Visible homeless just 'tip of the iceberg'

Archbishop talks homelessness with BSL Chief and Anglicare volunteer

Advocate for the homeless Jason Russell spent 10 years on the streets

PHOTO: Chris Shearer

By Chris Shearer

October 15 2017The faces of the ‘homelessness crisis’, which dominated news headlines throughout Melbourne in the early part of 2017, are “only the tip of the iceberg”, says the executive director of the Brotherhood of St Laurence.

Tony Nicholson, who was speaking at the most recent ‘Conversations with the Archbishop’ on 20 September, along with Archbishop Philip Freier and former homeless man and now homeless advocate Jason Russell, said the ‘rough sleepers’ in central Melbourne were only the most visible of a far greater phenomenon.

Around 90% of homeless people, he said, found themselves residing in crisis centres, caravan parks, their cars, or even temporarily ‘couch-surfing’ with friends or family.

“I think it’s important to understand that those folk who find themselves without shelter, who are literally on the street, are just the tip of the iceberg of the phenomenon of homelessness in our society,” Mr Nicholson told conversation moderator and former religious editor for The Age, Barney Zwartz.

Typically, he said, rough sleeping was a “relatively short period of some weeks rather than months”.

“That’s not to say it’s not dangerous or degrading. It is.”

Mr Russell, a former decorated firefighter who spent around a decade on the streets battling mental illness and drug addiction, agreed, giving intimate insight into his own experiences.

“What a lot of people don’t take into account, [is that] it is terrifying but it is crushingly embarrassing,” he told the audience at Federation Square’s Deakin Edge. “To put your hand up and say ‘I’m homeless’, it’s like saying you’re broken or damaged.”

He said he was furious at the recent negative media coverage, with Archbishop Freier adding that it was “unhelpful” to typecast those who were struggling.

“I think there is a significant issue about the kind of vision of society we have, which of course our Christian faith informs,” Dr Freier said. “We want to see people flourish with the best of their nature and be able to contribute to society.”

“There’s an old saying ‘there for but the grace of God I go’. Things can change adversely for anyone. If we have a society where you fall under some sort of line and then we really ramp up the hostility, project criminality additionally onto you, I just think that’s not the kind of society we owe each other.”

Mr Nicholson, who is a special advisor to the State Government on homelessness and is due to submit his final report on the issue by the end of October, said one of the major drivers of homelessness in Australia today was family violence.

“If we were able to eliminate family violence overnight, you would eliminate about 40% of homelessness,” he said. “That’s how significant it is.”

Another significant driver was poor unemployment support. Mr Nicholson noted that assistance from Centrelink would amount to about $47 per day for Newstart recipients. Around 200,000 people are unemployed in Victoria alone, with 40,000 of those long-term unemployed. This funnelled into the third major driver: housing costs. According to Mr Nicholson, only .5% of all lettings on the private rental market could be afforded by a single person on benefits.

“The problem that a lot of single people are facing is that they’ve got to make choices between whether they find accommodation and pay for it or they meet the other necessities of life like feeding themselves,” he said. “This is how bad it’s got in Australia.”   

He argued that reform was therefore needed at the Commonwealth level around welfare support, but hinted his report to the State Government could include such options as:

  • better homeless support services and infrastructure in the state’s suburbs and country towns, where two thirds of the homeless population reside.
  • Ensuring ‘allied service providers’ understand and are alert to homelessness, so that people are not discharged from hospital or custody without shelter.
  • Ensuring better coordination between homeless support services and individuals or groups who wish to contribute.

“It’s important that the voluntary effort of so many generous people is harnessed in a productive way working with the more professional-based services, adding reach and depth to those services,” he said, adding that well-meaning individuals can “simply sustain people in street life”.

“Our objective needs to be to get people out of that situation, not sustain them.”

Archbishop Freier broadly agreed, applauding the work of Anglican agencies working with the homeless and more localised programs running out of parishes, but recognising the need to integrate services as part of a broader solution.

“We’re very keen that they be integrated with some of our more professional services through agencies like the Brotherhood of St Laurence or Anglicare because that taps into some of the resources that can give pathways to people,” he said.

“I think as a Christian community, we are very conscious that we want to be a part of the solution to this but we know there are structural solutions that really are the [responsibility of the] whole of society, as well as the generous or impactful actions of individuals.”

In a final thought, Mr Russell urged the audience to do what they could to overcome the invisibility many homeless people feel they face.

“The least I would do is take five seconds to get down to eye level and say hello,” he said. “And who knows? That little glimmer of being seen might start them on the road to recovery or out of homelessness.”