Homelessness: A Day in the Life

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4 August 2019
By Cassandra Barrett, Team Leader – Healthy Communities

Homelessness can take many forms. The image that many of us hold tends to be of street-based homelessness – and while this is the form that is most visible to the public, the true extent of homelessness goes much further; in fact, street-based homelessness or ‘rough sleeping’ represents just 7% of the total homeless population.

More common but ‘hidden’ forms of homelessness include living in dwellings that are severely overcrowded, in crisis or refuge accommodation, moving from one temporary accommodation to another, ‘couch-surfing’ and sleeping in cars.

Children and young people are particularly impacted by homelessness. Of the 116,427 Australians who were homeless on the night of the 2016 Census, 27,680 – around a quarter - were aged 12 – 24.

What does a typical day look like for someone who is homeless? Here is one young person’s story.

I wake. My back is killing me; I’ve been sleeping on my mate’s couch all week and it’s not particularly comfortable. I’m grateful that I have a warm place to sleep, at least - I know there are others who aren’t so fortunate.

Today is the last day that I can stay here. My friend’s housemate is understandably a bit sick of me sleeping in their living room. My friend is polite about it but I can tell things are strained. I usually find that couch-surfing has a 4 day max; any longer tends to stretch people’s patience.

I start to pack up my stuff – it doesn’t take long, there isn’t much. Most of my things are in a friend’s storage cube that he lets me use for free. I sold some of the bigger items on Gumtree but I’m holding on to a few things in the hopes that I’ll have a longer-term arrangement sorted out soon.

I enjoy a hot shower, and wash some clothes in the sink as best I can. I’m not sure when my next shower will be – hopefully only a couple of days. There are some mobile shower vans around which are great, but they’re not always local and the queues can be long. It’s really embarrassing to know that I smell sometimes - I hate it. I do my best but washing powder and deodorant are luxuries I can’t always afford.

I say goodbye to my mate and head out. I fill my Thermos with boiling water before I go. I keep a stash of cup noodles in the car for cheap and easy meals. Hot water is surprisingly hard to find. It’s hard to prepare meals without access to a kitchen. There are food pantries around that supply frozen meals, but without a microwave it can be tricky. It’s also not easy to shop on a budget when you haven’t got a place to live – buying single serves is expensive, yet it’s hard to buy food in bulk when you have no place to store it.

I head to the local library. I hang out here a lot – I’m young enough that I can pass as a student rather than someone who doesn’t have anywhere else to go. It’s nice to feel purposeful, and the staff are always friendly. Plus it’s warm and there’s a bathroom. People wouldn’t necessarily know by looking at me that I don’t have a stable address. There’s this misconception that visible or street-based homelessness is the only form, when actually there are far more who are in unstable housing or couch surfing like myself.

While I’m here I use the library computer to see if any affordable share house opportunities have magically popped up. No luck. Sometimes I house-sit which helps a lot (and I’m good at it, I can give a cat its medication like a pro and I’ve never had a houseplant die on my watch!)  but I feel a bit guilty that I’m not fully honest with the people I house-sit for. I just say it’s a nice chance to have a break from my housemates for a week. I’m pretty sure if I told them that I’m technically homeless they wouldn’t trust me to stay in their house.

I check my emails to see if there’s news from any of the jobs I’ve applied for. Finding work feels impossible some days – my Job Active provider says it’s an employer’s market right now and I’m not the only one who’s finding it really hard. When I called Coles to follow up on a nightfill job I applied for last month they told me they had over 100 applications for 2 roles. It’s really demoralising.

The past few weeks have been hard. There was a glitch in the Centrelink system and my Newstart was accidentally cut off. It’s been reinstated now but the max rate for someone in my position is $277 per week – which sounds okay, until you consider that the cheapest flatshare I’ve been able to find is $190/week; and that’s before paying for bills and food, let alone coming up with a bond.

I head off to my babysitting gig. I do after-school work a couple of days a week for a bit of extra cash. 3 hours earns me $40 – and while it helps, it’s well below the national minimum wage of $19 per hour. I’m not game to ask for more because I don’t want to lose this job.

I go to a soup kitchen for a meal. It's run by a local shul - it’s a really nice set-up, with tables in the park so it feels like a casual community meal rather than 'charity'. I’m too embarrassed to sit and eat though; I get a takeaway meal and pretend it’s for my mum. I say she’s unwell and unable to cook – I don’t want to tell them the truth. I eat it in the car.

I buy a $1 coffee to try and warm up. It helps me to feel human, too. For a few minutes I feel like any other Melburnian lining up for a coffee.

A few months ago when I was waiting for Newstart to come through, things were really tough and I was sitting in the CBD busking. I had a coffee on the ground next to me and someone walking past said, "If you were really that poor you wouldn’t be spending money on coffee." Little did they know that I hadn’t bought it myself. Someone walking past had given it to me.

While I’m here I use the WiFi to message a few friends to ask if anyone would mind putting me up on their couch for a few nights this week. I keep the message light and cheerful but I feel so ashamed.

I'm tucked in the car with my sleeping bag. I’m lucky that I have a car to fall back on. It belonged to my Safta and while it’s nothing special to look at it means I can get to my jobseeking appointments and do the after-school babysitting work - and it certainly comes in handy on nights like this. I’m parked in a quiet street; I find there’s less chance of being moved along by council in a residential area. I used to park near the Botanical Gardens and got in trouble a few times. The rego is due in a couple of months and I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to do. To be honest I just try not to think about it.

I turn the heater on for a few minutes every half hour or so to take the chill off the air. The petrol gauge is almost empty so I’m careful not to run it for long; it’s not quite winter yet so it’s not too bad. I don’t have to do this very often, and between couch-surfing and house-sitting I can usually manage. Thankfully I’ve never had to sleep rough. A guy I met when I was busking has been rough sleeping in the city for a few months now, and it’s pretty scary. So far he’s been okay but quite a few of his friends have been assaulted or had their belongings stolen.

My name has been on the public housing wait list for awhile now. I haven’t heard anything yet - most people I know have been waiting for years. While homelessness services are doing their best, they’re stretched beyond capacity and there simply isn’t enough social housing to go around. Families with children are understandably a higher priority.

People become homeless for all sorts of reasons: domestic violence, family estrangement, illness, job loss, addiction, poverty, simple bad luck. But ultimately the issue is structural. There isn’t a safety net there to catch us. The cost of housing is unmanageable for many Australians, and our governments haven’t invested enough in social housing. Being homeless is so stigmatised, and the stereotyped image that many of us hold hides the real extent of the problem. In a country like ours, we shouldn’t have 100,000 people without a home each night.

A roof over one’s head is a basic right. Housing shouldn’t be a luxury that only some of us can afford.

August 4 – 10 marks Homelessness Week, an annual campaign to raise awareness of homelessness and the action needed to achieve enduring solutions. The theme of the 2019 campaign is ‘Housing Ends Homelessness’.

On any given night, over 100,000 people in Australia are homeless. A 2016 report by Prosper Australia revealed that around 4.8% of Melbourne’s housing stock – over 82,700 homes – sits vacant.