Learning from the homeless


Homeless Persons' Week Cartoon

To be homeless would be one of our worst nightmares. To have to ask ourselves where we would sleep tonight, to have nothing on which to cook, no postal address, no answer to give to people who ask us where we live, nowhere to keep our bodies and our possessions safe, no confidence that we can keep our family together — we just don’t want to go there.

So Homeless Persons' Week, celebrated this week, creeps up on us like a cane toad. We don’t want to know about it, nor even think about it.

Yet many people in our society are homeless, and the threat of having nowhere to live hangs over even more people.  Over forty percent of prisoners can expect to be homeless when they leave jail, for example. And many vulnerable young people have no stable home life, live in abusive situations, are isolated or suffer from mental illness. So it is decent to keep homeless people in mind.

Homeless Persons' Week is even more topical this year because the young people in risk of homelessness are precisely those who under new government proposals will lose benefits, will be constrained to make forty applications each month to seek work and will be obliged to do community work. Charity groups are already reporting an increase in young people living on the streets. These restrictions on support mean that more young people will join them. Although there may be arguments for this punitive regime in the case of the relatively small group of people who simply do not want to work, its application to include vulnerable young people will be harmful.  It is easy to see why this should be so.

If you are young, living precariously on the edge of homelessness you have little space to reflect on your life. You must focus on survival. Nor do you have the stability you need in order to benefit from education or work. The things that you need to keep you connected with society – work, a bank account, a driving license – are beyond your reach. You are never far from losing your health, your self-confidence and your self-esteem. 

It will not help if you are burdened with filling in forms to apply for jobs that do not exist and required to meet obligations you are not capable of, and then  are stigmatised as work-shy, bludgers, leaners and not lifters, and the other rhetorical tropes that so often serve in the place of  a properly thought-out policy.  

Homelessness does not affect only individuals. It also touches society. The costs of homelessness will be paid in devastated lives and more hospital wards, police cells and gaol beds.  Governments neglect their responsibility to people and to society if they do not enable housing for those who need it, encourage people to make connections with society, and help them find work. The economic logic that seeks to cut spending on the unemployed and on job creation will in the longer term lead to increased Government spending to deal with the consequences that are measured in damaged lives.

Homelessness reminds us that people who matter are treated as if they do not matter. That is why it makes us shudder. The Budget and changes to welfare suggest that people do not matter, defining them by only one aspect of their lives. Their worth is defined by their economic contribution. As a result not only the few who choose not to seek work or education are stigmatised, but also the vast majority who cannot do so because of disadvantage or because  there is no work. Those fortunate enough to be able to work are praised cheaply as if their employment were a mark of virtue, not of good fortune.

There is much more to people than their ability to work. When we come to know disadvantaged people well we are often impressed as much by their resilience as by their great need and their fragility. Despite all the difficulties in their lives they keep on desiring something more. When they find people to stay with them and governments that values them for who they are, and not simply for their social usefulness, they may be able to learn and to find employment. Ensuring that people have homes is a government’s duty.  Homelessness is a failure of the social imagination.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, homeless, Homelessness Work, Federal Budget, disadvantage, welfare



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Existing comments

There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about. The same applies to ignoring the silent voice of the homeless. As a result of the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X0gA2mxbjSY thousands of buskers around the world are pairing up with the homeless, creatively helping their voices be now heard, paid attention, listened to, and talked about, in the form of a song.
Annoying Orange | 06 August 2014

I'm writing this comment while sitting next to a seemingly homeless man - who is also in front of a computer as I am at the local library. About 2 weeks ago I had forgotten my new burgundy shopping trolley at this library, and had asked lost property, had anyone found it and handed it in. Sixty seconds ago I went to re-log on for another hour, as my hour had finished. When I sat down again to start again the hour issued me. I noticed a burgundy trolley in-between the seemingly homeless man and myself. I am happy he is finding it useful.
A silent exchange | 06 August 2014

Being without a place to call home is bad. So what must it be like to be persecuted in your country of birth, and unable to find another country where you will be accepted.
Robert Liddy | 07 August 2014

"There is much more to people than their ability to work. When we come to know disadvantaged people well we are often impressed as much by their resilience as by their great need and their fragility. Despite all the difficulties in their lives they keep on desiring something more. When they find people to stay with them ...", 'staying with' is critical, then, there is the possibility to thrive and contribute. It might be inestimable social not paid work contribution. That is, social capital contribution not measured in GDP. I know well: 5 years on road in freezing econovan, I met amazing inspiring resilient women, (including graduates like me),10 years in social housing.
Sandra | 07 August 2014

Amazed to learn from this article that 40% of prisoners have no relatives to care for or help them on release from jail. I wonder what the figure is for all the homeless young living on the street. My understanding from Fr Chris Riley's experience is that some 90% of his charges have homes which are, however, toxic and the abused children feel safer on the streets. Perhaps these child abusing parents/families should be made to bear some of the financial cost to society, either by direct contributions from their earnings or curtailment of any taxpayer funded support they themselves receive!
john frawley | 07 August 2014

It is beyond me how people like our PM and Treasurer and most of the rest of Cabinet can keep going with their tirade. PM Howard tried the same and had to moderate his plans to stay in power. The Liberals have always tried the same tactics, which is OK is you are the working privileged, or have plenty of money behind you, again because you are well educated. Let us hope there is an end to this madness soon. compared with many countries we have no crisis of any sort except the created ones as you mentioned in your article.
Clem SCHAPER | 07 August 2014

Ah, but Joe Hockey had his Mitt Romney moment. Leaner's earn less than $120,000.00 and get some government assistance. Learn to be a lifter.
Name | 08 August 2014

I agree with you entirely
Maria Prestinenzi | 14 August 2014

@Name, As far as i can tell, you are encouraging all Australian's to be corrupt enough to steal from the poor. So they can stop being leaner's? As in truth, these leaner's built your house, plumbed your water and grew your food as well as look after your children. Who is the true leaner?
Odinist | 17 August 2014


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