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Homelessness is not a lifestyle choice

As we reflect on Homelessness Week which was held from 2-7 August this year,  Sandy McKiernan, Vinnies Executive Manager of Specialist Community Services reminds us that homelessness in Western Australia is the social issue of our times.

There is no denying that homelessness in Australia is the social issue of our times with as many varied opinions as opportunities to highlight the plight of people who find themselves without a home.

For a large number of the estimated 9000 people experiencing homelessness in WA – the issue is simple and yet complex. There are not homes they can afford resulting in the necessity to spend more on housing than what’s financially sustainable. WACOSS cost of living report identified that for low income families this can be as high as 45% of the household income. Spending more than 30% is deemed to be in housing stress!

But for so many on low and increasingly middle income, it’s a balancing act that takes not too much to tip.  The loss of a job or a sudden family illness can have a devastating impact on those whom are already suffering from financial stress, often living from pay to pay without a financial safety net. Something has to give – that something is often the rental property they can no longer afford, moving in with family, friends or living in the car until “we get back on our feet”.

These are the hidden homeless – whose loss of dignity and the ability to provide for their families can lead to increased episodes of depression and anxiety, breakdown in relationships, violent outbursts, crime and suicide. For these hidden homeless the gaps to fall through are wide and deep and have profound impacts on everyone just trying to stay afloat.

Stay there long enough or repeatedly and the lifelong impacts and trauma of not having a secure home start to show.  We know that if you are homeless as a young person, you are twice as likely to be homeless as an adult and that repeated episodes of homelessness can reduce life expectancy by up to 20 years.

It’s not surprising that many people who are homeless are casualties of life long trauma, childhood abuse and neglect, family breakdown, disconnection, mental ill health and alcohol and other drug use. The impact of trauma needs to be better understood – homelessness is not a lifestyle choice, but a symptom of people whom are dangling on life’s edge barely hanging on.

For those who struggle to “get back on their feet” there can be a feeling of hopelessness. It’s not uncommon to ride the treadmill of homelessness – crisis accommodation, long wait lists for social housing, episodes on the streets, back to crisis accommodation, unaffordable private rental.  Our system is fragmented and difficult to access, like trying to put a jigsaw puzzle together with missing pieces, desperately trying to find a best fit and doing it blindfolded.

Being homeless can be associated with poverty, job loss, domestic violence, trauma, mental health problems or substance misuse, and it is common for people experiencing homelessness to have multiple issues which adds to the complexity of a person’s current and future needs.  People experiencing health and mental health issues need specialised support and care, with specialist services – most underfunded and over stretched.

The faces that are seen on Perth Streets are people whom have run out of options, they are our most vulnerable, and are greatly misunderstood.

Written by Sandy McKiernan, Vinnies WA Executive Manager Specialist Community Services

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