Every homeless person has their own story

Picture a homeless person. What comes to mind? A dirty man with wild hair wearing ragged clothing, sleeping on a park bench? There are people walking past him, perhaps trying to pretend he’s not there or otherwise judging him, thinking he should get a job or if they give him any money, he’ll just spend it on drugs or alcohol.

Now think about someone much like yourself. They’ve been sleeping on their friend’s couch for a few months after their position at work became redundant and they couldn’t keep up with rent payments anymore. This isn’t the first friend they’ve stayed with either; they don’t want to be too much of a burden. They’ve got a roof over their head for now, but no security.

This person is homeless too. The reality is that this is a much more common display of homelessness than the stereotype.

Couch surfing is the most common form of homelessness, but not the most obvious. Source: ABC

Couch surfing is the most common form of homelessness, but not the most obvious. Source: ABC

At the 2011 census, there was close to 23,000 people experiencing homelessness in Victoria. Only 5% of these people are sleeping rough and would fit the first image. The vast majority of homeless people in Victoria are sleeping temporarily with friends or relatives, staying in boarding houses, staying in crisis or temporary accommodation, or in severely over-crowded dwellings that are below liveable standard.

Marika Fengler is the Communications Coordinator for Scared Heart Mission in St Kilda, an organisation that works with people who are homeless and living in poverty to help them participate more fully in society. Fengler says people who aren’t sleeping rough are the “hidden homeless”.

“They’re not the people you see on the street, but they’re still homeless and suffering. Sleeping rough is only a very small proportion,” Fengler says. “There’s a lot more people who are couch surfing, or staying in temporary dwellings. I met with some people the other day, and one woman was talking about how she knows someone who is sleeping in a tent in the back of someone’s house,

“And then there’s people who are living in squats and sub-standard rooming houses, who are classified as homeless as they’re below the standard and don’t have the security of a lease; you can be kicked out at any time. Some of these people have to share a bathroom with 20 other people.”

Marika says another misconception is that some of people think homeless people choose this lifestyle.

“Well I can tell you what, from the people I meet, no one is choosing to be in that situation at all.”

Scared Heart Mission provides a free breakfast and lunch to over 400 people a day. Pictured: Marika Fengler. Picture: Grace Kelly

Scared Heart Mission provides a free breakfast and lunch to over 400 people a day. Pictured: Marika Fengler. Picture: Grace Kelly

A wide range of factors, most of which are out of the person’s control, can leave someone homeless. Many homeless people are suffering from things like severe mental health issues that may stem from something like an abusive and traumatic childhood, long-term unemployment and family breakdowns and violence (family violence is still the number one contributor to homelessness). Marika says all these issues both cause and are exacerbated by homelessness.

“They might have monetary issues, combined with a drug and alcohol issue, because they’ve dealt with all this crap early on in life, so they’re trying to cope by turning to drugs or drinking.

“And then they’ve got mental health issues, which might be existing or develop because they’ve lived such a harsh and stressful life. They’ve got all these problems plus unstable housing. If you don’t have a stable base, a place to call home and feel safe, how are you meant to deal with all these other issues as well?” she says.

Communications manager for Melbourne City Mission, Phil Buckley, says that anyone could find themselves in set of circumstances that could lead to homelessness. He says the homeless are often unfairly seen negatively because of the situation they are in.

“I meet these people and I’ve been totally proved wrong. First appearances can sadly be massively deceptive. You find out they have big aspirations like any of us. But for whatever reason, marriage or family breakdown, mental health problems, drug and alcohol abuse, they’ve fallen on hard times,” Buckley says. “There’s truth to the saying, ‘you’re only every one mistake away from homelessness’. You hear the stories of riches to rags, and through no fault of their own, these people end up on the street.

“It just hasn’t gone their way and it can happen very, very quickly.”

Buckley says many people are ashamed to admit that they are homeless, even though the circumstances that led to them becoming homeless were more often than not beyond their control.

As part of a study, Scared Heart Mission conducted in-depth interviews with homeless people. One of them was Malcolm, 42, who lives in a rooming house that he describes as a “jail outside of jail”. He says being homeless separates you from society.

“You don’t live the same as other people. You don’t have a home to go to. You don’t have something to do with yourself like a job … your hygiene becomes poor because you don’t have access to washing facilities. Your diet, your eating, becomes affected because you don’t have access to food the same as you would if you have your own home.

“A lot of people if they find out you’ve been homeless shy away from that and they think you belong to some other group, not to them, cause it’s never happened to them… A lot of people don’t realise that actually it doesn’t take much for anyone to end up that way,” Malcolm says.

The solution to homeless in Victoria is not simple. Homelessness is a complex, multi-faceted issue, with different causes and effects from person to person. This means there is no one-size-fits-all fix, however there are definite strategies that could alleviate the problem.

A more consolidated and individualised approach to homelessness services would help provide people with a more stable life. Between November 2009 and October 2012, the Scared Heart Mission ran an initiative called ‘Journey to Social Inclusion’ (J2SI). This is a program that uses its investment in a more targeted way than existing homelessness services.

Fengler says it costs between $30,000-$35,000 a year for each person who is long term homeless, due to the various services they are using. J2SI took the same amount of money, but used it in an individualised and long-term approach, which saw 85% of the 40 participants maintain housing over the three years.

“That’s what we see as the approach of helping people out of long-term homelessness; it really needs a targeted, individualised and coordinated approach,” Fengler says.

Scared Heart Mission wants to run this three-year program again, but this time expanding it to help 60 people at a time. Fengler says they’ve streamlined the program to cost only $22,000 per person per year, which is much less than the amount currently being spent.

More affordable housing is also fundamental. Sarah Toohey from the Council to Homeless Persons says Victoria’s unaffordable housing market and lack of public and social housing is “creating a housing crunch that’s exacerbating homelessness”.

“We’ve got a critical shortage of affordable private rental housing and a critical shortage of public housing. If we don’t have homes to get people into, then we’re going to have a hard time ending homelessness,” Toohey says.

In the lead up to the 2014 Victorian state election, the CHP have developed an election platform, outlining what they’d like to see from the government, which includes an affordable housing strategy to increase the supply of low income homes. Toohey says that given the “huge” rate of construction across Victoria, more affordable housing and public housing should be built.

“What could and should be happening, and what I’d like to see candidates commit to, is inclusionary zoning where a proportion of all those properties being built are dedicated to public and social housing.”

Homelessness in Victoria is not a new issue and is not going away anytime soon, considering the continually increasing numbers of people experiencing homelessness across the state. There needs to be proper intervention. Buckley says that this isn’t an issue we can just sweep under the carpet anymore.

“Every morning when I’m walking the city streets to go to work, I see homeless people on the streets. But let’s not forget that Melbourne for the fourth year in a row has been voted the World’s Most Liveable City! But on our doorstep, we’ve got this massive problem. It’s not very reflective; Victoria has got 23,000 homeless people. It’s not the most liveable city for them.”