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Armed with surfboards, fishing tackle, Christmas cake and the detritus of the ham and turkey we set off for the annual family pilgrimage to Point Lonsdale, there to enjoy carefree days in the sun. My first mission was a walk to my Mecca–the ocean beach. Roaming the dunes I happened upon two huddled bodies. A hasty look revealed two dishevelled old men. Distracted by the magic of the ocean I quickly forgot them. Later while visiting the main street these men approached me for money. Warily. I emptied my pockets. At home the family were watching horrific images of the earthquake at the World Heritage Site, Arg-e-Bam, Iran. Initially the Iranian Government estimated that 15,000 residents had been killed, in reality the figure exceeded 41,000.

At first we spoke of how powerful nature can be and how often our little problems are a distraction. Family discussions turned to the paucity of Australian government aid. Umbrage was taken at one emergency expert who asked why rescuers still travel to earthquakes, when local planning would be far more effective. Another said that irrational fears of epidemics were adding to survivors’ trauma and wasting resources. Yet another claimed that the bombing of Iraq had caused the earthquake. Equally unpopular was the viewpoint that relief responses were merely a tool for Western diplomacy.

What really stirred the family were the figures. It was not just the knowledge that two city hospitals had collapsed crushing staff and patients but that 70 per cent of the houses in Bam had been destroyed. There were scenes of intense grief with people weeping next to the deceased. They were in a city without telephones, electricity or water supplies, with night temperatures below freezing. In contrast, we were between two houses, with warm beds, food in each fridge and convivial companionship.

Recounting my meeting with the men in the sand dunes led to similar recollections. During the pre-Christmas shopping rush my daughter and I had been amazed at the number of beggars who approached us. Her response is to march those willing to the local McDonald’s to buy them a meal or to the supermarket for supplies. Few accept. Are their needs genuine? For many of us this is an uneasy issue, best ignored.

There is no particular stereotype of a homeless person, although the government’s policy of ‘de-institutionalising’ those with mental illnesses would appear to be a contributing factor. The 1998 The Down and Out In Sydney report found that 75 per cent of homeless people have at least one mental disorder: 49 per cent of men and 15 per cent of women have an alcohol use disorder: 36 per cent have a drug use disorder: 33 per cent have a mood disorder and 93 per cent reported at least one experience of extreme trauma in their lives. In an affluent country like Australia it is tempting to think that there is no real poverty and that Professor R. F. Henderson’s poverty reports of the 70s are a thing of the past. In truth there are thousands of homeless in our midst. Thousands more live in sub-standard accommodation and two million live below the poverty line.

In 1999 a landmark report by Chris Chamberlain for the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Counting the Homeless: Implications for Policy Development, estimated that on census night 1996 there were 20,579 people in impoverished dwellings or sleeping out in Australia. When he added these figures to those in boarding houses (23,299), those in Supported Accommodation Assistance Program (12,926) and those staying with friends and relatives (48,500) a total of 105,304 people were estimated to be homeless on that one night. Seventy per cent of these had been without secure accommodation for six months, including many who had been homeless for more than a year. Are there more? What of those who do not engage with the welfare system, who live on the streets, in parks or on the beach? Is our system able to count the hidden homeless?

In May 2000 the Commonwealth Government launched a National Homelessness Strategy aimed at providing a ‘holistic and strategic approach’. In November 2003, Mark Colvin for ABC’s PM reported: ‘Here in the lucky country there are still too many Australians with no luck at all. Figures released by the ABS show that on the night of the 2001 Census 100,000 people had no home. That was a mere 5,000 lower than the previous census.’

Welfare agencies assisted 2.4 million people in 2002, a 12 per cent increase on the previous two years. The Burdekin Report estimated that 70,000 children and young people were homeless in 1989. Yet Justin Healey, editor of The Homeless, Issues in Society (2002) suggests that every year across the country over 100,000 young people experience homelessness. He also suggests that there are 250,000 people aged 60 and over who are homeless or at risk of homelessness with war veterans accounting for some 10 per cent of this group.

In The Enabling State, People before Democracy (2001), Mark Latham stated, ‘We are now living in an era of relentless insecurity. Few parts of society can claim that the welfare state has given them peace of mind. They are looking for new ways to manage economic uncertainty. At the same time some parts of society are being left behind. This is the great paradox of globalisation; while the economy operates globally, the problems of poverty have become concentrated locally.’

Could this be equally true in Kew as in Collingwood? In Point Lonsdale as in Altona? After returning to Melbourne in January I walked past three people sleeping rough on the pavement in upmarket Carlton.

Latham feels that welfare policy is the modern equivalent of the state-aid debate. ‘It has become a sacred cow—full of warm rhetoric, good intention and noble tradition. The only problem is that it is not getting results.’

In this election year we should ask all political parties to spell out practical solutions to homelessness, both here and abroad. Internationally we could look to Medicins Sans Frontieres as a model for structuring overseas aid. We could extend Australia’s involvement in Habitat for Humanity, the world’s largest not-for-profit home builder. At home we need equally innovative policies. In this country we have no excuses for the problem of homelessness.

Jane Mayo Carolan is a Melbourne historian.

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