Waking up to homelessness

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As a child living in a small Wimmera township, I was entirely ignorant of homelessness, despite jocular references to the prospect of 'sleeping under a barbed-wire fence.' I felt sorry for poor Louey Tong, the Chinese vegetable man, who lived alone in a very basic hut, but was not old enough to ask myself questions about loneliness, exile, and financial struggle.

Homeless people in sleeping bags patterned with Australian, UK and Greek flags. Cartoon by Chris JohnstonI don't know that mature people asked many questions, either: at least Louey had a roof. And people were more used to variations on the theme of home then: my family and I lived with my paternal grandparents for the first six years of my life.

My ignorance continued. When I was a young woman living in Melbourne, homelessness, then appearing to be a relatively minor social problem, was usually associated with men who were chronic drinkers. For them there was crisis care provided by either the Salvation Army or Ozanam House, named for the Blessed Frederic Ozanam, who was professor of foreign literature at the Sorbonne, but also a tireless worker for the poor, and founder of the Society of St Vincent de Paul.

How things have changed, and how much I have been forced to learn. Much learning took place in the London of the 1990s, when I observed people sleeping under bridges, on doorsteps, in cardboard boxes. How they survived the winters, I never knew, and I suppose many didn't. And since the beginning of Greece's financial crisis in 2008 and the influx of refugees from the Middle East, similar scenes can now be seen in Athens. Life in difficult times is usually easier in the provinces, but there are even some homeless people in Kalamata these days.

The causes of homelessness are many and varied, but the problem of unemployment is a major factor, and is often the trigger for others such as drug abuse, a decline in mental health, and a breakdown in relationships that, in better circumstances, do much to provide stability and security. Unfortunately, the depressing statistics related to homelessness seem only to increase.

Homelessness itself may not be a permanent condition, but the number of people regularly sleeping rough in Greater London has grown by 18 per cent in the past year, and it is estimated that there are at least 307,000 designated homeless people in the United Kingdom. Greek figures are not reliable, but it is thought that there are 40,000 homeless people in the country, with about 9000 trying to survive in Athens. Australian figures are also on the rise.

In London recently, I visited St James's, Piccadilly. A Christopher Wren church, it was destroyed in the Blitz of 1940, but then painstakingly restored during the years 1947-54. Tourists take in the details of the building and the magnificent organ and stained glass, but are also given a surprise in the shape of a large and permanent-looking notice inside the entrance to the church.

 

"For many participants, it cannot be an easy effort to make. Last year the worried family of one older woman wanted to sponsor her not to take part."

 

This welcomes the homeless to St James's, and states that they are free to sleep in the pews at the back; a polite request to sleep on the Piccadilly side is included. I don't know what happens in Australian cities, but on cold nights in Athens some Metro stations are left open.

Clearly a busy parish, St James's has market stalls in the paved forecourt to the church, and is currently advertising its Sleep Out night, 26 October. This is a direct effort at aiding the homeless, and is part of the West London Mission's program: sponsored sleepers spend the night in the church gardens, and are encouraged to raise 350 pounds per person.

In 2017 the St James's team raised 13,000 pounds as part of the Mission's total of 54,000. Participants admit that their experience is far from the hardship experienced by those who are forced to sleep out very regularly: they are entertained with music, have congenial company, and are given a free meal, while the site is very secure.

But Sleep Out is a consciousness-raising gesture, and an important one to make as winter encroaches. For many participants, it cannot be an easy effort to make. Last year the worried family of one older woman wanted to sponsor her not to take part. She defied them, and was eventually glad she had.

 

 

Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, homelessness, Greece, financial crisis

 

 

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Existing comments

‘Homelessness Australia’ states that “on Census night 2016 116,427 Australians were experiencing homelessness of some form. 58% were male, and 42% were female. The rate of homelessness (which takes into account population density) is 50 out of every 10,000 people —up five per cent from the 48 persons in 2011, and up on the 45 persons in 2006.” Such homeless in such a rich country as ours is unacceptable, so please consider voting for politicians who are keen to provide more social housing, not those who want to perpetuate the current system of negative gearing, which is just a tax dodge for the wealthy in a country where the wealth divide is increasing.
Grant Allen | 20 October 2018


