Homelessness in a prosperous country is nothing short of scandalous.
There will always be some in the community who think the people who are homeless are the ones who must change; that they must be subjected to some form of “tough love”. But when we see not only how far we have come but how many we have left behind, it is clear that it is we who must change.
We must change by making sure that the woman who is escaping domestic violence with her children is housed instead of being forced to sleep in a car, for housing should be a human right for all and not a matter of luck for some. We must change by tearing down the walls that lock people out or literally lock them up, and instead build bridges not only to secure and affordable housing but to education, employment, hope.
We must change as a nation by calling both sides of politics to unite in making a reality out of the white paper target to halve all homelessness by 2020 and to offer a place to call home for all who are sleeping rough.
French poet Paul Eluard famously said: “There is another world but it is in this one.” This other world is one in which no one is left out in the cold. I am haunted by the man who told us at a CEO Sleepout in Canberra a couple of years ago he began to experience homelessness when he was 13 and had been in and out of institutions since then. When someone is thankful for public toilets because they’re nice and warm to sleep in even though they’re smelly, you know we have a problem.
He was made to feel it was his problem, but it is our problem. People experiencing homelessness are denied the right to appropriate housing and are vulnerable to illness, violence, prosecution. You don’t create a smart and confident Australia by taking to people with the stick or keeping them below the poverty line. Our task is to have the humility to listen to the people who can teach us what it is that needs to change in society.
The economic and social costs, let alone the personal costs, of leaving the homelessness crisis as it is, are enormous. Some might remember Malcolm Gladwell’s story in The New Yorker about Million Dollar Murray, a man who had experienced chronic homelessness, with all the concomitant health problems. When he died it was estimated that the costs to the state of maintaining Murray in his condition of homelessness came out at US$1 million. Providing him with secure housing would have cost much less. The largest homeless group in Australia are people living in severely overcrowded dwellings, who account for 39% of the homeless. As Philip Mangano, former executive director of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness, reminded us: “You do not manage a social wrong. You should be ending it.”
The men, women and children who are plunged into the world of homelessness know well that the solution lies in the heart of the problem. It is known like a hidden message that lies beneath the surface of our society. If it could be summed up in one word, I suggest that this word would be “dignity”. It is what we can learn from the people who courageously face another night living beyond the zones of comfort and safety. The Vinnies CEO Sleepout on June 20 is a powerful symbol, but it is only a symbol.
In many ways there can be no higher priority for a nation that prides itself on being progressive.
*Dr John Falzon is CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council of Australia. He is the author of The Language of the Unheard.