Political correctness decrees that we not refer to someone with nowhere to live as homeless because it has the connotation of a life sentence; there is always hope. We should say they are experiencing homelessness.
The clarification may offer solace to some, but this issue is shrouded by misconception. The bottom line is that there are hundreds of people across the Fleurieu Peninsula struggling to find a place to sleep tonight, and don’t dare we classify them all as having a drug, alcohol or gambling addiction.
Not all have experienced domestic violence – one incident is far too many. Only five percent fit the common perception of a person experiencing homelessness as wearing layers of smelly clothes sleeping on a park bench. Whatever, these unfortunate souls deserve compassion.
This is the reality check: the rapidly emerging profile is a caring husband and father who loses his job through no fault of his own, and eventually the heavily-mortgaged house and everything on hire purchase goes with it. The entitlements don’t cover the need for house rental, and the overwhelming stress leads to a marriage breakdown. There is no affordable accommodation for the stranded mother and children so they live in a car.
Believe it; this is real on the Fleurieu, and the kids living in a homeless environment change in the car and go to school. And they are good kids.
According to Maria Palumbo, CEO of Junction Australia, no one knows the true homelessness figures across the Fleurieu Peninsula because not everyone reeling amidst this peril steps forward to register for assistance.
However, chilling is the fact Junction Australia, which leads an incredibly daunting fight against homelessness, has more than 250 staff across South Australia and the most concentrated area of need for them is from the southern suburbs to our southern coast, particularly Victor Harbor. It has centres in Christies Beach and Goolwa.
According to Maria, the common denominator in this crisis is poverty. We can discuss all of the reasons for this – a vast majority is not the fault of those enduring homelessness – but whatever the catalyst it doesn’t shield the cruel impact that poverty delivers. Poverty is the bi-product of a crisis.
“People entering into homelessness is a real myriad of things,” Maria said. “There will be two major reasons, firstly because they have some form of past trauma, which is often so intense that it impacts their ability to function productively. Things like holding onto jobs or just dealing with day-to-day things. Sometimes trauma can come serving Australia at war.
“Trauma is usually affiliated with child abuse or any form of neglect or severe child abuse that tends to impact people’s adult life quite significantly. There is a huge cohort of people who fit this category, and often they have real complexity of issues and need a lot of support whilst trying to find accommodation and get them stable in their homes.
“The other thing we see is just poverty, those who don’t fit that high and complex profile through histories of trauma.
“We have families who become homeless because they lose jobs, cannot afford rent and they are simply trying to get into the rental market.
“The gap between what they are receiving if they are getting an income supplement and the price of rental is just beyond them.
“The only type of housing for them that is affordable is public housing, which has become more and more marginalised. You can’t get into public housing easily – there is just not enough of it. Because these houses are really old, run down and have maintenance problems just keeping them going requires a sell-off of housing every year to keep the remaining operations of the system going. It’s kind of an end to nowhere.
“The gap between public housing and private rental is huge, and there is nothing in between.
“When it is a very serious situation like children being vulnerable sleeping in cars, tents or caravans we will sometimes get them into motels. If there is a single mum and it’s not safe we will try to get her in a motel.
“Often young people at risk will couch surf and keep relying on friends to help them out. That’s normally their way of coping.”
Maria said the Fleurieu Peninsula had its specific issues because it was largely covered by small towns, and each had its own nuance. Some have a rental market, but it’s geared towards air B&Bs or holiday accommodation. People with rental accommodation are just happy to accommodate it during the holiday seasons and keep it empty in between. They prefer to use it like that than have it as permanent rental at a different rate.
“The lack of housing affordability is the major issue in homelessness,” Maria said. “There aren’t enough suitable homes for people that are not a transitional or short-term, a place where people can re-establish themselves.
“The catch 22 of homelessness is people trying to actually get their life back. A crisis of some kind has occurred and they are trying to get back on track, yet they need to be in a stable or secure place to do that.
“When you are in crisis mode, the ability to present yourself in a job interview in a state of mind that is conducive to winning a job, it is compromised.
“The sad thing about country communities like those in the Fleurieu is that young people have connections to schools and their social life, but there is just no housing available for them, particularly those at school who don’t even have an income.
“There are purpose built facilities meeting that fit that profile, but they are all in the city. Then it’s a choice of leaving their whole connections behind, and as young people that makes them too vulnerable particularly if they don’t have strong family support.
“It is the same with families. They have to move out of the area that has been home for them to seek housing that they can afford. There could be affordable public housing for them, but that’s usually far away, maybe Whyalla. Re-establishing themselves in a place they have never been before can be super hard.
“Most moves away from their town are short term solutions. We are an organisation that supports people in homelessness. The only access to any form of accommodation we can get is short term, but then it compromises the person’s ability to feel like they can settle and stabilise in an environment where they can rebuild.
“We can only give them something that’s for a month or six weeks because of the volume of people we deal with is in crisis.”
Maria goes along with the belief that homelessness is one of those things that some every-day people choose to ignore, or perceive it to be a result of self-infliction. She says those who have never walked in the shoes of someone who has experienced a crisis or trauma that has led to them being destitute need to understand all of the stress that comes with that.
“When I talk to people who don’t understand this issue, and have assumptions and stigmatise it, I ask them to remember something,” Maria said. “I ask to put themselves back in the most stressful situation they have ever been in, and what that did to their ability to function well; what it did to their confidence.
“You could be in a job and things are going really bad and you are struggling because of a lack of confidence under extreme stress. I then ask them to add the uncertainty of not knowing where you are going to live or even sleep tonight, and how they are going to rebuild their life.
“I ask them to imagine trying to compete in the employment market when some of those barriers are placed as a result of a severe accident of some kind that has rendered them unable to do the job they have always done, or a mental breakdown that takes them out of their environment and leads to losing their home.
“You have to be in extreme stress to understand the impact that it can have on your capacity to recover from being in a homelessness situation. People who suddenly find themselves under undue stress and cannot seem to get their life back together because of the uncertainty of not having income, housing and being homeless fall into a well that’s really hard to pull up from.”
Maria said Junction Australia was doing whatever it could to help those vulnerable reclaim their life, starting with finding them affordable housing. Her role includes trying to source the problem of the lack of affordable supply, managing a government contract to provide homelessness services on the Fleurieu Peninsula and Kangaroo Island, and managing social housing in those areas.
An equally important duty for Maria and her team is lining-up the shoes of those experiencing homelessness ready for us to walk in them. Of course, it would be a struggle.
If you would like to help Junction Australia contact: Christies Beach office, 34 Beach Rd, Christies Beach T: 8392 3000; Goolwa office 31b Cadell St, Goolwa T: 8392 3000. Please ask staff how to make a cash donation and/or what they currently need most.