Canberra is host to hundreds of people who are suffering from homelessness, sleeping on the cold streets each night. Robyn Skea set out to find out why this is the case, and what help is out there for those who have it rough, if any…
As of the Australian 2016 Census, there were almost 1,600 people suffering from homelessness in Australian Capital Territory. The ACT currently has the second-highest rate of homelessness in Australia, and Canberra’s rent prices have increased to the second-highest in Australia as of this year. This makes housing unaffordable, especially to young people. In Australia, youth (ages 12 – 24) made up 32% of all those experiencing homelessness. That means students who can’t afford housing or on-campus residence, especially international students. I went to find out what it’s like experiencing homelessness in Canberra, and what help is available, or lacking for those in need.
I have come across three different categories of homelessness in my research, but they are all equally concerning; primary, secondary and tertiary. These refer to different conditions of homelessness. Primary homelessness, or ‘sleeping rough’ refers to someone who has no choice but to sleep on the street. Secondary homelessness refers to a person who has no home to speak of, but may have the opportunity of ‘couch surfing’ wherein they are able to sleep on friends’ couches, or in their cars, but are still ultimately without a home. Tertiary homelessness refers to those living in a state of dwelling which ‘falls below the line of community standards’.
This April, I spent seven days engaging with the community in Canberra surrounding those suffering homelessness. Stasia’s Soup Kitchen has been run out of Garema place for 39 years, and I headed there for my first day. I find it to be run by hard-working, long time volunteers. They stand there chatting to people, serving Styrofoam cups of homemade soup and pastries.
The soup kitchen is manned by a friendly volunteer who was happy to talk to me and let me take photos. He tells me about the food they serve; vegetable soup, beef soup, bread and orange juice, and pastries donated from local bakeries. He says they often receive donations of sleeping bags from the nearby The Green Shed, for those who are sleeping rough.
As I look around to see the city’s bustling people, I start to look for people who are experiencing homelessness. As I watch, it seems to me that in general society, no one really looks for them, if at all, they look past them.
I saw a man whom I wanted to approach; clearly roughing it, he sat on a metal bench, his greyed head bent down. On the ground are cardboard signs, reading: “Homeless. In need of money for food and accommodation, anything helps please.” Dressed in faded shades of grey, he seems to be in another world, one entirely without colour. A small piece of cloth is taped to the ground with a few coins thrown onto it. The man is disinterested at my approach. I cannot tell what the colour of his eyes are, he never meets mine. He mumbles out, “When someone’s with me I get less money”. “No problem.” I says, and I leave. This would come to be a common rejection; who wants to speak with strangers?
Next, I approach a man sitting up against the wall of a busy café, a dog fast asleep nestled up against him. The man is wearing an old jumper and a beanie to keep him warm in these cooling months. I introduce myself, and he agrees to speak with me. His name is Dave. He tells me he’s been homeless for “about 12 months”. While speaking with me, he pets his dog, named Dodge, who remains asleep. When I ask Dave what his plans for the future are, he smiles and says, “I’ll fall on my feet sooner or later.” A heart-warmingly positive attitude.
There are organisations such as OzHarvest operating in Australia since 2004 which are linked to many restaurants, hotels, supermarkets and so on, collecting excess food which would otherwise go to waste, and use it to feed the less fortunate. This is admirable and important work. It does not however, mean that all less fortunate and homeless are fed. Almost nine thousand Canberra children are currently living below the poverty line, and the rising cost of living in the ACT is to blame, aggravating the already troublesome number of Canberran’s experiencing homelessness.
On my second day, I arrive in the city again. I approach a man sitting on the ground, reading, and he waves me away, saying, “I’m okay, thanks. I’m okay.” He doesn’t want to speak with me. I decide to speak with the person in the pay-station booth. I try to engage with the woman a few times. Her head is bent (as so many of them are), and I get no response. She doesn’t want to talk with me either. As I began to leave, two security guards come up to where the woman is sitting on the ground, and say something to her. A few seconds later, she gets up and stalks off. They’ve told her to move. Why would they do that? She’s done no harm.
Intrigued, I approach the security guards, and ask them why they would move her. She had been sitting quietly (at least when I had seen her), minding her own business. She relocated to the pedestrian crossing, a favoured spot. The two security men explain that the parking lot (including where she was sitting) is owned by a private company, and if customers of the city centre complain about the homeless people there, then the security guards are obligated to get them to move. One security guard says, “some ruin it for others, they wait until the coins come out of the (parking) machine and get in people’s faces”. The security guards don’t go chasing these people, they say, it’s only if customers complain, that they’re required to relocate them. I approach the woman who had been relocated, and gave her a container of food I had made up. Just a strawberry jam sandwich, two muesli bars and a slice of my homemade caramel slice, nothing special. “Thank you.” She says softly. “Thank you very much.”
I decide to see what kind of services are available for those in need through churches around Canberra. I arrive at Glebe Park on my third day; to find a BBQ lunch being run by a church group called Missionheart. They’re lovely people; the man who approaches me introduces me to the minister’s wife, Kelly, who says she and her husband have been running Missionheart for 20 years. Kelly asks if the person has to currently be experiencing homelessness, or if it could be someone who was experiencing homelessness. I say ‘either’. She brings someone over to me, and we take a seat a little ways away.
