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When you talk about homelessness, it becomes more of a normal conversation.

We sat down with environmentalist and former Young Australian of the Year Arron Wood AM to talk all things ending homelessness in Melbourne.

 In 2019 when Deputy Lord Mayor of the City of Melbourne, you went on the immersive SBS TV show 'Filthy Rich & Homeless' - what did you learn from your experience on the show? What surprised you?

It was a real gift, but it was also probably one of the toughest experiences that I've ever had to go through. I thought that it would start to impact me, maybe halfway through the 10 nights. They'd taken our phones and wallets and anything that kind of identified us with who we were previously. We were given some second-hand clothes and a bag, and I was dropped off in The Rocks area of Sydney. The rain was horizontal at that time. What hit me was just how quickly the harshness of that life starts to creep up on you.  

My big realisation, within a few hours of being on the show, was that the streets are really no place for anyone - for a day, let alone for weeks and months, with all the impacts that come with that. I think the other big thing for me was that, three or four nights in, I hadn't slept. 

I'd have been guilty previously of walking past people on the street and thinking, "Why don't you just go and get a job?" or "Pull yourself together." When you're living in such a harsh environment, I can't even call it living because it's just so brutal. I felt like I'd aged; in those first few days, I started to get paranoid about what was going on around me. 

I could see people visibly moving away from me because you can't keep yourself clean, and hygiene starts to fall by the wayside. It was a real eye-opening experience as to how brutal that or that life is if you end up on the streets for whatever reason. 

In my role at Deputy Lord Mayor, we dealt with homelessness through the lens of local government. Unfortunately, during my eight years on council, we had hundreds of people sleeping rough on the streets. It was a very visible problem. We put in place many programmes, such as Daily Support Teams and tried to provide more housing. 

Early intervention, all sorts of different programmes, were implemented; we opened up facilities for those experiencing homelessness. We worked closely with organisations like Launch Housing, the Salvos and a host of others who were providing accommodation and respite. However, it really felt like we were only just scratching the surface of the problem because, what I had learned from my experiences is that rough sleeping is really just the tip of the iceberg. There are also people couch surfing, in boarding houses, in accommodation that's not secure. 

In a country as wealthy as Australia and a city as progressive and liveable as Melbourne, how does it make you feel when you see someone sleeping rough? 

Before I had that real experience on Filthy Rich & Homeless, it was easy to see someone as a number, a statistic, or simply 'them' or 'someone else'.  

I experienced almost a progression of being on the street: crisis, accommodation, insecure housing, and then to a boarding house for people recovering from drug addiction. You get to know their stories, and they are people just like you and me.  

I think we're really quick to judge people who end up on the streets when it only takes a few incidents for life to spiral quickly out of control. 


Why has this most visible form of homelessness become something we've begun to collectively 'walk past'?   

We think it's a problem that's simply too difficult to solve. I believe there's a sense of shame. We don't want to look at that person on the streets because, if we really consider it, a human sleeping on the concrete, especially at this time in Melbourne when it's freezing cold, is something we probably feel guilty about.  

Could you talk about your experience of the stigma surrounding homelessness and the impacts of this? 

I think the stigma surrounding homelessness is rooted in our perception of homelessness as being synonymous with the person on the street. It's the image of the middle-aged man, someone who might be struggling with mental health issues and drug addiction, someone who's made some wrong choices. Absolutely, there are cases like that.  

However, mental health issues, drug and alcohol addiction, childhood trauma, and family violence are just some of the many reasons why someone ends up without a home. The person you envisage as the stereotypical homeless individual often deviates so greatly from the truth; it could be a single parent with a young family. It could be a father with a child or a young person experiencing mental health issues. From my experience, there really is no typical image of homelessness. 

What can Melburnians do to help counter the stigma surrounding homelessness? 

When you actually talk about it, it becomes more of a normal conversation. Another thing we can do is to remove that sense of feeling overwhelmed or simply accept that homelessness is part of the landscape. Homelessness is absolutely solvable.  

