We all need a roof in the rain

By Tony Birch | 23 Jul 13

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.

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.

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.

I want to close my own door of a night. The door to my home, not someone else’s.

'Void' by Nebula - ink on paper - 2013

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.

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.

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 9,941 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 percent 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.

The predominant face of the homeless has been male, the middle-aged or elder “wino”, whom is both the recipient of our pity and a figure of danger. The foundation of modern western society was built on an alliance between government and the nuclear family, each headed by a patriarchal leader, with the “man of the house” keeping hearth and home in order at the bequest of the state. The homeless man had been traditionally regarded as both a failure and a threat to this partnership and became the target of government policy, much of it punitive. This approach denied a reality that women and their children have always been a significant group amongst the homeless, although governments of the past have been shy when it comes to accepting this national shame. In 2011, 44 per cent of the homeless were women, many of them supporting children. Many of the factors underpinning their status – poverty, unemployment and the excessive cost of decent housing – in some way mirror the experience of other homeless groups. But this is not the whole story.

Women on the run from violent men sometimes go “underground”; forced to live in hiding to protect themselves and their children, they become invisible.

The dominant indicator relative to homelessness amongst women is domestic violence. Women are most often forced to leave the family home with their children because it has become a place of danger. When they flee the home, often in dramatic and unplanned circumstances, women have few resources, financial or social, to draw on. And as the number of women’s refuges and other forms of shelter fall far short of what is needed, the same women suffer the insecurity and further danger of the street. As with other categories of the homeless, the actual number of homeless women is most likely higher than current estimates. Women on the run from violent men sometimes go “underground”; forced to live in hiding to protect themselves and their children, they become invisible.

We expect the poor to be perpetually miserable. Consciously or not, it supports our sense of comfort and superiority.

Cold nights, hot soup

When I was a kid, on the way home from school I would join the “breadline” outside the House of Welcome on Brunswick Street, Fitzroy. The usual handout, provided by the nuns of the Daughters of Charity, was two loaves of bread, a packet of fruit buns and occasionally a bag of bacon bones, the basic ingredient for a decent pea and ham soup. I don’t remember feeling embarrassment or shame about accepting charity, most likely because many of my mates and cousins had lined up alongside me (and I loved the fruit buns). I grew up under the later years of Bob Menzies’ “Long Boom”, the supposed glory days of the postwar welfare state. And yet, the breadline and other forms of age-old charity remained a necessity for those living poor or sleeping rough. While the state was tasked with providing for all, religious-based charities filled a cavernous gap between the haves and have-nots. And so it continues in the twenty-first century.

Melbourne’s “soup kitchens”, supported by a fleet of vans, provides hundreds of thousands of meals for Melbourne’s poor and homeless each year. The local van that begins its nightly run near the church in which I served as an altar boy feeds over 300 people each night on its visits to several locations dotted around the inner city. The van arrives at the Fitzroy location around eight in the evening. On the night I visited the street it was cold, still, and fortunately for those who would be sleeping out that night, there was no rain. People began to gather in the street around 15 minutes before the van was due. Some came in twos and threes. Others were alone. The waiting crowd included the elderly, many of them women, younger men, teenage boys, and a couple of families with small children in tow. A few were warmly dressed against the weather. Most though were lacking the extra layer needed to protect them against a winter night. A young girl circling a street pole was wearing nothing but a thin summer dress.

I sat down alongside a man on the front steps of the church. He was wearing a beanie on his head, a heavy parka and no shoes or socks. He asked me if I had a spare cigarette.

“Sorry, mate.  I don’t smoke.”

“Who fucken does these days?” He grinned before looking me up and down.  “You chasing a feed?”

“No. I’m just watching,” I answered, suddenly feeling like an idiot.

“I reckon there’d be better things to look at,” he laughed. “You should get yourself a TV.”

Two vans arrived just as the town hall clock struck eight. As the sets of headlights moved toward the church people stood up, gathered their bags and blankets and loosely grouped under a street light. The distribution of the food that night was an organised affair. One of the buses shuttled several volunteers, most of them young undergraduate types, wearing reflective vests. The van couriering the volunteers also handed out the coffee and soup from the rear of the van. The second van dispensed the meals, including hot food like pies and pasties. Sandwiches, rolls and cakes were also provided. While a few of those waiting in line were clearly anxious to get a meal, the workers treated them with calmness and respect.

