It’s so common and confronting that our eyes have become trained to slide over each person we see living on the street; we sidestep someone stepping forward with their hand outstretched before we even realise what we’re doing; we avert our eyes when we sense that someone’s gaze is fixed on us while we wait for the bus.
Some of us take it one step further; perhaps in response to seeing someone in such distress, we unconsciously try to find reasons to justify their homelessness.
“They’re probably a drug addict,” we think to ourselves. “They probably drink. Maybe they just don’t want to work. Maybe they’ve just got an attitude problem. They are choosing to be homeless because they choose drugs and alcohol. Maybe they’re just a hopeless case.”
Working on the frontlines of support services for BaptistCare HopeStreet across NSW and the ACT for many years, my team and I have spoken to thousands of people who have become homeless. We have observed that homelessness does not discriminate – it creeps across race, social status, age and gender. Some do have problems with addiction; some do not. Either way, the assumption that every homeless person probably has an addiction, and that anyone with an addiction deserves to be homeless, leads to a widespread (but largely unspoken) consensus that nothing much can really be done to help homeless people, apart from a hot meal here and there.
We can’t afford to accept these assumptions. Recent statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimated Australia’s homeless population at about 116,000; of those who reported to specialist homelessness services, about one in ten reported problematic alcohol or drug use. Hot meals and sympathy alone won’t solve this problem.
Many people can’t understand how the path to homelessness and addiction begins. For some, it begins with chronic pain; a workplace accident or sporting injury, with the pain slowly deepening over the years, until your doctor eventually places you on stronger prescription drugs. Eventually, those don’t help as much anymore, and you’ll do almost anything to get rid of the pain, and the spiral begins.
For others, drugs soften feelings of loneliness, being unloved and unwanted. Some people learn about drug use at a parents’ knee; some escape the painful realities of their home life; some slide into it via recreational use, going from an experimental party-goer to a habitual user.
The effects of dependence can only be hidden for so long; all too often we see legal implications and further impacts on physical, psychological or emotional health, on relationships, and on livelihood (whether employment or studies) and painful social isolation follows. Financial problems can cause many couples succumb to tense exchanges and fights, sometimes morphing into horrifying domestic violence over the years.
The journey from a ‘normal’ life to addiction and homelessness can be cruelly drawn-out or shockingly fast; it can take decades, years or months. It’s often cyclical; one of our HopeStreet clients, Elyssa*, was recently released from a mental health service directly back onto the street. She was moved around from police to paramedics to homeless services, all of who tried their best with the resources available, before being sent back to the mental health unit. She will soon be discharged; in all probability it will be into homelessness, and the pattern will likely continue, because our systems are not yet capable of breaking this vicious cycle.
As per the steps laid out in the Everybody’s Home campaign, to which BaptistCare is a signatory, the housing system needs fundamental, widespread changes to support people like our HopeStreet clients in breaking out of their spiral and stop people like Elyssa from falling through the cracks.
However, a roof over your head alone isn’t the only required solution. Recently, The Guardian featured an interview with author Johann Hari, who said “The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety – it’s connection.” He’s right. People experiencing addiction and homelessness need safe spaces to find connection, community, and hope. They need spaces where they can exist without judgement, because it is in those spaces that they feel the sense of support, safety and relief they need to commence on journeys back to mental wellbeing, productivity and engagement with the people around them; these are the silver bullets for addiction and homelessness.
It’s Homelessness Week this week in Australia. All around the country, various groups will do their part to raise awareness. It’s an opportunity to consider signing up to a local community group or event, donate to BaptistCare HopeStreet's homelessness appeal, or just take a moment to rethink your own assumptions about what it means to be homeless – and how easily it could happen to you.
Elizabeth Hukins is a manager at BaptistCare HopeStreet. She has worked from Wollongong to Alice Springs, Darwin and Sydney in various professional capacities including Aboriginal primary health care, mental health, drug and alcohol services and community development. Elizabeth spent four years at BaptistCare’s drop in community centre in the Illawarra, where street-based sex workers and men and women experiencing homelessness are offered support, connection and hope.
*Name has been changed for privacy