We need to reinforce the point that there are really known ways of tackling homelessness. First and foremost, getting a roof over someone's head is paramount - so we need more housing. However, having support services, the 'relationship first' approach, is also crucial - It's no good just getting someone into a home if they aren't getting the support that's wrapped around them to help them grow back into a person who's capable of staying in their own home. Some people need a lot of support; they might even need lifelong support.  

Interestingly, another thing I learned through all the research that I did, and the sorts of things that I needed to grapple with, is that solving homelessness is not just a human issue. It's about compassion, yes, but it's also an economic issue. For every dollar you spend on housing someone, you actually save nearly $3 in community benefits. This could mean fewer presentations to Victoria Police, emergency services, health services, and all of these sorts of things. So, not only does it make sense from the perspective of being a good human being, but it also makes absolute economic sense to get people off the streets as well. 

People may have heard of a connection between climate change and homelessness in countries internationally - how does this play out in Melbourne? 

The changing climate impacts just about every aspect of our lives, and for people who are sleeping rough on the streets, extremes of temperature are literally life and death. So, it's not just, 'Gosh, we got that really big storm event', or 'That heat wave was a bit rough, so my air conditioning was working overtime'. 

If you don't have secure housing, if you're living in housing that is below standard, you can literally die from heat waves. You can die from cold. I think the impacts of a change in climate are only going to impact the most vulnerable even more.  


What are your top 3 learnings about making Melbourne a world-leading city in ending homelessness? 

Firstly, it's believing that this issue is solvable and that homelessness isn't something we should accept. If everyone agrees that we don't accept homelessness as part of our modern-day living and we need it solved, and we understand that the methods to solve it are quite clear, then our collective pressure on governments, agencies, and decision-makers can make a significant difference. 

I believe people can also take more practical action. They can contact their local government or one of the agencies literally on the front line and ask, "Is there volunteering that I might be able to do? Are there other sorts of things that I can do?"  

Thirdly, I think it's crucial to try and understand the issues around homelessness so you are more informed about why people end up in this situation. That way, we won't judge or discriminate against people because of their circumstances.


Why is a campaign like Melbourne Zero important? 

Melbourne Zero is just so important because it indicates that we can achieve zero functional homelessness. There are examples around the world where towns and cities have stated that they do not wish to have individuals sleeping rough on their streets. 

We aim to address homelessness by employing a multi-pronged approach. We have all the necessary stakeholders involved: local government, state government, agencies, and the community. The crucial aspect here is that each of us has a role to play in this endeavour. 

Melbourne Zero - even the name itself, carries significance. Solving homelessness is feasible and morally justified. It is not only the right thing to do from a humanitarian standpoint but also from an economic perspective. Therefore, there is no reason why we should not roll up our sleeves and focus intently on providing adequate housing, implementing comprehensive support services, and adopting a holistic approach to homelessness.  

Additionally, it is crucial to approach each person individually, recognising that we cannot treat everyone the same way. We must tailor our approaches according to their specific circumstances and the type of support they require. 

What should Melburnians know about homelessness? 

I think the average Melburnian should know that homelessness is everywhere. It's in every town, it's in every city. It doesn't discern between the country and the city. Rural and regional homelessness is just as difficult as it is in the cities, but it also doesn't discern who you are.  

We need to open up our eyes a little bit and say this can impact anyone, particularly where we are at the moment with all of these rates rises, the cost of which is spiralling for that cohort of people that you thought comprised the homeless population.  

Suddenly, that broadens out very quickly to people who might have had secure housing, who might have had a secure job and have experienced a few knocks. All of a sudden, they don't have that support network around them. They could actually end up on the streets, and that could be you. 


Any last things to add?  

During my time on Filthy Rich & Homeless, I made every effort to comprehend it. You will never, ever grasp what it's like to be truly homeless if you have a warm bed to return to. That feeling of hopelessness and the sense of being detached from normal society are just so pervasive. I had, for 10 days, the knowledge that I was returning to a warm bed. 

However, the disintegration within me as an individual halfway through that programme, during the 10 nights we spent on the streets, was so profound that it profoundly affects someone enduring long-term homelessness. We need to understand that some people will recover quickly and regain stability. Some people are going to need much more long-term support, and that's perfectly alright too. We need to be aware, and we need to be understanding. 






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