Some didn’t eat the food immediately. They placed their handout in the green supermarket bags that many carried, along with the rest of their belongings, and headed off. Others settled along the bluestone gutters, tucked quickly into a pie or pasty and returned for seconds. The girl in the summer dress skipped along the street with a sausage roll in one hand and a drink in the other. She was playing with a boy a little younger than herself, possibly her brother. He was sporting a wild mullet. As romantic as it may seem, in that moment I was sure that they not only appeared happy, they werehappy. This is not a (purposely) patronising remark. We expect the poor to be perpetually miserable. Consciously or not, it supports our sense of comfort and superiority. But the poor and homeless will never be understood if they are viewed only in our own image. Their lives are as complex as ours, most likely more so. And they are entitled to far more than our pity and “generosity”.

My barefoot companion returned with a steaming meat pie. He offered to share it. “You want some of this?”

“No thanks, I’ve eaten.”

“See that fella?” he said, pointing to a lanky kid waiting in line, wearing an ankle-length raincoat and an unstrapped bicycle helmet on his head. I had seen him around the streets before, always with the helmet on, no bike in sight.

“That fella, he’s a multi-millionaire.”

He raised a cheeky eyebrow in my direction, as if he’d just revealed a state secret.

“He goes from van to van, every night, loads up, and then goes back to his place. I haven’t seen it but they say it’s a fucken mansion.” He searched the crowd with what appeared to be mild disgust. “Half of them here are the same.” He held up the remains of his pie. “They just don’t want to pay for any of this. That’s why they’re rich.”

He brushed pastry crumbs away from his parka, struggled to his feet and headed back to the van.

If the gathering in front of me consisted of millionaires they’d donned some great disguises, including matted hair, a few cuts and bruises and bone-shivering poses, all for a sandwich and some pumpkin soup in a styrene cup. It’s not surprising and quite common for this urban myth to be reiterated time and time again, particularly in affluent societies like Australia. One explanation for the extremes of social and economic opportunity is that the better off are quite accepting of inequality, regardless of statements to the contrary. It’s not an explanation that goes down well in the “lucky country”. Another explanation – the escape clause – is that too many people do not try hard enough to pull themselves up by the proverbial bootstraps. Or worse still, they are old-fashioned cadgers, ripping the rest of us off. When the homeless themselves tell tales supporting this view we should not be surprised. As awkwardly as it may be expressed, the reiteration of this standard myth by a homeless man is, I believe, his means of stating “I’m not the bludger. It’s the fella over there in the bike helmet.”

This Prince and the Pauper analogy – with a bitter twist – also provides a narrative supporting another age-old myth: that society can, and should, compartmentalise the “deserving” from the “undeserving” poor. From the rise of philanthropy in the early nineteenth century both charity organisations and governments were at pains to differentiate between the “able-bodied” and “idle”, between “gratitude” and “immorality”. Thankfully, the charities and welfare bodies running the soup kitchens do not hold to arbitrary and prejudicial categories such as these. Not so for the rest of us, with the attack on single parents a recent example of welfare bigotry. (Recent changes to the single parenting payment mean that when the youngest child turns eight, the single parent is switched to New Start, a significantly lower income.)

Anyone who fronts up to the soup kitchen is provided with a meal, no questions asked, in an effort to ensure that the homeless are fed free of any intrusion that could drive them away. An increasing number of backpackers have been frequenting Melbourne’s soup kitchens, which is a challenge for the service providers. While they are not turned away, workers at the soup kitchens direct backpackers to organisations such as the Hare Krishna’s café on Swanston Street.

I was about to leave for home when my companion returned a second time, nursing several bread rolls and a sandwich. He quickly offered an explanation.

“None of this for me. I eat like a sparrow. It’s for the possums. I feed them.”


“Used to be the Fitzroy Gardens, until one fella got bashed there. I used to bed there. No more,” he shrugged, as if the threat of violence was an acceptable hazard. He looked toward the soup vans as they drove off. The crowd slowly dispersed. I wanted to say something to him but couldn’t think of anything that would not sound dumb. He helped me out.

“You take care, fella.  And stay warm.”

I called out to him, “You too, mate,” as he walked away.

Help Me - Nebula - 2013

Ban the beggars

The poor and homeless have been told that they shouldn’t beg. But if they happen to, spending the money on “luxury” goods, such as a drink, is itself criminal.

