The cold wind that blows on the homeless chills us all



National Homelessness Week comes around each year. And each time it is an embarrassment. Rightly so.

Mural of homeless familyWe pride ourselves that we are a respectful society, but there is no greater sign of disrespect than to allow people to be homeless. Nothing eats into parents' self-respect more than to wonder where they and their family will sleep each night. Too many Australians are in that situation. Too many people sleep on the streets; too many families sleep in their cars.

In many of our cities this year homeless people are more visible than usual. They put their bedding on the footpaths, congregate at night in public squares, and attract more media. Some people demand that they be 'moved on'; others insist that accommodation be found for them; governments and municipal councils talk about solutions.

Many reasons are given for their greater visibility. The most obvious is that many more people are homeless. Experts point to the shortage of housing, particularly of public housing, and of affordable rental housing. This leaves people who lose their jobs or fall ill more vulnerable to homelessness.

The increase in the number of homeless people is yet another marker of a society in which the economy does not serve the needs of ordinary people, let alone the urgent needs of the most disadvantaged.

Some people who live on the streets also say that they avoid temporary shared accommodation because there they are vulnerable to robbery and violence. Many young people have never had a home worthy of the name. At the earliest opportunity they have left violent or neglectful homes.

They also lack the social skills and opportunities to learn or to work. So they find themselves homeless in the city, at risk of exploitation and addiction.

People who are homeless are also beginning to organise. They come together at night for protection, and demand long-term housing as a right, not as a privilege. This encourages their self-respect and pride and counteracts the shame homelessness can bring. They have learned that invisibility nurtures neglect, whereas being seen and heard may open the way to change.


"The increase in the number of homeless people is yet another marker of a society in which the economy does not serve the needs of ordinary people, let alone the urgent needs of the most disadvantaged."


Whatever the reasons, it is not the visibility of homeless people that is the problem, but their homelessness. But to address it requires that we go beyond identifying it. As a problem it can seem intractable and be put into the too-hard bin. If instead, though, we see the faces of people who are homeless, as this week encourages us to do, it all becomes simple. In a wealthy society like ours people who are homeless have a right to shelter for themselves and their families. It is essential for their self-respect. So homelessness is a scandal and must not be allowed to continue.

To address the conditions that contribute to people being homeless is more complex. But that, too, begins with seeing homeless people as people, and then asking them how they came to be on the streets and what forces them to stay there. Their answers will be various. They may speak of a violent and neglected childhood, of mental illness, of the lack of opportunity to learn or work, of addiction and ill fortune, of the lack of emergency accommodation and of money.

These afflictions are part of the lives of many vulnerable young people. That is why homelessness is often a reality, and always a threatening possibility, in their lives. For that threat to recede they need support in connecting with society. And of course a necessary support to staying connected is secure and lasting access to shelter. It is heartbreaking, intolerable, to think of our young children or grandchildren having nowhere to call home.

It is easy to walk past people who are evidently homeless, to avoid their eyes and eventually not to notice them. It is a little harder to drop money in their tin as we pass by. We may find it a little harder still to stop and chat, interested to hear their story and tell our own. But only when we do that do we see them as people like ourselves and ask how things can change for them and us.

What must change in us is our tolerance of an economic and political ideology that assumes it is all right for the humanity of the vulnerable and ill to be neglected in order to protect the entitlements of the wealthy. The cold winds that blow unchecked under the bridges where the homeless sleep have their source in an arctic economic world that puts profit over people.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

This week is National Homelessness Week.

Main image: Valerie Everett, Flickr

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, homelessness



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Existing comments

How come most the homeless are either Alcoholics, Drug addicts or in general people without self respect ? I believe with all the political correctness and false teaching and letting confusion come between Moral and ethics, good and evil as a old fashioned , untimely illusion stand, now wonder there are less and less people around to help your neighbour.
Christian Weishaupt | 02 August 2016

As I read Andrew's article and comment on it, I am in a very cold room of my home. And I am very fortunate that I am not outside in the cold like so many unfortunate Australians! Andrew's article is a plea for our society to show more humanity and compassion for the very poor amongst us. Sadly, for our society, we have just been through an election campaign when the government parties promoted an economic policy which was based on taking from the poor and giving to the rich - based on the assumption that the "trickle down" economic actually works. We all know that it does not work - it just makes the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. many years ago in South Australia, the Don Dunstan government established the SA Housing Trust (SAHT) to ensure that the poor could have access to housing. In 2016, the current SA Government has been selling off the housing owned by Housing SA , the organisation that succeeded the SAHT. If the super wealthy individuals and corporations paid their fair share of tax, there would be enough to ensure that all poor Australians could have access to affordable shelter.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 04 August 2016

I was shocked to read in The Australian that each gold medal won at Rio has cost Australia over $9 million. how many home less could be accommodated permanently for this kind of money? Where are our values?
maria fatarella | 04 August 2016

"our tolerance of an economic and political ideology ......" A quote that caused a stir for a while was:- "Everywhere good people do good things, and bad people do bad things. But to get good people to do bad things, you need religion". Of course it is not just religion that should be cited. Any ideology taken to extremes can result in untold harm. The motto "From each according their ability; to each according to their needs", was practiced by the early Christians, with love, and attracted millions of followers for hundreds of years. When used with force by Communists it committed great harm and failed. Neo-liberalism seems headed along the same downward path.
Robert Liddy | 04 August 2016

The other dimension is the hidden homelessness where people are being housed by already overloaded families. This works for a while, for people who are lucky enough to have an extended family, but when elderly parents die that safety net disappears. Underemployment as well as unemployment is also a huge factor that is not often discussed in relation to homelessness statistics. I taught children from many families who were 'camping' with others or who had others sharing with them, and that was ten years ago before things were as bad economically as they are now. It would be interesting to ask how many people reading this article have people living with them, or alternatively, spare rooms that could be used for someone else.
Pauline Small | 04 August 2016

