My fortunate life has afforded me many opportunities, but few have been as sobering or educational as this year’s Vinnie’s CEO Sleepout where, for just one night, I was given a small glimpse of how close we can all be to homelessness.
Place called home
I’ve always championed the role of property investors. Landlords help house Australians – it’s just a fact proved by the numbers.
70 per cent of dwellings built or bought each year are purchased by owner occupiers while Government – State and Federal collectively – deliver just 2 per cent of all housing. That leaves about 28 per cent of accommodation provided by everyday Aussie investors.
While I realise that property investors are motivated by securing their own financial future, we do this through buying shelter that will ultimately accommodate others, including many who can’t afford a house of their own.
But my drive to get involved with the Vinnies CEO Sleepout is about being a better corporate citizen by supporting some fellow Australians in a time of need.
I set off for this year’s event at Brisbane’s Powerhouse, but what I’ve come away with is far more than I could have imagined.
The Brisbane event was held in the concrete forecourt of the Powerhouse in New Farm, about 50 metres from the river – it was chilly to say the least! St Vincent De Paul also choose to host it on the shortest day of the year to help participants to fully appreciate what it’s like trying to sleep while exposed to the raw elements.
Upon arrival, Vinnies created an immersive event by using roleplay to drive home the experience.
As I entered the lower tier of the Powerhouse forecourt, there was a registration area where I was handed a script informing me that, for the evening, I will be playing the role of a young lady called Jane. Jane is an unemployed, intellectually-challenged, single mum with a five-year-old child. Jane was facing eviction from basic accommodation due to rental arears. Centrelink cut her benefits because she’d missed job-placement appointments after her driver’s licence had been cancelled. It seems Jane had parked illegally while dropping her daughter at care and couldn’t afford the fine she copped.
As Jane, I then worked my way through a series of tables, or ‘stations’ that represented different government departments where I could find assistance. A trip to ‘Centrelink’ brought no joy – they seemed to have no compassion for the fact that 5 years of failed job placement attempts was as a result of my intellectual disability and that the loss of my driver’s licence also made it very difficult to get to appointments.
A visit to the ‘Department of Transport’ was also a fail as it wasn’t their concern my empty pockets didn’t permit me to pay the parking fine.
I found myself, as Jane, pin balling between departments becoming increasingly depressed, helpless and facing homelessness. Ultimately, I was left with no-one who could help me… except Vinnies.
The role-play experience showed me that, while there are government departments designed to assist, there’s a huge gap in social services that a whole heap of people fall in to, and when they have nowhere else to go, they go to Vinnies.
After a cup of homemade soup for dinner and listening to a couple of speeches, it was then time to find my piece of cardboard (aka ‘mattress’) for the night. Yes, I came prepared of course – I had the warm sleeping bag, three jumpers, two pair of socks and thermal underwear. I was hardly roughing it in terms of insulation from the cold, unlike many others in real life who are without a roof.
But what was tougher to take than the cold was sleeping on a rock-hard floor. I challenge all readers to try lying on a timber or concrete floor for 10 minutes to see how it feels. Then try it for about eight hours!
Throughout the night I was constantly rolling over to alleviate the soreness – and I still couldn’t sleep. By the time the sun started poking its head up I was exhausted and aching all over. You can imagine how productive I was at work the next day.
And, that was for just one night!
Some sobering statistics
There’s 116,000 people who are homeless in our country. That’s equivalent to a city the size of Mackay, Bendigo or Ballarat.
If the homeless were a city, they’d be the 18th largest in Australia.
While these numbers are shocking, what left me most stunned was my own preconceptions about the causes of homelessness and how close we all are to it.
Like many Aussies, I’m embarrassed to say, I’d fallen into the trap of believing the solution is simple. If those without a home could get a job, and make a steady wage, and just apply some strategies around budgeting and expectations, then surely, we could take care of this issue.
How wrong I was.
Vinnies revealed the causes of homelessness to be complex. Too often, we see someone doing it tough on the street and create our own narrative on how they got there.
People can become homeless because they’ve lost loved ones and become overwhelmed by life and its challenges.
Others have gone through significant financial hardship and can’t cope, while many just never had a good start in life with little to no parental help and limited education.
There are also an alarming number of woman and children who are homeless as tragic victims of domestic violence. This group are forced out of their homes and don’t have an alternative – Vinnies is often the final hope.
Just building more houses isn’t going to fix the problem.
It’s too easy for us with secure employment, a loving family and supportive social circle to believe we have the answers.
And, in truth, many of us also skate surprisingly close to the brink of homelessness when you take a proper look at the issue.
The blanket of good luck
The experience has caused me to reflect on how homelessness can literally happen to anybody.
According to Vinnies, one in 8 Australians will at some stage be homeless.
While that’s a damning stat, I know more than eight Australians and none of them are homeless – but I pondered a little deeper and came up with startling realisations.
While I didn’t realise it when I was a young child, our family of six came scarily close to homelessness.
My father was in the army and we were fortunate to live in a different part of Australia every 2 or 3 years. It wasn’t until my late teens that I realised that my parents had several years of significant financial stress. If it wasn’t for the defence force providing a roof over our head, I suspect we would have all been homeless.
When I thought deeper about others in my life and the common causes of homelessness, it just struck me that, in the blink of an eye, how any of us could be one of those 116,000 people looking for shelter each night.
It often isn’t bad planning – it can be bad luck, or a lack of support, an inability to cope, a loss of purpose, or all of the above.
The answers to homelessness seem neither simple nor obvious. A combination of factors could, at least, help ease some of the difficulties.
More funding and resources would be great, but if that’s all it took we could solve the issue with an open chequebook. In reality, more money would only solve part of the issue.
What may be more important is a change in our attitudes about people sleeping rough, and why our own empathy and action can go a long way towards alleviating problems.
There’s a whole bunch of education we can do to help prevent people becoming homeless.
Domestic violence, for example, is just one cause where building a heap of houses won’t fix the root cause. When someone finds the strength to move out of a caustic environment, even if they’ve got somewhere to go, their life is still a mess. Even if we had a gazillion dollars and we built places all around the country to house those in need, that won’t put their life back together. When they wake up in the morning, what then? How will they find a job, feed themselves, and educate their kids?
The real solution is dealing with the causes of homelessness. For example, educate everyday citizens about domestic violence and its signs. Have the courage to stand up and say, ‘That’s not right!’. The more we do our part to identify and prevent the problem, the less we’ll hopefully see of mums and kids without a home.
So, in the end, I believe we just need to think of this – homelessness is not a choice. It’s as cause of as a series of misadventures that grow beyond one’s control.
Check your attitude and look for ways to help rather than making a judgement call when you see someone doing it tough while you’re on your way to warm lunch.
Because there, but for the trick of fate, goes you!
Simon Pressley is Managing Director of Propertyology, a Brisbane-based buyers agency and (national) property market research firm. If you’d like to join Simon in supporting St Vincent De Paul, you can make a donation here.