Miriam Smith sits in the mall outside Coles supermarket in Mitcham, alone among scores of people gathering under a forest of large black umbrellas for their morning coffee and catch-up
She’s 30, with lank blonde hair, clad in a black fleece vest and a flannelette shirt. She clutches the leash of her black Labrador support dog, who’s got a hi-vis vest of his own. When The Citizen approaches, she’s happy to have a chat, though politely declines a photo. She’s overheard our reporters collecting voices around the square and is keen to have hers heard.
Asked about the issues that matter to her in this election campaign, she tells the story of how she once rode the merry-go-round that is the public housing waiting list, but she’s happily finally found a place to stay. For some of her friends however, the ride continues.
Homelessness is an increasing concern in Australian cities, though the focus of discussion of the fallout is usually on the inner city. That it is an issue out here, in what has historically been the comfortable middle suburbs, may come as a surprise to many.
Miriam’s account echoes the reality exposed in a recent investigation by the Australian Productivity Commission on spending on government services, which identified “many years of neglect of our social housing safety net from both the state and federal governments”, according to social housing advocates.
The report identified Victoria as providing the lowest spending on social housing, with the investment falling since 2014 to just $82.94 per person – less than half the figure NSW spends. As a consequence, public housing access has long been an increasingly long-odds lottery. A state parliamentary inquiry last June found there were 82,499 people on the waiting list, which had grown significantly in recent times.
With places allocated based on priority, factoring in things such as gender, age, health and the size of your family unit, some of Miriam’s friends have been waiting for over five years, she says. With so many people in desperate situations competing for available places, others fall through the cracks.
“If two people show up to the hospital, one with a heart attack and the other with a broken leg, they’ll treat the heart attack patient first. Not to be mean, but out of urgency,” Miriam observes. “It still doesn’t fix the broken leg,” she says.
Jason Davis, another Mitcham resident at the square the day The Citizen team arrives to check the electoral pulse, says that this homelessness crisis hasn’t been lost on himself and others in the community.
“The [homelessness] has certainly increased, and it’s quite visible now. When you come to places like here, you often see homeless people”
Maidie Graham, manager of crisis and homelessness at Uniting Wesley, says she’s seen the level of need growing in Ringwood, Mitcham and Croydon too, all suburban centres in the federal electorate of Deakin, tipped to be a close contest when votes are counted this Saturday night.
Factors such as increases in rental rates, a lack of mental health support and the rising cost of living have created a storm that many find difficult to weather.
In terms of how this is reflected in the current federal campaign, the focus has been on calls to increase Newstart unemployment benefits, which at less than $40 a day have not risen in real terms for 25 years. Labor has indicated a plan to increase welfare payments but hasn’t committed to anything, while the Coalition is opposed to increasing Newstart at all, preferring job acquisition plans instead.
A recent Anglicare report found that at the current rate of $277.85 a week, a single person receiving Newstart benefits would have just two properties across the country to choose from, whilst still being able to afford basic needs like food and utilities.
The most recent census found that between 2011-2016, the number of homeless people in Melbourne increased by 13.7%, reaching numbers we haven’t seen in over 15 years. Homelessness isn’t just getting more visible, with the number of “rough sleepers” jumping by 20.4%, it’s getting worse across the board, with people living in boarding houses (+17.1%) and in severely overcrowded accommodation (+23.5%) both seeing stark increases.
Graham, who’s worked with homeless people on the streets of Deakin with United Wesley’s crisis response unit for 22 years, says that the demand for Uniting Wesley’s services has increased in her time there, noting that “there’s a lot of people who come to see us, who five years ago would never have come”.
Situated on the Maroondah Highway, Uniting Wesley acts as an access point for those in the Ringwood, Mitcham and Croydon area for those seeking crisis support, whatever that may be. Aside from basics like food and supplies, Graham has had people ask for blankets so that they could stay warm in their cars, and tents they could bring to the park to keep dry during the night.
The rising rental costs in the eastern suburbs have pushed people into financial turmoil. Where people were once forced to put over a third of their income towards rent (already above the threshold defining ‘rental stress’), they may now have to fork over half their pay. And when money is already tight, that increase can be crippling.
There is growing evidence of mental health being a significant contributor to homelessness. Both major parties have pledged funds to services like Headspace and initiatives for suicide prevention in response to the growing number of young people suffering from mental illness.
Ross Hancock, St Vincent de Paul’s Mitcham Conference President, says mental illness is “the most significant and common factor” contributing to homelessness in Mitcham.
“Mental health issues often lead to behavioural conflicts in shared accommodation environments, and because of this some people prefer to sleep rough than deal with risks associated with shared accommodation.”
Rosie Frankish, the housing manager for Wellways Mental Health Services, which provides a housing support program in Mitcham for people with mental illness, says that while one does not necessarily cause the other, there’s a definite link. Those with mental illnesses often struggle to find consistent work and face barriers to education and training, and without a steady income or the means to attain it, maintaining a lease can become an impossible task.
Once homeless, they get caught in a spiral, says Frankish. Sleep deprivation, due to poor physical sleeping conditions or the constant threat of danger, is also a “huge trigger to exacerbate mental health symptoms”.
Gitta Clayton and Scott Hawkins, founders and operators of the Winter Shelter program that offers shelter, food and shower facilities to the homeless in the Deakin area, know this all too well.
As part of Homelessness Week 2017, Hawkins decided to participate by sleeping rough. Even though he was only participating in the sleeping aspect, eating a full meal before going out to “camp”, an experience he live streamed on Facebook, he was struck by the impact the experience had on him.
“The main thing that I learned at the end of it was that I can never, never know what it means to be homeless … I have community support. I have a family, I’ve got a job, I’ve got friends. I had so many people who tuned in on Facebook that were willing to give me a place to stay.
“People at the pointy end of homelessness have lost all of those supports and to try and pretend like I don’t have them, I can’t.”
The Winter Shelter, which is entirely volunteer run and restarts this June, offers “guests” a warm meal, a safe place to sleep, and a shower in the morning. However, as visitors become regulars, many were been able to rebuild the networks they’d lost, giving each other haircuts, helping with resumé writing, and in one case, banding together to rent a share house.
“People also said that we gave them hope,” says Clayton, “somebody who’d listen to them and care.”
He and Hawkins say that governments must look to curb the factors that lead to homelessness in addition to building public housing. Giving somebody a roof isn’t enough if they don’t have the means to keep it above their heads, they argue. Without avenues to escape the rental stress cycle, those caught up in it are likely stay in limbo.
Graham says the solution relies on governments having a look “at how we can get more long term affordable housing so people don’t need to come see us in the first place.
“There’s ways governments can encourage developers when they’re building big developments to include a proportion of social housing within the development, which doesn’t cost the government anything.”
Whether it means creating affordable housing options, supporting the efforts of those trying to escape the cycle of hopelessness or dealing with the country’s growing mental health crisis, the consensus among experts seems to be clear. Building more housing is critical, but that tackling homelessness at the root causes is no less imperative.