Give Me Shelter

By Joanna Tovia

Give Me Shelter
Rising rents and house prices are changing the face of homelessness in Australia and New Zealand, with experts saying the largely invisible issue is at crisis point. MiNDFOOD finds out more.

It was a week before Christmas when Ian Gardiner received a letter from the real estate agent giving him four weeks’ notice to move out. The two-bedroom apartment he’d been renting problem-free for four years had been sold. The 57-year-old father of three was already suffering from depression – he’d been through a divorce, plus a motorcycle accident meant he was unable to work until his number came up on the waiting list for shoulder surgery. “The timing couldn’t have been worse,” Gardiner says. “I was completely stuffed and it went downhill from there; I never imagined I could end up where I ended up.”

Despite his best efforts to find another apartment over Christmas, when it came time to move out, Gardiner had nowhere to go. As a last resort, he drove to a nearby hostel. “It was my only option and it was the closest place to my kids,” he says. Sleeping in a dorm with mostly young backpackers wasn’t ideal, so for seven out of the 10 months he paid to stay there, Gardiner slept in his car. He continued to look for accommodation, only to find rents had risen to unaffordable levels. Then things went from bad to worse. By the following February, he had become so sick he ended up in hospital with a perforated bowel that required immediate surgery. Three weeks later the surgery hadn’t held up and he spent six weeks seriously ill in hospital. On release from hospital, 30kg lighter with an open wound and worsening depression, yet again he had nowhere to go. “I bought a van for $100 off a backpacker and that became my home for nine months – I took the back seats out and parked it in the car park of the Collaroy Beach Hotel,” Gardiner says. “With a sling and my colostomy bag, there wasn’t much I could do for myself. It was dreadful. I almost gave up a couple of times.”

By the following Christmas, he’d had the colostomy bag reversed and his shoulder reconstructed, and was referred to a Mission Australia men’s refuge centre, where he stayed for seven weeks. “There were a lot of good people in that refuge who were really struggling with their life,” Gardiner says. “They were from all walks of life – tradies, academics, a solicitor. The diversity and stories about how people got there were unbelievable.” With the help of Mission Australia, Gardiner has put the 22 months he spent homeless behind him and recently moved into a one-bedroom Department of Housing apartment with his 12-year-old son. “I can’t tell you what it felt like to move into my own place that’s mine, where as long as I pay my rent no one can throw me out. I’m determined I’m not going to lose it.”

Homelessness is on the rise in Australia and New Zealand, and the face of homelessness is changing as housing becomes less affordable. The latest census figures show there are around 105,000 homeless people across Australia, but Mission Australia CEO Catherine Yeomans says increasing numbers are trying to access crisis accommodation and there is a clear increase in the numbers sleeping rough in city centres. “Sleeping rough is only six per cent of the homeless population,” Yeomans says. And it’s not just a big-city issue. “Affordability of housing is an issue right across the country – we’re at crisis point,” she says. According to Yeomans, rents are high even if you have an income. “We often think of the face of homelessness as a single older man sleeping rough, with drug and alcohol issues or mental health issues,” she says. “There’s an increasing number of older women and single women who find themselves homeless, as well as families and young people.” Around 56 per cent of homeless people are male, but the number of homeless women is rising. Single women over 45 have an increased risk. Public transport is proving a haven for women turned away from homeless shelters in Sydney, with some saying five women are turned away each night for every shelter bed. The number of children affected is on the rise as two-thirds of homeless children are with mothers escaping domestic violence.

Yeomans emphasises homelessness can happen to any one of us. “All we need is for two or three major life events to go wrong and we can be at risk,” she says. “It can be devastating when someone finds themselves in that position. It can be a great sense of embarrassment and shame.” The family car often becomes home while parents struggle to find alternate accommodation. “People hold onto their cars as their last possession,” says Yeomans. “We see so many people who are still employed but are sleeping in their cars because they can’t find accommodation.”

Our neighbours

Housing affordability is having an impact in New Zealand, too, with Auckland house prices rising almost 80 per cent over the past five years and rents following suit. A 2016 University of Otago study based on the latest census found one in 120 were homeless in 2006, but by 2013, one in  100 were homeless, or a total of 41,075 people. Those figures are likely to be an underestimation because they don’t include people living in emergency accommodation. “If the homeless population were 100 people, 70 are staying with extended family or friends in severely crowded houses, 20 are in a motel, boarding house or camping ground, and 10 are living on the street, in cars or in other improvised dwellings,” says researcher Dr Kate Amore. Moira Lawler, chief executive of NZ social development agency Lifewise agrees that the real figures are likely to be far higher, and that the decline of housing affordability is a major cause. “Every time you lose a rental in Auckland your next rental is going to be more expensive so people literally can’t afford the cost of housing.”

