There's no red carpet for Melbourne's homeless

The  recent suggestion that  Melbourne’s  homeless problem is being exacerbated by kindness  to “beggars”, in fact, beggars belief. Yet this suggestion has been made very public recently in the media and among civic leaders who should know better.


Currently Melburnians are being urged to resist their reckless impulse to help the poor and homeless. We’re only making it worse apparently. This idea could only come from people who are not sleeping rough in Melbourne’s freezing winter.


We have had much observation of homelessness in our media recently. We have been told how many, how noisy, how messy, how inconvenient, how spoiled, and less so, who is homeless. We are also to believe, without evidence,  that people who are homeless are flocking south to enjoy Melbourne’s gold class hospitality for the homeless i.e. the “red carpet treatment” (even though New South Wales has more charities per head of population than Victoria, and much better weather in winter).


Our expensive housing market, high rates of youth unemployment and disengagement, family abuse, concentrated outer suburban poverty and locational disadvantage together make a strong case that Victoria is creating its own homeless population without blaming New South Wales. That said, there are many new and outstanding organisations doing all they can to help the homeless in Melbourne.


But what has been missing is any questioning of why there has been such rapid rise in rough sleepers in the CBD. Rushed responses to the crisis (which has been growing in plain sight for years), has also left people who are homeless feeling out of the consultation loop, as money and solutions are being defined for them, but not with them. 


There’s no excuse.  The drivers of homeless are well diagnosed and documented, from a local, state and national perspective. The City of Melbourne’s own research called Street Count an annual census of rough sleepers already showed a 41% increase in 2014, and jumped to a 74%  this year. That represents a 229% increase since the first Street Count in 2009.


But the research also identifies what the people who are sleeping rough report as their most pressing needs. The list (see below) includes very practical help, but also shows the importance of offering connection and engagement in order to breakdown the marginalisation and exclusion they feel.


Far from asking for the red carpet treatment, this expression of need emphasises the importance of getting through another day  so you don’t smell and look bad, or go hungry,  and the need for meaningful things to do that can build confidence and optimism. Ignored almost wholly in this debate is the job pathway, which rough sleepers themselves identify as important.


The City of Melbourne, and other municipalities, can do much to open job opportunities that can provide a supported entry point from long term exclusion into gainful paid employment. The transition to work for someone who is street homeless is no simple feat. It takes support and time. And an employer with a social conscience.


Most employers ask for “job ready” people, but we are also going to need a supply of “people ready” jobs if we genuinely want to help people get back on their feet.


Local governments and their contractors are well placed to create this environment while also solving a growing local problem. Many charities such as Youth Projects have a long history of success in supporting people through this transition and can partner with employers who are willing to create suitable opportunities.


People feel the current JobActive system is not engaging well with the long term unemployed and homeless, whose needs are many and therefore threaten the profit margin for employment providers who are not charities. Dead end leads, pointless resume writing exercises and poorly trained staff ill-equipped to deal with homelessness are among the many complaints from homeless clients.


What people mistake as the “red carpet” (free food, showers, socks and activities) is actually part of the solution. This is where organisations like Youth Projects are reaching out to these most excluded people to first build confidence, trust and optimism for the future.


A high proportion of people who are homeless who have been in the child protection system, having suffered neglect and abuse as children. Their teen years are often not much improved and feelings of trauma and betrayal are carried into adult life. Supporting people to communicate, to feel empowered towards their next steps and move out of the only life they currently know demands multiple strategies.


We simply have no business criticising the most basic interventions whereby a homeless individual can feel welcome and respected when seeking a shower or to access the internet or to see a doctor.  It is critical that people who we know in all likelihood have already experienced a life time of chaos, mistrust and exploitation are offered positive interactions. Establishing pathways into conversation, connection and the possibility of a health assessment or referral into group activities are built from those initial interaction with support services.


That’s why when you see people playing chess, Scrabble or joining the art group at Youth Projects, there are at least two things happening: relief from the grinding boredom and loneliness that comes with homelessness, but also we’re boosting social skills and inclusion. Moving into a personal plan to address common challengers such as health issues, housing options and relationship problems tend to follow from these initial stages of “soft engagement”, though there is absolutely no obligation to do so.


Moving from the provision of basic survival and comfort, there is a great need for more resources to address rising demand for mental health counselling, alcohol and drug counselling, and general health concerns, all of which present complex challenges to getting back on track.


Youth Projects night nurses have met a 141% increase in demand for health care on the streets in the past two years while coping with a 30% loss in funding.  Client numbers are also   the highest they have ever been in our alcohol and drug services, drug safety services, mental health, nursing and GP services.


And if you look again at the list of needs people who are homeless have clearly articulated, it closely matches the service model and practice at Youth Projects. Working together with people experiencing homelessness to establish the service model that will be most effective is our best hope of success. Meanwhile the biggest obstacles continue to be limited resources to meet the rising demand for help, the extreme personal poverty of those sleeping rough, and totally inadequate housing options that enable people to stabilise, recover and access job opportunities, training and ongoing support. But rest assured, nobody is staying homeless for a free shower and clean underpants.

Street Count 2015 - What would make a difference according to people who are sleeping rough? 


Housing and accommodation were the main things that would make a difference to people. Other suggestions for improvements to services or initiatives that would make a difference included:


More showers and laundry facilities

Increased number of lockers and access to lockers 24/7

Access to open spaces and facilities where people sleeping rough could play sport, get fit at a gym, and/or participate in team games

Places where people can paint or be involved in creative, artistic expression

More centres where homeless people can go to relax, sit comfortably, catch up with people

A womens’ place where women can go and relax and talk 

Shelters or places where people sleeping rough can be sheltered from the rain and cold

More security around the hot spots where people are sleeping rough

Better weekend services – especially food services

Increase fresh food and vegetarian options available through the food services

A job or engagement in study, with study options ranging from learning to read, adult education type courses, work skills through to tertiary studies

‘Living skills course’ to support people in the transition from homelessness to housing.

With the exception of hot spot security, all of the above services are available the Living Room in Hosier Lane