A few home truths about homelessness
I have been a homelessness advocate for around nine years now. I have often complained that the homelessness sector fails to engage with those of us who have had a lived experience.
This failure to engage with the sector’s clientele was confirmed by a recent P.A.T.H. Report for the Centre for Building Better Community.
When I was experiencing homelessness, I often felt that the people “helping” me had no understanding of what I was going through and didn’t really care. In my time working within the sector, I have realised that this lack of engagement is systemic. Workers just do what their job involves, which is easier to do if they don’t spend time engaging or empathising with their clients.
As someone who chose to work in the sector in the hope of ensuring that homelessness was less traumatic for those who followed me, this realisation has become even more traumatic than the experience of homelessness.
The lack of engagement with people experiencing homelessness is at the root of the problems. These are the people that the government pays organisations to help and protect. But because the sector fails to engage with them, their problems become incidental, instead of top-priority.
I have heard a very senior manager in the sector say, “we can’t end homelessness, or we’ll be unemployed.” Sadly, that’s how it looks from the inside. A group of people more interested in keeping a roof over their own heads than they are in finding a roof for the actual homeless people – the people taxpayers pay them to help – to sleep under.
I’ve seen very senior administrators reduce the asking number of submissions by three quarters because they were scared if they asked for what they needed, they’d get nothing at all. But where does that leave us?
Short answer: it has brought us to the point where the best advice I can give to somebody new to the experience of homelessness in Victoria is to get a drug habit. How messed up is that?
This system cannot be allowed to continue.
Nobody in this country should lose their life (whether by murder or suicide) because a taxpayer-funded housing organisation didn’t do its job. Nobody should ever be put in a position where they are forced to live in abject poverty or commit federal fraud. This, and so much more, has got to stop.
Homelessness seems to be the last social service area where people with a lived experience aren’t automatically consulted, let alone embedded throughout the system. If you’ve broken the law and are in custody, you have more rights than somebody who can’t afford to keep a roof over their heads.
This suggests the individual is still blamed for their experience of homelessness despite the housing affordability crisis, the pandemic, inflation, the war in the Ukraine, people having to escape domestic violence, interest rate rises, the nightmare that is Centrelink, negative gearing, the gender pay gap, record immigration numbers, etc. – all things outside of the individual’s fault and control.
The individual blame is bad enough when it comes from people who don’t know any different, but when it comes from those educated and paid to know better and provide care, then it needs to change.
I’m currently working with a couple of amazing women to start the first organisation of people with a lived experience of homelessness for people who are experiencing it – Turning Hope Into Action (THIA). We are aiming to be the peak body for people with a lived or living experience of homelessness in Victoria so that we finally have representation and an independent voice. Through the set-up process we’ve been unable to find evidence that the Specialist Homelessness Sector has ever had a review. Homelessness has, but not the sector itself.
Even as somebody who has made it their business to know homelessness, I have no idea who’s who in this zoo. I have no idea how much taxpayer money goes into it, or how efficiency is measured. There is no co-ordination, there are obvious gaps, as well as avoidable duplications.
The whole sector needs a review and a restructure. It needs to be brought into line with every other social service area where people with a lived experience are at the centre and get to have a say in the decisions that impact their lives.
We cannot continue with a system that keeps you trapped in it, and too often traumatises or kills the people it should be helping. We can’t change this on our own though, we need help.
Please, contact your local MP. Urge them to call for a review of the homelessness sector, to call for improved efficiency and transparency, and to ensure that lived experience is at the core of the restructured sector. •