It may sound surprising but these days almost anyone can become homeless.
On any given night in Australia, 1 in 200 people are homeless. In fact, you might know someone who is struggling at the moment. Homelessness is now recognised to be more than just someone living on the street and includes severe overcrowding at home and couch surfing.
Sometimes all it takes is a string a bad timing to be facing the prospect of homelessness. A flood of higher than expected bills can quickly push credit cards and bank accounts into overdraught and when the car breaks down, getting the kids to school and to work on time can become a losing battle. From here it isn’t difficult to see how things can spiral out of control.
Further to this, unexpected illness can also affect those living from pay cheque to pay cheque. Take, for example, the casual construction worker who damages their knee at home. No longer able to do the physical work required, not covered by insurance, and with limited skills, their income has suddenly stopped and there are mounting medical bills as well as back rent. Which gets paid first?
Domestic and family violence
Over a quarter of the people attending specialist housing and homelessness services are fleeing for domestic and family violence, many with children in tow and often with only the clothes on their backs. Overwhelmingly, these people are women. When a woman is forced to leave her home, she doesn’t usually return and so forfeits anything that remains there. Due to the financial abuse and isolation that can accompany the violence, she may not have access to money or have been allowed to have a job, severely limiting her ability for independence.
Older women are increasingly being assisted at specialist housing and homelessness services. The reasons for this include relationship breakdown or the death of a partner, leaving them with debt and a decreased income. The reality is that women generally have much less superannuation to draw on thanks to the pay gap between men and women. Women who take time out of the workforce or who work part time due to child rearing can look forward a large drop in their super savings as well.
Housing affordability and tenure
Research has shown that moving house can average out at almost $3,500 and with one third of Australian households having less than $1,000 in cash savings, this can cause a lot of stress. That is, of course, if there’s affordable housing available. The last few decades have seen inner suburban rents skyrocket and people on lower incomes being pushed further and further out. Gentrification of the traditionally lower priced inner city suburbs has also not helped. In addition, it could be argued that the rental market is skewed in favour of the landlord and not the tenants, so issues such as leasing tenure and being unaware of tenant rights can lead to unnecessary instability.
Those who have suffered trauma, particularly during childhood, are at a higher risk of experiencing homelessness. This is also the case for people who have experienced historic governmental institutionalisation and those leaving state care. Acquired brain injuries through domestic and family violence, accidents or prolonged substance use can also exacerbate the challenges of daily living and can result in the loss of work or stable accommodation.
LGBTIQ young people
LGBTIQ face an increased risk of homelessness simply for being who they are. Young people in this category are particularly vulnerable as they generally rely on their parents or guardians for shelter, food, education and support. If they have a family network that is not supportive of their identity, leaving home can sometimes be more bearable than staying. This group is also especially susceptible to mental health conditions as they struggle with issues of identity, support and societal confines.
People experiencing mental illness are overrepresented in the homelessness population as well as being at a higher risk for becoming homeless. Mental illness can make it difficult for people hold down jobs or attend appointments which can in turn affect their income. It can also be hard to do the things that others take for granted such as remembering to pay bills or keeping aside money for rent.
Mental illness and substance misuse frequently go hand in hand. It may be that the person is using substances to self-medicate or that misuse has led to a new or exacerbated illness. Often both mental illness and addiction can feed into each other making general living challenging.
Another factor affecting homelessness that can result from both mental illness and substance misuse, but may also affect the general population, is a lack of support. Strong, healthy and varied support networks offer assistance in times of need. It is easy to see that if your networks are small or unreliable, there are less people to rely on when you need a helping hand. Smaller families and the dwindling sense of community and neighbourhood can leave people on their own and isolation can also lead to mental health issues and the same challenges mentioned above.
Ages of people currently experiencing homelessness:
- Under 12 – 17%
- 12-18 – 10%
- 19-24 – 15%
- 25-34 – 18%
- 35-44 – 14%
- 45-54 – 12%
- 55-64 – 8%
- 65-74 – 4%
- 75 and over – 2%
Where they are staying:
- Improvised dwellings (shelters, tents, sleeping rough, cars) – 6%
- Supported accommodation for the homeless (refuges) – 20%
- Staying temporarily with other households (couch surfing) – 17%
- Boarding and rooming house (legal and illegal) – 17%
- Severely overcrowded dwellings – 39%
- Other temporary lodgings – 1%