By Jane Gilmore, Australian journalist and author.
Most Australians can tell ourselves we will never experience homelessness. We might be right. We might not. Many people facing homelessness today never thought it would happen to them.
But even if we never experience it firsthand, homelessness still affects us all. Not just because living in a city where tens of thousands of people lack a secure home hurts our moral integrity. Homelessness also directly affects our health and safety.
Like experiencing homelessness, car accidents can happen to anyone. Roughly 65 per cent of us have had one. So it’s not hard to imagine that in a moment of distraction, exhaustion, or sheer bad luck, I could end up in a serious crash. If I survive that crash, Melbourne’s homelessness crisis will have a direct impact on my treatment and recovery.
My friend is a nurse in a trauma ward at a big inner-city hospital. This is the ward I’ll be taken to after that car crash. The person in the next bed might be there because of injuries from domestic violence, mental illness, alcohol, or drugs. If so, homelessness is definitely a possibility for them. Maybe because of those traumas – but equally, homelessness might be what exposed them to these risks.
Torn and broken bodies need peace, sleep, good food, and carefully supervised exercise to heal. Hospitals can’t always provide these things, so patients are discharged home or to physical rehabilitation centres as soon as it’s safe to do so. If a patient doesn’t have a home, or if the trauma of homelessness has compounded their support needs to the point that rehab facilities can’t or won’t take them, they stay in the hospital.
My friend tells me this is now a regular occurrence: patients staying in hospital beds costing thousands of dollars a day for weeks longer than they need to, simply because there is nowhere else for them to go.
After my car accident, an ambulance will take me to a hospital emergency department for triage. If I’m not immediately dying, I’ll wait in the ambulance until someone can admit me. If emergency is full, and the wards have no free beds, I could wait there for hours.
Meanwhile, the next person who has a car accident (perhaps you, or someone you love?) waits a bit longer for their ambulance, their injuries get a bit worse, their recovery takes a bit longer, rehab beds become a bit scarcer, healthcare workers get a bit more burnt out, and the spiral continues – with you, me, or the people we love at its centre.
This is just one example of the hidden costs of homelessness. Failing to solve it costs us more than just the direct hundreds of millions of dollars every year that we know about. More than the accumulated loss of hope, dignity, safety, and health for all those people who lack secure homes. Homelessness also has far-reaching flow-on effects, which carry consequences for us all.
The belief that homelessness can’t happen to me is comforting. I can tell myself that I work hard and make good choices so bad things can’t happen to me because I don’t deserve them. The corollary, however, is that if bad things happen to someone else, they must somehow deserve it.
However comforting this belief may be, it’s flawed logic. Bad things happen to good people all the time. Who would argue that someone deserves to live in their car with their children because they fell in love with a man who later became dangerously violent? That someone traumatised by childhood sexual abuse deserves to end up homeless? If my car accident is so terrible that I never fully recover and cannot work, do I deserve to lose my house?
No one deserves to not have a home. No one wants it or chooses it. It happens because, like car accidents, one person alone is powerless to stop it.
Together, however, we are far from powerless. As a community, we can choose to end homelessness.
Our supply of social housing must be urgently and drastically increased, and rents need to decrease. House prices must come down or at least stop rising. Housing must be treated as a public good, not a means of wealth creation. This comes at an undeniable cost to many of us, but the benefits are equally undeniable.
In our current political reality, however, no government will risk even discussing such policies. Decades of repeating the myth that people in poverty are just too lazy to be rich and lucky – that they deserve to be homeless – means politicians think none of us are willing to pay a price to end homelessness.
But what if they’re wrong? What if, collectively, we tell governments that we understand the cost of doing nothing is higher than the cost of change? What would happen if, as a nation, we decide we want to do whatever is necessary to live in a kinder, fairer, safer country?
What will happen if we don’t?
Jane Gilmore is an Australian journalist and author. Her first book, Fixed It: Violence and the Representation of Women in the Media, was published in 2019, and Teaching Consent in 2022.