As in Australia, Lawler says family violence and abuse is a prime reason people end up homeless in New Zealand. “There are women who argue that they’re safer on the street than they are at home. There are also men who have perhaps been perpetrators of violence or abuse who are thrown out of home and end up without support.” The full impact on children is only now becoming understood. Schooling, healthcare and support networks all get disrupted. “We assume the parents carry the stress and that children are resilient and bounce back, but research is starting to show that the effects of long-term stress and trauma on children is severe,” Lawler says. “It has the potential to delay their development. The ongoing stress and uncertainty impact on children in all sorts of ways that will present as mental and physical health issues in their adulthood.” Poor nutrition, sleep deprivation, dental issues and lack of medical attention also come into play.

Like Mission Australia, Lifewise is pushing for a “Housing First” approach, where the immediate focus is on finding homeless people permanent accommodation, followed by support to address the issues underpinning their reasons for becoming homeless, whether that’s helping them find a job, addressing drug and alcohol issues or facilitating access to mental health services. The Housing First approach is based on international evidence demonstrating how effective it is at ending the homelessness cycle. Lawler says. “When affordable accommodation is limited, getting someone off the street becomes difficult.”

Starting support young

A disturbing number of youth are forced into homelessness – about 40 per cent under 25. LGBT youth and foster children are overrepresented. Many charities are calling for the age of out-of-home-care support to be lifted beyond 18. Yfoundations CEO Dr Michael Coffey stresses that it’s not by choice young people are homeless. “Kids are there for legitimate reasons,” he says. A Yfoundations survey carried out this year found 80 per cent of young people in homelessness services were there due to domestic violence. Young people escaping violence will often encounter it in other homes or on the streets along with drugs and exploitation. “You have kids up until four in the morning, and if you don’t have the security of a parent looking after you and no place you can properly call home, it’s hard for anyone to maintain routines,” Coffey says. These children often need support that extends beyond a bed, as “a lot of their life is likely to have been spent in an violent situation,” Coffey says. “You can spend three months with a young person just building up trust.” Research shows those who experience homelessness as adults are more likely to have gone through it as children, which Coffey says presents real incentive to do more earlier. “If we do youth homelessness better, that will have enormous cost benefits in terms of not having long-term homelessness,” he says. “These young people are special. We have a chance to do something about it now and solve a lot of future problems by having a concentrated effort and investment this end.”

Small Ways to Make a Big Difference

Having a place to call home is a basic human need and these heartfelt initiatives are lending a helping hand – working towards changing the lives of homeless people for the better.

Merge Café

This Lifewise-run café in Auckland encourages the homeless and housed alike to enjoy a meal together. The food is affordable, and those who can are invited to “pay it forward” so people struggling to make ends meet can eat for free. Every dollar spent goes towards housing homeless people, who are also connected with support staff upstairs to help find them housing, work and other services they need to get back on track. Moira Lawler says, “Homeless people are part of our community and we’re part of their community.”

Orange Sky Laundry … and now Orange Sky Showers

Launched in Brisbane in 2014 by two friends, Orange Sky Laundry is a mobile service (a van with two washers and two dryers) giving the homeless a chance to have their clothes and blankets washed for free. While they wait, the idea is to sit and connect with Orange Sky volunteers. There are now 10 vans across Australia doing 6.9 tonnes of laundry weekly. They are also piloting a free mobile shower van, fitted with two showers, heating and water tanks.

Choir of Hope and Inspiration

Now in its 10th year, this inspirational choir is made up of homeless and disadvantaged people in Melbourne. Led, and founded, by tenor and artistic director Dr Jonathon Welch, members rehearse weekly in Federation Square. They have performed in more than 300 concerts in Australia.

The Rough Period

For homeless women, not having the supplies they need for their periods can be extremely difficult, not to mention incredibly detrimental to their health and wellbeing. Operating in Sydney, The Rough Period relies on donations of sanitary products from people and businesses, and gets them to homeless women via community assistance and on-the-ground involvement. 

Backpack Bed for Homeless

Invented as a means of providing emergency relief to people turned away from homeless shelters, the Backpack Bed is a tent and mattress in a bag with extra storage for essentials. Started in Australia, beds are now being provided to New Zealand’s homeless as well as those in the UK, Germany and the US.

The Streets Barber

Known as the Streets Barber, Nasir Sobhani spends one day a week on the streets of Melbourne offering free haircuts to homeless people. Sobhani – a hairdresser who spends the other six days in a salon – also offers face shaves, deodorant and a good chat. The concept has been picked up on around the world.



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