For some of us, winter is a time to look forward to—an opportunity to warm ourselves by a fire, cosy up with a book or take ourselves off to the footy. For a growing number of people, however, winter is no such thing. Without the security of a home, the coldest months are more threatening than comforting.
Dr Jennifer Fitzgerald AM, the newly appointed CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society Victoria, says that homelessness in our state is rising at an alarming rate.
Since the last census in 2016, Australia’s average rate of homelessness increased by around 5 per cent, she explains. When we take a closer look at Victoria, however, we see a shocking 24 per cent increase since the last census—the highest increase of all the states. ‘On any given night, there are 24,000 Victorians that count as being homeless,’ she says.
One surprising aspect of these figures is that homelessness is not a problem just in the city centre. Rates have doubled across Melton, Pakenham, Cranbourne, Bendigo East and Oakleigh. ‘It’s really telling a story,’ she says. ‘It’s not metropolitan-based. It’s across the state. Some people might be surprised to find their electorate in the top ten.’
The waitlist for social housing has increased exponentially as well. In March 2022, it was as long as 55,000. It now exceeds 67,000 applications.
The growth in homelessness is reflected in the increased demand for services provided by the St Vincent de Paul Society, Dr Fitzgerald says. Their Melbourne welfare assistance line, which is run by volunteers, has received more than 55,000 calls in the last 12 months, averaging more than 300 a day. The Society worries that there are many each day who can’t get through.
From the soup vans to the work of local conference members, the money spent on food and the number of meals being delivered is quickly rising.
Among the groups most acutely affected by the crisis, Dr Fitzgerald says, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples suffer disproportionate rates of homelessness, with 11.5 per cent of First Nations peoples in Victoria going without homes, and around one in six experiencing homelessness each year. This makes them 13.1 times more likely to experience homelessness than other Victorians.
According to the most recent ABS data, across Australia, males make up 55.9 per cent of those experiencing homelessness, and females 44.1 per cent. Since the 2016 census, this constitutes a 1.6 per cent increase for men and a startling 10.1 per cent increase for women.
This makes women a vulnerable cohort right now. Dr Fitzgerald says, ‘Women are more likely to use homelessness services, since they don’t have the same economic reserves.’ Women and children are also more likely to experience domestic and family violence, and more than half of women who use those services cite this as the primary reason.
Every figure, every service: the demand is increasing exponentially.
A number of intersecting factors are contributing to this crisis, she says. The lack of affordable housing is one, as well as domestic violence, lack of adequate income, health inequity (since many medical practices are no longer bulk-billing) and the rising cost of living.
An especially harrowing example of the way several factors can combine to contribute to homelessness is the story of Diana Connell, who, along with her two teenage children, was forced out of her home and found herself living in a car.
After moving to Australia from New Zealand 21 years ago, the Connell family bought a dairy farm in rural Victoria, but things took a tragic turn when her husband became abusive. Family relationships were already stretched to breaking point when the children found their own voices and became recipients of the abuse themselves, Diana explains.
‘We lost everything in one evening,’ she says. ‘The domestic and family violence got to the point of being unbearable … We got violently removed from our house with what we were wearing.’
Several factors made Diana’s situation especially difficult. At that time, because they were from New Zealand, federal government policies meant they were unable to gain citizenship or to access government financial support (policies that were reformed this year). Diana was also very sick with cancer at the time, and she relied on the aid of a feeding device.
Forced from their home in the middle of the night with nothing but the clothes they were wearing, Diana and her two children walked for hours to the closest police station.
The police took them back to the house, where they were able to get a few things, like a car, the feeding device and their phones. They ended up sleeping in their car at a local McDonalds, taking advantage of the overhead streetlights, the facilities, the safety afforded by its round-the-clock opening hours, and the free internet.
‘We had to scrounge for food from rubbish bins,’ she recalls.
All of this was happening while her son and daughter were trying to finish high school. Because she was so sick, finding employment was unlikely, and they also had no rental history.
Although Diana had heard of the St Vincent de Paul Society before, she wasn’t aware of the services they provided. When she called their assistance line, the first thing they organised was grocery vouchers. ‘That was just amazing. We could buy toothbrushes, deodorant, fresh fruit—everything we didn’t have.’
They also helped Diana and her children find a house in Yarrawonga. This proved to be unsustainable, since the children were only working part-time jobs and the St Vincent de Paul conference in Yarrawonga was small. The local conference topped up the rent where they could, but ultimately the Connells had to move on.
They ended up at a safe house in Sunbury, where they didn’t have to pay rent for a whole year thanks to the support of the St Vincent de Paul Society. This allowed them time to recuperate and focus on their mental health, which was deteriorating.
Right now, Diana and her daughter live in Sunshine North, where they have been living for seven years. Her son is a qualified builder and has since bought his own house. Although Diana has three jobs and only just manages to scrape the rent together every month, ultimately she is proud of their story and how far they’ve come.
‘I always have that positive thing of, “Look where we are!”’ she says. ‘My son and daughter, they’re amazing young adults. I have my own business and two other jobs … It’s an amazing feeling.’
The support of the St Vincent de Paul Society was an incredible blessing for them too. ‘[They] got us to a point where our lives are so much better. Without their support, I have no idea what we would’ve done.’
Diana has also applied to be part of the Victim Survivors’ Advisory Council (VSAC), a body that advises the Victorian Parliament on the experience of surviving abuse, and has made it onto the shortlist of those who may be selected to participate.
Dr Fitzgerald says that the St Vincent de Paul Society is one of the most highly regarded providers of specialist housing in the state, thanks to government funding.
But they also rely on the generosity of ordinary Melburnians to help those most affected by homelessness. ‘Here we are, a first-world nation, and the gaps are widening,’ she says. There is a need, she says, for both a ‘multi-pronged’ societal response and a personal one.
‘Visit one of our shops to donate or buy something. That’s really helpful, because that helps us to continue delivering our mission.’
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