Nowhere to lay their heads: homeless in Melbourne.

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Jenny Begent.

homeless sleeping
Homeless, Pedro Ribeiro Simões, flickr cc.

And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20).

A visitor to the city of Melbourne would be struck by its apparent affluence, with its wide leafy green streets, elegant aging buildings, bustling city district, vibrant street life, and cafes. Yet beneath that veneer of prosperity is a subculture of homelessness shrouded in addiction, mental health, poverty, and despair.

In 2008, the former Federal Government promised to halve homelessness by 2020 and put more than a billion dollars towards it. Yet the 2011 Census showed that, every night in Australia, 105,000 people were still without a place to call home. The numbers of homeless have increased significantly since then. Many of them are living in inadequate and unsafe conditions; many more are on the street, in laneways, parks, under bridges, and in doorways. Record numbers of homeless people have been counted living on the streets of Melbourne; services are wilting under the strain of the demand created by external economic and social forces.

Rough sleepers represent only a small proportion of Melbourne’s homeless; thousands more people, including many families waiting for social housing, don’t know where they’ll stay from one night to the next. It is, however, the rough sleepers who find their way into the city, seeking not only refuge but companionship and safety in numbers.

In recent years, Melbourne City Council’s regular survey of rough sleepers has found a relatively stable homeless population of about 100 people. But the number of rough sleepers seeking assistance in the past financial year has actually risen by almost 25 percent. At least an extra 1266 Victorians called the streets home in the 2013-2014 financial year, according to the Australian Institute of Health & Welfare (AIHW).

This year’s count of 142 people was the highest in the count’s six-year history. Service providers also recorded a large number of people sleeping outside the traditional count area, in public toilets in Docklands and Royal Park, meaning the actual figure is likely to be much higher. The age range is between 77 and 17.

More than half the homeless people noted in this year’s council count were sleeping on the street or in a park. Yet the lack of a roof over one’s head is the least of the problems faced by rough sleepers. Violence and intimidation are the norm, with the way of life for many including incidents of knifings and bashings, and having their scant possessions stolen. Rough sleepers are not merely sleeping out; they are surviving.

The social welfare arms of our churches all work to address the issue of homelessness in the city. They form a protective and supportive barrier around those who have no support, providing a range of physical and mental care wrapped up in a community of belonging. What they are unable to achieve, however, is installing homeless people in safe and affordable housing.

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Homeless Dog, Sandra Cohen-Rose & Colin Rose, flickr cc.

The majority of rough sleepers are not registered for public housing, and those who are face waiting lists of years, not months. Homelessness will never end, unless we come up with a preventative approach. Increased availability of low-cost housing, reduction in violence, and employment opportunities are all key factors in reducing rough sleeping homelessness.

Church-based services, in particular, can play a prophetic role in raising the hard questions when the complexities of homelessness and inadequate housing are examined, pointing out the economic inequalities which create poverty. When confronted with difficult challenges, churches must first and foremost always affirm the dignity of every human being and the right of every person to a home which allows him or her to grow into all God intended. We must also remember that God dwells in each person, even the homeless one without a place to live.

Whilst increased provision of housing is critical, it also needs to be a vehicle for an overarching goal of transformational and sustainable community development. Key elements of this transformation and development work help to promote the betterment of people spiritually, physically, socially, economically, and emotionally, listening to the felt needs of the homeless and empowering them to make their own changes, the promotion of reconciliation across ethnic, racial, economic, social, national, religious, political, cultural, and other barriers, in order to solve everyday issues faced by communities with homeless people everywhere.

The city is full of buildings which shelter no one, while people sleep in their carparks and doorways. People with no place to lay their heads are not far from those living in million-dollar homes. Such dichotomy is far from the result of a lack of resources; rather, it flows from unjust distribution of the goods God intended for all.

Major Jenny Begent is Divisional Social Program Secretary of the Salvation Army, Melbourne, and a Board member of Social Policy Connections.

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