I spoke with a man named Matt, who fell under the second umbrella of homelessness; ‘couch-surfing’. He tells me he had been sleeping on the streets for a while, but now he is sleeping on a mate’s couch for “two to three months now”; a concerning long-term solution. Matt tells me heroin addiction, and the rising prices of rent in Canberra, are the reasons he’s homeless, though he’s trying to get his life back on track. Matt tells me his life is improving.
“A little better. Gradually.”
There are some well-established services available for those who are experiencing homelessness, who are just having a rough time, or even every-day people who need a bit of help. On my fourth day I visit an Evening Meal run by Red Cross volunteers, from 4:30pm-5:30pm. The Evening Meal runs six nights a week (excludes Friday’s) by the Red Cross Roadhouse service in Griffin Centre, Civic, and is managed by a lovely lady named Liz.
Four apron wearing Red Cross volunteers run the bustling kitchen, serving a growing line of hungry people. Liz walks me through the room, and asks me not to take photos, to respect the patron’s anonymity and privacy. Throughout the Evening Meal, there are about 50 to 60 people in the room at any time eating their dinner, and having a cup of tea. There are a variety of people in the large dining hall; some people look away from me, others are bubbly, and well-dressed people. Liz says that about 30% of the people in that room are experiencing homelessness. Liz tells me that there are many kinds of people here; some are down on their luck, others are fresh out of jail, needing a hot meal. All of the food they receive to feed these people with, is donated. Tonight, the hot curry being served was donated by the Southern Cross Club, and they receive salads and breads from other places, including YellowVan. One of the volunteers makes a selection of cakes every week to serve to the hungry.
I spoke with a woman who has escaped an abusive relationship with her now ex-partner. She asks me not to reveal a photograph of her, or use her surname; her first name is Rebecca. Rebecca is brave enough to tell me her story. “(Experiencing homelessness) has been on and off since October 2015, when I suffered a severe domestic violence relationship. I was hit more than 20 times in the back of the head with a wrench.” Rebecca tells me about her ex-partner, and the traumas she has endured at his hand, and how she almost died. She now suffers dangerous seizures because of her injuries. The man who almost killed her, after eight weeks of being on the run from the police after the attack, was convicted, and then released on time served. “He was prosecuted, and got time served. It went down from attempted murder down to assault occasioned bodily harm… The justice system let me down. He’s now free, for what he’s done.”
Rebecca is pregnant with her current partner, and together they have moved to Canberra hoping to get better help than in Melbourne and Western Australia, but they had no idea it would be so difficult to find the services they need. “We didn’t realise how bad it was in terms of access to services… I don’t know if I have somewhere safe to sleep tonight. I sleep in the park.”
Rebecca is looking forward to the next time she gets to see her now 16-year-old daughter, and imagines a better life with her new baby, hopefully off the streets and one day no longer experiencing homelessness.
On my fifth day, I attempt to visit the Belco Kitchen Meal, NationsHeart, but sadly they are closed. A sign on the door reads, “Foodhut & Community Meal are closed. The Foodhut & Community Meal are on break over the school holiday period. Both will restart on Tuesday 1 May, 2018.”
It’s unfortunate that, while a service to community is necessary, it is the reality that these services are too few and far between; and during certain periods, inaccessible to those who need them most.
On my sixth day, I attempt to visit a Dinner, at Lifestream Christian Fellowship in Wanniassa. Since it was Anzac Day, I sent a message to their Facebook page, checking to see if they were still hosting the free meal. Unfortunately, not only were they not providing the meal, not because it was Anzac Day, but because they now only host it once a month. These services, and options available, are too far and wide in Canberra.
Though, there is one good thing for those who are experiencing homelessness this winter; a shelter will be opening up to a handful of men (not women) which will provide comfort and shelter over these coming cold nights, seven days a week. It’s a small comfort, and only to a few, but it’s something. The whole issue of homelessness is so big, but it’s good that there are some support systems in place, though they are far from adequate. There is a Youth Homelessness Matters Day on 18 April, but that does little to raise awareness, and only for a portion of those who are suffering.
There are also other awareness campaigns such as Share the Dignity, an organisation which receives donations for feminine hygiene products and distributes them around Canberra to those in need. I participated in this campaign; you can find Share the Dignity boxes around Canberra during April and August, but they always accept much-needed donations.
On my seventh and final day, I attempt to visit Tuggeranong Baptist Church for a Lunch, according to my guide of a few events to be found around Canberra to assist the homeless. When I arrive at the church, I find that it has burned down in a fire last year on Saturday 17 July 2017.
There are so many people in Canberra suffering from homelessness, but there is a gaping chasm where there should be services provided to help them, and there are not. There are over one and a half thousand Canberrans who are either sleeping on the streets or in a friend’s car, and they won’t be helped before this winter. Homelessness is partly a result of the ever-increasing cost of housing and living expenses in Canberra, and this issue is not being fixed. This problem will continue to worsen unless changes are made, systems put in place to help people not only to prevent people from experiencing homelessness, but also to assist those who are currently suffering.