Homelessness is easy to slip a blind eye or hush in conversation. We tend to overlook facts with judgement on people we’ve never met before, using drugs and alcohol as a common scapegoat to guillotine the subject.
For most of us, we don’t interact with homeless people or consider them apart of the community. We’ve been privileged of detaching ourselves and shifting our perspectives to benefit from, further pushing to dehumanising already vulnerable people.
In 2016, the rate of homelessness increased by 13.5% over the last 5 years, leaving more than 100,000 people in Australia homeless. The misconceptions that homelessness is a choice and self-inflicted conceives the stigma homelessness receives. This stigma goes on to fuel the ideology of homeless people having no value in society, inevitably damaging one’s self esteem, behaviour and attitudes. The consequences of being isolated and misunderstood inevitably creates devastating repercussions.
Meg counts herself as one of the lucky ones, she was shifted between housing commissions, friends houses and hotels/motels in a space of 5 years between the age 7 and 12. We managed to catch her attention to talk over the phone about her childhood and the push to redefine homelessness.
What do you do?
I’m a student in my fifth year of university, Wollongong University. I study a Bachelor of Media and Communications and a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in International Media and Communication, History and Sociology. I also have a minor in Indigenous Studies and Marketing and Advertising. I’m also working part-time in the hospitality.
Where do you live?
I currently live in a share house with four of my other mates in Coniston, a suburb just about an hour and a half from Sydney. It’s great, I have a roof over my head so that’s pretty cool haha.
What’s a common misconception about homelessness in Australia?
I think a lot of people don’t realise there is a significant amount of people that are homeless in their youths ,and even the definition of homelessness itself. We automatically link homelessness with images of people living on the streets. I’ve even done it myself before, without realising it. If you really look into homelessness, it can be couch surfing, staying at someones house, living out of your car. These are all examples of being homeless and I think it’s really important to try and redefine homelessness because otherwise people call these judgements on it.
Do you think people tend to make up their own definition of homelessness to cope with it?
Homelessness is generally connotated with having to have a problem to be homeless, when in fact it can be the case that shit can just go wrong in someones point in time. I think people put others into categories to make sense of their kind of situation or the world. It’s a natural occurrence to pass a judgement in order to accept what’s going on, rather than to confront it and try to help make a change. People would rather consider them as a delinquent or label them as something that is inadequate to what we consider normal human behaviour or normal etiquette. It’s simpler to blame the person rather than looking at it as an institutional societal problem. It’s kind of sad that we have this issue that has so much potential to change yet a bulk of people can’t even recognise it as a problem.
Before being homeless, what was your attitude towards it?
I was homeless from around the age of 7 to 12. Before that, there was a really big naivety about homelessness, I was so young that didn’t really understand the repercussions. I gathered my perception from the people around me, the media, even children books and how they were portrayed.
How did you become homeless?
When I was 6 years old, my mum past away from cancer. We stayed in our family home for another year and then my dad, because of drug and gambling problems plus mental illness couldn’t really cope anymore and we lost the house.
How did you get by?
It started off with us living in housing commission. In a space of a few years, I moved about 18 times. We went through the whole housing commission system. We moved suburb to suburb sort of thing, and after a while, it just got pretty intense. Eventually, we couldn’t get a house anymore, so we ended up staying at other people’s houses, sometimes I knew them and sometimes they were strangers.
I lived with my grandmother for 8 months in Dundas Valley when I was in grade five. I remember waking up at 5am to go to school, Scarborough Public, every morning and not getting home till 7pm. After that, I slept at family friends houses that had known my mother really well. Most of them also knew my dad and the good parts of him, remembering him for what he was before my mother’s death. I think i‘m lucky in the sense that I had a really good sense of community.
In year 7, I ended up staying with someone for about a three month period that I had met in high school who became a really good friend of mine. Then my grandmother, who I am estranged to for reasons that she’s not a very nice person, came over and took me to Tasmania. After three weeks, I refused to stay there. I came home afterwards to my dad, who still didn’t have a place. I ended up moving in with my best friend from Primary school, our mother’s had known each other. I was only suppose to stay for a week but I ended up staying for 8 years with them.
In summary, my homelessness was long and drawn out over a period of 5 years and I guess is a different kind of category in what you’d consider your stereotypical homeless.
At such a vulnerable stage of our lives, did this impact any relationships/friendships?
Lets be real here, it’s pretty fucked up for a kid to have to go through that or let alone anyone. It had a pretty detrimental impact in how I thought I was and how people perceived me. You know, they say that between the age of 0-7, that’s when you kind of create your personality and base yourself on what the world offers you. It’s interesting, I think that I was totally fucked up from it because of my youth and naivety. I struggled to come to terms with the whole thing for a really long time and its only been in the last two years, reflecting back on that time that I realised how messed up I was as a child. I remember being 9 and thinking about killing myself or hating the world. I was really angry and sad and confused and distraught most of the time. Just a built up of emotions and no idea where to put it. I guess some people made judgements quite quickly without knowing the situation.