The Federal Government’s New Start allowance is the primary financial assistance package available to the unemployed. It currently amounts to $497.00 per fortnight. Additional payments, such as rent assistance and support for those with dependents, are also available. The increases are modest when considered alongside the generous middleclass welfare support provided to Australia’s ubiquitous “working families”. It is difficult for an unemployed person, once on the street, to re-establish a permanent self-contained roof over their head, leading to thousands of people remaining on the street. In an attempt to overcome the situation and supplement a meagre income, some turn to begging.

The City of Melbourne, specifically the Lord Mayor, Robert Doyle, is tired of the presence of beggars on the streets and has devised a policy to deal with it, with the support of the Salvation Army and police magistrates. Doyle stated recently that “[i]t’s no crime to be down on your luck, or homeless, or mentally ill, or suffering from drug or alcohol abuse.” Begging though is another matter. While the anti-begging program devised by the City is, in its initial stages, diversionary, the program has the real prospect of criminalising an otherwise social and economic problem. The Doyle plan would see beggars brought before the court where they would face a compulsory diversion program, involving health checks, training and assistance in finding work.  Doyle added a warning footnote to the benevolent tone of his plan:

If they just go straight back on the street, or they refuse to do any of the diversion, then eventually they are going to find themselves on that track where it may even be jail.”

Doyle claimed that the money beggars made was more likely to be spent on drugs and alcohol, while others begging on the street were professional “scammers”, although he provided no proof of this practice beyond the anecdotal. How a homeless person begging on the street spends the money collected is an issue of concern for Doyle and those of us who can afford to buy our own cigarettes, or grog, or an expensive meal at a nice restaurant. The poor and homeless have been told that they shouldn’t beg. But if they happen to, spending the money on “luxury” goods, such as a drink, is itself criminal.

I’m sure that knowledge of this moral nitpicking is behind some of the cardboard and texta placards beggars display to skeptical passers-by that read, “desperate to get home to my daughter in Queensland” and other such pleas. While walking through the city last week I noticed a teenager holding a sign that read “I HAVE NO EXCUSE – I’M ONLY HOMELESS”. Concluding that homelessness alone might not be a story to pull at the heartstrings, the boy had turned to wit.

It’s important to concede that the Salvation Army, who works closely with the homeless, is driven to get people off the street because it is ultimately in their best interest. A direct link to further harm, discussed above, is irrefutable. And yet, the policy agreed to with the City of Melbourne could exacerbate the problem of begging if those caught in the net become subject to a legal framework. While begging, according to the Mayor, creates a sense of indignity, for some of those who choose to beg, the practice gives them the independence that shelters and handouts cannot provide. A Swanston Street beggar, unable to find suitable accommodation on his disability pension, interviewed for a response to the policy, made a point clear enough for any of us to understand: “I don’t like doing it. It’s hard. But it’s the last hope I have.”

I give to a beggar who had his own spot out the front of a café on a shopping strip near my house. I would occasionally give him some small change as I walked by, dropped into a cap sitting on the ground. We would say hello to each other and nothing more. One morning I was walking my two dogs by the café, when my big dog, Ella, an angry Staffordshire Terrier, broke away from me and took off up a lane, probably chasing a stray cat. My loving older dog, Tully, stayed by my side, disgusted with the stupidity of the Staffie. In order to sprint after Ella I needed someone to take care of Tully. I handed the beggar the dog lead, “Look after her please, mate.” I ran after Ella, caught her and brought her back to the street. Tully was sitting on the beggar’s knee. He was doting on the dog. I thanked him and offered him a five-dollar note. He refused it.

“No, mate. You were in trouble there. I was just helping out.”

“You were,” I answered. “You helped me. So please take the money. I would have been stuffed without you.”

He shrugged his shoulders awkwardly and took the money.

The next time I saw him we had a long conversation over a Melbourne obsession. Football. He has as much football knowledge as anyone I know. He not only remembers the outcome of the games of the week, he provides a more insightful analysis than an entire media commentary team, absent of the vacuous clichés (“hard-ball gets”, “a good brand of footy” etc.). I now make a point of catching up with him once a week to discuss my team’s woes and our hopes for the coming week. Before I end our chat I dig into my pocket, bring out a gold coin and drop it into his cap. I’m no longer sure what the transaction represents, if it facilitates or demeans our acquaintance. This worries me. The more I come to know him the more concerned I feel about giving him money, although his financial situation has not improved and he provides me with something that did not previously exist between us – human connection and affiliation.