The number of homeless people in Australia is rising.
More than 122,000 Australians were homeless on Census night in August 2021, up from 116,000 people counted in the previous Census in 2016. The data, released last week, was collected during COVID-19 lockdowns, in the most populated parts of the country, when state governments figured out how to easily and cheaply house people in available hotel rooms and apartments.
Since 2021, though, crisis lockdown accommodation has disappeared. The cost of living has soared, our rental crisis has deepened, and homelessness services say demand has increased dramatically, especially in 2023.
“Australia’s homelessness crisis has been exacerbated by the long-term absence of a serious and sizeable commitment to building new social and affordable homes,” Mission Australia’s CEO Sharon Callister told VICE.
“The ongoing severe lack of appropriate social and affordable housing is clearly evidenced in the worrying rise in people in temporary accommodation unable to move into long-term homes.”
The average Australian’s circle of separation from someone experiencing homelessness is shrinking, so is there enough help available for everyone?
Melbourne resident Jody Letts experienced homelessness in 2015 for close to two years and hers could be the story of thousands of people in similarly vulnerable positions.
Letts suffered a workplace injury and, while on unpaid leave, her landlords wanted to sell the property she rented.
“I was on sick leave without pay for very extended periods of time,” she told VICE.
“My income was dramatically impacted and … I needed to find somewhere else to live, but unfortunately I had payslips that said $0.00”.
After 48 unsuccessful rental applications, Letts, 42 at the time, and her 13-year-old daughter turned to living out of their van while Letts had to attended multiple physical and mental health appointments each week in orde to return to work.
They moved across Victoria daily, from friend’s house to friend’s house for the occasional shower and load of laundry, to her daughter’s school two hours north-west of Melbourne, to health appointments and to pharmacies and hospitals to collect Letts’ prescription medications, including anti-psychotics and morphine.
“We would choose where we’re going to stay based on the first appointment that was rigged up for the next day, wherever that might be,” Letts said.
Despite this, Letts thought her situation was fleeting.
“I was working really hard on all of the treatment programs I was attending, all the counselling, all the psychologists. I was going to every appointment that was thrown at me because, in my mind, I was going back to work, and as soon as I went back to work, my pay would restart and it would all be over,” she said.
“I, unfortunately, was in that headspace for a long period of time and really believed that I was going back to work, all I had to do was maybe one more appointment, then I would get that final report done, they’d sign off, and it would end.”
As a military veteran with a well-paying public service job, Letts never saw homelessness coming, but she was one in a large group of people known as the “hidden homeless”. This group makes up the overwhelming majority of homeless people in Australia and often don’t see themselves as “homeless” at all because they don’t fit the damaging and derogatory stereotypes of homelessness. In fact, those sleeping rough make up less than 10 per cent of homeless people in Australia. Most are instead staying with friends, in cars or in temporary accommodation.
Letts’ main income was $328 a fortnight from the Family Tax Benefit scheme, which is intended to assist low-income earners raise a child. Were she childless, she wouldn’t have been eligible for support.
Letts’ medication and appointments were subsidised, but this money barely covered fuel.
“It started to get really hard to be everywhere and get everything, which meant that sometimes I was a day or two out getting my morphine scripts. And for anyone that has an understanding of addiction — I only used to get seven-day batches and it was like the seven days plus one second, you started to withdraw from it. Insane withdrawals.
“It started to have all of these different impacts on my behaviour, because it was withdrawing from drugs, but having a lot of pain, and then I couldn’t drive the car because I was in too much pain.
“So that started a little bit more of a ripple effect. But at the same time, we weren’t necessarily getting breakfast, lunch and dinner because we were here, there and everywhere. We weren’t able to find toilets all the time that were open, or showering much, so we started to have some hygiene issues.”
Letts said her experience in the military prepared her for such deprivation, but her daughter took it differently.
“She was completely removed from any peers, any social interaction, thrown into this real crisis scenario. She started to get unwell physically and mentally. And we then started to have extreme arguments.”
Meanwhile, Letts said the medications and her dependence on them were taking a toll.
“I was off my face. I had absolutely no idea what day it was, I was turning left instead of turning right. I was disorientated,” she said.
“So this 13-year-old started to have fears about her mum waking up every day and which kind of mum she was going to get. And, unfortunately, that forced her to then become the decision-maker in the relationship and go from a child to an adult very quickly.”
Eventually, Letts took her daughter to get mental health support at a provider in Collingwood.
“We were having one of these little arguments in the waiting room and a worker from the reception came over to us and said, ‘Look, I don’t want to be overhearing, but I’m just wondering if you’ve ever heard of this organisation around the corner?’”
She was talking about Launch Housing, a homelessness support organisation. It was something Letts and her daughter had never even considered. Despite months filled with more than 1000 mental and physical health appointments, it was the first time Letts had connected her situation with “being homeless.”
“I hadn’t even thought to ask where the homeless food services were or where the emergency accommodation was,” she said, “because I didn’t imagine myself as homeless because still, in my mind, I was going back to work next week.”
“My daughter refused to get back in that car with me after that appointment unless I went and asked for help.”
They went around the corner and completed an initial crisis intake assessment. The staff said they could help with accommodation, but supply was scarce there and everywhere.
“You might get one night, two nights or you might get three nights, it really depended on who else was needing accommodation that night and what was available in the area. But no second allocation was in the same place. We might’ve been out in Box Hill, then Preston, then Abbotsford, then the CBD, then St Kilda — we were all over the shop.”
It meant more driving, often for no pay-off.
“You go in and wait your turn, which is fair, but if you weren’t [at the crisis accommodation provider] early enough, like if you had a 9am appointment you didn’t get there ‘til 10am, then you were 10, 15, 20 people down the queue and it was unlikely that you would get any accommodation. They’d say, ‘all of our allocation’s gone for the day, sorry,’ so you’ve wasted your whole day sitting there.”
Letts said they received regular parking fines when they were staying in crisis accommodation because of their busy or inner-city locations.
“It started to put us through an enormous amount of stress,” she said.
After about four weeks in this cycle, they became eligible for a support worker dedicated to their case, which Letts said was the turning point.
“That one worker really took the slack off our lives,” she said.
The support worker booked Letts’ appointments, drove her to some, would sit in with her occasionally, took notes, filled out forms and organised doctor’s certificates. She knew them and their story, so there was no need for Letts to keep explaining their needs over and over to every professional they passed.
She was also an emotional pillar.
“She always made sure that my day had been positive,” Letts said.
“And if it had been negative, she’d say, ‘do we just do this another time?’ Or if [we] looked a bit flat, she would say, ‘you know, what? Do you and your daughter just want to go to the movies today? I’ll go grab some movie passes, and some popcorn vouchers, and just go and have the day just to relax.’
“If she hadn’t existed in my space, what would’ve happened to us? She was, for 18 months, that rock we needed”.
Eventually, Letts’ workplace dismissal dispute was settled and she was given involuntary disability redundancy, which meant she was able to access her super and rent a house.
Her support worker organised the movers and helped Letts pick out new furniture.
But eight years later, Letts feels like one of the lucky ones, because there weren’t — and still aren’t — enough of these support workers to help everyone.
Government funding for homelessness support services becomes less adequate every day, and organisations have to fight for the funding to keep support workers in their low-paid jobs, let alone hire more help.
“You can imagine how important these people are,” Letts said.
“If you don’t have your own resources, you don’t have the motivation. You’ve got depression, you’ve got too many demands — you just can’t do it all … without that guiding star.”
Aleksandra Bliszczyk is a Senior Reporter for VICE Australia. You can follow her on Instagram here, or on Twitter here.
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