A story of homelessness

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If you were to walk along picturesque Acland Street, every once in a while you would come across a homeless person. Yesterday, while sitting enjoying a coffee in the early evening, this writer witnessed a man poking his head in the rubbish bin, fishing out discarded food. How, we might ask, does this happen in modern-day Australia?

The Sacred Heart Mission’s Communications Coordinator, Marika Fengler, set up an interview with St Kilda News with a person suffering from these issues. St Kilda News met and interviewed Betty. Betty is a well-dressed lady and appears hardly any different from any other citizen. She responds in the interview with apparent candour, at one point becoming emotional.

What becomes clear during the interview is that her situation is less than satisfactory and has been this way for some time. She seems to have become disillusioned with a system that is seemingly inadequate, explaining that one housing situation where she was staying was actually traumatic, and that she has spent her superannuation on medical fees for her daughter, and that she survives solely on centre-link benefits. Betty believes that in a few weeks’ time she will again be living in her car.

How unique this situation is this writer is unsure of, though what is clear is that Betty challenges preconceived stereotypes that one might have of a homeless person. Firstly, she is female; also, she doesn’t have any substance abuse issues. All Betty wants to do is settle into a house and live.

A study conducted by the Sacred Heart Mission found that long-term homeless people had far greater instances of trauma and childhood trauma in their back-grounds than those who have never experienced homelessness. The report states that “Trauma was identified as a precipitant to becoming homeless, and exposure to trauma escalated upon becoming homeless. Frequency of traumatic events increased significantly as participants continue to experience long periods of homelessness”.

A pilot ran by the Sacred Heart Mission – Journey to social inclusion – offered forty people intensive support of three years, with a tailored program to address the underlying causes of their long-term homelessness. Sacred Heart Mission CEO Cathy Humphrey said that “After three years, the evidence confirms that given the right level of support, people can maintain their housing with more than double (85%) the number of J2SI participants housed compared to those (41%) who use the current system.”

In addition, the evidence shows that the intensive support can also reduce demands on expensive health, justice and welfare systems.

Ms Humphrey says that “it is clear that the experience of long-term homelessness, including the exposure to traumatic events, impacts on people’s sense of safety and connection with people and their ability to develop and maintain social relationships. This means that recovery can be a slow, complex and difficult journey,” and that “this issue is really complex. The long-term homeless are struggling, and their situations will worsen if we don’t get a commitment from government to invest in programs that address the underlying causes of homelessness, rather than the current crisis orientated system that keeps people trapped in the cycle”.

St Kilda News has followed up on Betty’s plight. Marika Fengler has explained that Betty accepted an “offer of ongoing transitional housing. This is somewhere where she can stay until she is given an Office of Housing property. The property is rebated at 25% of her income.”

By Matthew Barnett

Photo-by-Matthew-Barnett Street-art-by-Banksy

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