To have no kind of security as a kid, it definitely would be difficult to cope with.
I count my lucky stars in a sense that I had a brother who’s five years older than me, who went through this with me. I had that support, but also, as much as our dad did wrong after my mums death and my mum’s death, they really instilled that life is worth living. You take the opportunities you get and you make it your own. Just being present really, and despite all my dads faults, he definitely instilled in me general characteristics that I think are so important and they had only been enforced by my mum’s loss.
Do you think there’s a social hierarchy that gets implemented in us whilst were kids?
It’s interesting being at that age where children are naturally pushing the boundaries of kindness. I think when you’re a child and trying to go through these normal passages of adolescence it’s kind of intimidating when the children of adults are making a judgement of your situation. There was definitely a period of time that I felt that I was ostracised by others because of that, especially my childhood by friends who had parents that didn’t let me hang out with them because of my dad.
Did you feel like people misunderstood your situation?
I felt like I lost a lot of friends because of their parents kind of judged my dad who wasn’t able to hold himself together after my mum died. I was a kid and didn’t fully grasp the situation at the time. I guess you kind of work out the people who are willing to stick around and the people who won’t.
Did it affect your personal self worth?
Yeah, definitely. I 100% can say back then I was definitely a very depressed kid. I guess there was a lot of factors to my depression but I think the idea that I was alone resonated with me a lot. Besides the few people I did have in my life, I had went from feeling like I had a lot to little so quickly.
How did people react when you told them you didn’t have a place to stay?
I remember exaggerating the truth or not answering the question. I felt quite embarrassed of it. And in between getting a house from housing commissions, we would be put up in hotels or motels when they didn’t have enough houses. I remember at one point I was living in a hotel for just over a month and just having to make up stories so that people wouldn’t know. I remember this one time, my friend in class, we were so young there was innocence of it but I remember I had stayed with her for a week and my dad had told her mum that we were staying at a motel. In class, she decided to tell everyone through conversation. I just remember saying ‘stop, stop, it’s none of your business, be quiet’ and she just kept going and then I ended up just bursting into tears and running out of class. Back then, I felt so much guilt around it.
Another time would be when we lived with our grandmother who was quite sick but the prime reason we lived with her in Sydney was because we had nowhere else to go so I felt like I had to exaggerate that we had to look after her when really she was looking after us.
How did you overcome the guilt and realisation of your self worth?
There’s a few factors to that. The first would be time, I am true believer that time heals everything and even if you have really strong emotions or ideas about yourself, if you give yourself enough time to seperate yourself from the situation you can recover quite well. The second would probably be the fact that when I was 12, I moved in with my best friend and her family and that was only suppose to be a week and I ended up staying there for 8 years. I think if I didn’t have that support network, someone that now I call mum, and someone willing to take me in and pick me back up, I would be in a very different path than I am now. So I think, I have a really strong community where I live and a lot people knew my parents quite well, so I had that as well. I also have to give credit to my own parents, even though my dad may have vacated my life I think he did in a sense to help me and also my childhood, both him and my mum instilled the value of treating people properly and believing in yourself. I have this intense empathy for life and I eventually started putting that on myself. It’s only been the last two years where I’ve really become hyperaware of myself and my worth. Everything that I deserve and that I’m a good person. Before that, it was definitely there but I think it was just the process of trying to find and construct my identity that I struggled with and still do. It’s kind of like a big process that doesn’t actually end, but you get to a point where you’re quite content with it.
I think there’s a sense of understanding and it seems like you’ve gone through so much reflection in what has happened in your earlier years.
I think there’s some pivotal years where you need some solid role models and it was just really lucky that I happened to have that opportunity. I think there’s a lot of youth that are homeless that don’t have strong networks and are falling into some quite dark holes in early adulthood and that continues on. I was just one lucky kid because a lot of people don’t have that. That’s a major thing to lose or not have and it can be really detrimental to a person.
Having that sense of support and being exposed to that kind of community would’ve really helped.
Yeah, it definitely helped. I think it’s one factor of why I am where I am today because there was a bunch of people around me that were willing to kind of guide me in the right direction or help in that process which goes along with my own personality. I guess the experience of homelessness in itself.
I think there’s definitely a lot of factors that has created who you are today but I think you’ve got to give yourself some credit and realise that you’re personality and character has definitely played a role.
Yeah, I think I’ve realised that when I was older. I have this like really intense thirst for success and not in a sense of materialistic consumerism that we instantly link success with but with the success of being happy or content with what I’ve got. You know, going to uni and getting an education. Not even doing that, even getting a job and working, being productive. Even just having a roof over my head and being able to pay for it. Just stuff like that, that in itself was always what I strived for.
To learn more about Australia’s homelessness crisis, check out https://streetsmartaustralia.org/