament he endured for many years explained the difference between being provided with shelter rather than a home: ‘I want to close my own door of a night. The door to my home, not someone else’s.’

The accepted ‘cultural’ definition of homelessness, widely in use in 2008, defined a homeless person as somebody without access to ‘the minimum accommodation that people have the right to expect in order to live according to the conventions of contemporary life’. While possessing humanistic integrity the definition was problematic, in that it could be defined in both a narrow and wide manner. It could advantage or disadvantage the homeless. Of itself, the definition could not define the range of experiences and conditions of homelessness.

But to be fair, this was not its intention. Categories of homelessness include primary homelessness, which includes people living on the street, seeking shelter in parks, abandoned buildings and other shadowy spaces; secondary homelessness, defined as people living in a transient state, reliant on emergency accommodation, including a friend’s couch, refuges and hostels; and tertiary homelessness, identifying people who may have a room in a boarding house, for instance, but no access to their own bathroom or kitchen, or a secure lease.

While the experiences of the homeless vary, and affect people in specific ways, what all advocates for the homeless know is that the negative knock-on effect of living on the street or in tenuous accommodation can be catastrophic in relation to health regimes, access to education and employment, and vulnerability to abuse. The problem is a difficult one, and solving it requires money, a lot of money. It is disheartening to know that as the number of homeless people in Australia rises, access to public housing decreases, rents continue to rise and the number of temporary beds evaporate as the inner suburbs of Australia’s major cities continue the march toward an early twenty-first century model of gentrification, dominated by bulldozers and private apartment developments.

The problem with numbers: hidden homelessness

Over the past decade the number of people living homeless across Australia has not fallen below 100 000. On census night, August 2006, 105 000 Australians were counted as homeless. Alarmingly, the number of homeless children had increased by 22 per cent in just five years (from 9941 in 2001 to 12 133 in 2006), while the number of homeless elderly grew by 36 per cent for 55-64 year-olds, and by 23 per cent for the over 65s. Although the national figure had risen only slightly between 2006 and 2011, in some locations the increases were dramatic. The rise of homelessness in Canberra, for example, was a staggering 70 per cent (from 29.3 persons per 10 000 in 2006 to 50 persons per 10 000 in 2011). The more recently homeless in the nation’s capital include retrenched public servants, as well as women made homeless due to relationship breakdown.

Mitigating cultural factors also caution against reading statistics without further research and analysis. For instance, in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, the conventional definition of homelessness itself makes little sense. For instance, both individuals and families move between communities and homes, while sleeping arrangements vary greatly. Homeless Indigenous people are unlikely to accept shelter and housing that does not consider their wider communal needs. As a result, while the numbers themselves are difficult to both quantify and qualify, homelessness amongst Indigenous communities is an endemic problem. What can be stated with some assurance is that the statistics for all homeless categories err on the side of conservatism. People slip through the net.

A further issue to be confronted is stereotyping. While we conjure images of the homeless seeking shelter under bridges and cardboard boxes, and in backstreets, and empty buildings and car parks (as some obviously do), it is the suburbs of Australia’s major cities that have experienced substantial rises in homelessness and overcrowding in recent years. Overcrowding itself is an extension of the homelessness problem, often a precursor to having no permanent shelter at all. A family of six sleeping in the one room due to their economic circumstances may escape the statistical net of being homeless, but it could not be said that they have a home. They are also in a vulnerable state: finding themselves on the street is a more likely future than improving their situation, and getting out of the single room into a flat or house.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) crunching of the 2011 census data uncovered an increase in homelessness within particular age groups and disadvantaged economic and cultural groups. It found that 60 per cent of Australia’s homeless were under the age of 35, and that 17 per cent were under the age of 10. The figures are alarming considering children and teenagers living on the street are more likely to come into contact with the police and the juvenile justice system. Once in the system it is difficult for a young person to extract themselves from a lifestyle dictated by state institutions on the one hand and raw survival instincts on the other. The young homeless also suffer exploitation in the form of sexual abuse, physical and psychological violence and exposure to illicit drugs and alcohol. Put simply, the longer young people are on the street the more likely it is that they will remain there, until they transgress and are either locked up or suffer serious health decline, including early death.

This is an excerpt from a Right Now essay series on homelessness. Read the full essay.

Tony Birch

Tony Birch is the author of Shadowboxing, Father’s Day, Blood, The Promise and Ghost River. He is currently research fellow in the Moondani Balluk Academic Centre at Victoria University.

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