The ABS states that 116,427 people are homeless in Australia with NSW and Qld topping the State lists. It is ironic that Dutton's portfolio spends $1,162,890,000 on brutal razor wire imprisonment of 1593 political prisoners on Manus and Nauru via Ferrovial, and yet has never shelled out a cent to help Australian homeless. Home affairs is an inapt name. Now if that money was diverted to where charity rightfully begins, at home, then there would be no homeless in this, the lucky country. The lucky country on the other hand, shells out approx $5.67m a year to subsidise and prop up Dutton's child care business, let alone what it shells out on his Home affairs ministerial salary, perks, travel, food, ill fitting suits, bad taste ties, overseas trips etc. Now that he has metaphorically cut the throat of a perfectly good PM and been responsible for the loss of the Liberal one seat majority in the lower house, one wonders what mischief he will dream up next. Whilst he once complained about Kevin 07s fringe (more hair spray than Dame Edna) his own forehead could use a revamp and he might get some advice from Warny. Manus Nauru aint cricket.
Frank Armstrong | 21 October 2018


I belong to a small social justice group initiated at ST Ann's in Seaford named Seaford Housing Action Coalition. Our group has been trying to be involved supporting homeless people within the Seaford/Frankston suburbs. Yesterday we discovered an elderly chap camped out by the Kananock creek in Seaford, we simply greeted him and he moved away. This morning at about 7.30 am I went back to see if was still there and he was folding his blankets to store away in a supermarket trolley. Tomorrow morning I will go back and speak to him and see what I/we might be able to do to assist him. I cannot just walk by!
Kevin Vaughan | 22 October 2018


Homelessness is the obverse side to our current 'boundless prosperity' coin. The recent by election in the prosperous inner city Sydney electorate of Wentworth never saw this problem raised once. The problem, its causes and ramifications are often put in the 'too hard' basket. If it were not for the activities of agencies like the St Vincent de Paul society the plight of the homeless in this country would be far worse. I cannot help but recall the Hebrew prophets of old in this context. They warned the society of their time it would be called to account for its gross social inequity. How many warnings do we ourselves need before we act? The writing is on the wall.
Edward Fido | 22 October 2018


Here in Canberra, many of the Christian Churches opened their halls to the homeless, but not the Catholics. Near to Civic there is a large empty office block, but the Government said that there was not enough showers to permit the homeless to sleep there! In Canberra much Governement Housing along Northbourne Avenue has been demolished, but little building of replacement housing for those displaced and those who couch surfed appears to have happened.
Gabrielle | 22 October 2018


The selishness of state and federal levels of government is borne out by their selling off of publish housing - even while elderly and others of economic disadvantage have nowhere to go - or if there is somewhere it is the boondocks compared to their current place of residence - familiar services and faces. Because what was once an area of social disadvantage has become highly sought after real estate. Stuff the people. Money is King. My suggestion - every house sold beyond $2 million dollars add a further 10% or 20% as a special housing tax to provide for the former public housing tenants/homeless.
Jim Kable | 22 October 2018


The Sleep Out in Edinburgh has been going for a couple of years and I agree it is a good way of raising awareness and funds. However as you say the causes and expressions of homelessness are many and varied: mental health issues and alcoholism amongst others. There is also the problem of groups of young men who beg on the streets with a dog (obviously sedated) and who take turns to sit forlornly. It is obviously not just about money but a sad indictment of our uncaring society. But how to help is a difficult question to answer.
Maggie | 22 October 2018


Gillian, I am in disbelief. I have always so enjoyed your writing and have commented on occasion. I never realized you came from Nhill. Louey Tong forms a vivid part of my early childhood memory. After his cart was bounced and damaged by local youths he continued to deliver his vegetables in cane baskets on a pole across his shoulders. I remember his call as he came to the ramp at the back of our house in Maddern St. I can now appreciate your writing all the more and associate it with the likes of John Shaw Nielson, Homer Reith and Gerald Murnane, all inspired by the beautiful Wimmera plains
Denis Quinn | 24 October 2018


Great article as usual. Homelessness in developed countries is a disgrace. I don't recall it being specifically discussed when I was young, but The Herald, then an evening paper, used to run an annual Blanket Appeal, presumably for people on inadequate pensions and/or sleeping rough in Melbourne.
Juliet | 25 October 2018


A small world! I was in Nhill for only four years, but they were clearly formative ones. I think Louey Tong showed great fortitude, and wish we had known more about his life.
Gillian | 26 October 2018


Gillian Bouras's highlighting of the plight of homelessness is good -- and necessary. England has always been short of houses, then we lost so many in WW2. Now there is much building of houses, but at selling prices which no nurse or school teacher can afford. They too are "homeless" in another sense.
Lady Wright | 31 October 2018


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