Oh dear first response is to blame the victim.Maybe Christian if you respectfully talked with the people who are sleeping on our streets you might understand why they have problems. Those children who are living without loving care, shuffled through the so called child protection system may well wind up homeless on the day they turn 18. People who are retrenched from work and who have no families to assist and who cannot afford rent and bond on a miserly centrelink payment- where do they go? So many reasons why people become homeless but so shamefull that a country as rich and politically stable as Australia ignores their plight. Will the Prime Minister Sleep rough this year in sympathy with the homeless as he has done before or will he do something to remedy this growing problem?
Pamela | 04 August 2016

It is interesting that this article has had only one response from the many readers of Eureka Street. I wonder why? Last evening I shared a meal with a 58 year old unemployed chap in the community hall in Seaford. This was the first time we had met. He told me that he had spent 12 months living rough along the Seaford foreshore bush land. The police had discovered him and moved him along! Our unofficial national anthem, waltzing Matilda, is about the life of an unemployed, homeless man chased by a landowner with the assistance of 3 police men.
Kevin Vaughan | 04 August 2016

Christian Weishaupt: "How come most the homeless are either Alcoholics, Drug addicts or in general people without self respect ?"... Which came first? Did becoming homeless drive them to hopelessness? Or did a critical lack of just a little support produce the helplessness that lost them their home? Or is every case different, and needs to viewed individually?
Robert Liddy | 04 August 2016

You have itemised 'a violent and neglected childhood, mental illness, and the lack of opportunity to learn and work" as causes of homelessness. The results of these you correctly identify as "addiction and ill fortune" in some of the homeless, These are almost certainly consequences rather than prime drivers. The "lack of emergency accommodation and money" identify failed community response to homelessness. I will stick my silly old neck out again expecting the fall of the guillotine by saying that people who discard their leftovers and the possessions they don't want in the public domain should be responsible for cleaning up the mess that leaves behind. The rest of society should not have to fund or actively give time to the clean up, when those responsible are free to continue on their merry ways. Shock! Horror! Trumpeting extremism yet again! Parents and families are responsible for 90% of youth living on the streets according to Fr Chris Riley. Governments of all complexions, in the wake of the Whitlam government's Richmond recommendations which removed many of the mentally ill from care, are largely responsible for some poor mentally ill souls wandering homeless on the streets. Failures to provide educational opportunity and in consequence, work, are unforgiveable consequences of appalling parenting in the main. There are, of course, a small percentage of homeless people who have themselves to blame for various other reasons or who have fallen victim of unpredictable events such as natural disaster and workplace failure. The great sadness of homelessness is that many so afflicted are often victims of those who brought them into this world and of heartless governments, in both cases victims of self interest or economic priority. Families of the homeless and government should rightly and justly be charged with the responsibility for the mess they have created. Meanwhile , particularly for the young perhaps as a community we should take on the responsibility of providing residential accommodation with educational, relationship counselling and job training facilities rather than simply the provision of meals, cast off clothing and bedding.
john frawley | 04 August 2016

This: "The cold winds that blow unchecked under the bridges where the homeless sleep have their source in an arctic economic world that puts profit over people." This gives me the chills. Not comfortable, but greatly needed.
RB Hizon | 04 August 2016

Great article. As a society we need to be much more engaged with these people and this issue. I have recently become aware of the enormous cost of housing in Melbourne, an with high immigration levels and higher eduction going gang-busters thesis not going to change. Surely we have the resources to build enough public housing of decent and non-stigmatising sort and able to cope wth singles as well as families. And then resource the Churches as society`s agents to respectfully focus on helping each individual and their specific issues. We can do this!
Eugene | 04 August 2016

Why as I read Andrew's article did the images of the late Father Brian Stoney of Melbourne/Sydney(died 2008 age 67 approx) and Abbe Pierre of Paris (died 2007 age 94)? Both left the security and discipline of a Catholic religious order - Fr Stoney, the Jesuits, and Abbe Pierre, the Capuchins) but remained ordained priests; both suffered poor health; both were controversial (Brian quietly, Pierre very publicly); both worked tirelessly for and with the homeless. They were pastors who smelt of the sheep they shared their lives with.
Uncle Pat | 04 August 2016

Thanks to "Uncle Pat" for this comment. As a young "Capuchin alumni" in Fitzroy in the late 70s I worked with Brian Stoney, Peter Hart and other mentors in a bold project called Leicester Street. The house we rented provided emergency accommodation for men who were living around us on the streets. It was adventurous, unpredictable and grounded me in the Gospel more than anything else. Brian and Peter have both passed away and now in my latter years I hope my life choices witness to a community that honours the most vulnerable among us and advocates for a just society.
Tony Robertson | 04 August 2016

Christian might be interested to know that the main reason women are homeless is domestic violence and the main reason men are homeless is mental health issues. The stereotype of the homeless as alcoholic and drug ridden is a long way from the truth. Not surprising that domestic violence and mental illness might also affect your sense of self respect!
Matteo | 04 August 2016

A great article; and, it'll be even greater if we commit to lessening the problem. E.g. maybe donate to Brisbane Homelessness Service Collaborative (BHSC). Please check their website, they're making a difference.
Dr Marty Rice | 05 August 2016

There was a time when Australia was considered the Sweden of the Southern hemisphere. That is no longer the case. What had happened to us?! I'm no longer proud of this country, in which I was privileged to be born, raised and educated. Homelessness was a feature of the Great Depression, and WW2. Why NOW?
Louw | 06 August 2016


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