Sunday, 18 May 2014

Humanity Continued

I started writing this post in December 2013, I wanted to really get my point across, but I couldn't quite find the words. Ironically, I think I now have them. The irony being the state of our own country's Public Housing. The federal budget that was recently released really challenges the question of "Where is the Humanity?" Add to this post the new wave of Homeless Youth we will now see if they are required to wait 6 months for an income even in extreme circumstances. Think of the burden to charities … just think about all this ...

I wrote this post about humanity, because I had read a news article that proved to motivate me to write.  However, I did not quite make the point I was going for in that post as I had also found this great piece on the evolution of human empathy. 

So, in an attempt to stay on track today, HERE is the article that made me want to write about Humanity, well, at least the lack of it. Mind you, this point may still take some time to make, so bear with me.

The article is a story of a young couple who have moved to "the city" (Wollongong) from Forbes, to try to find work and accommodation. They were staying with a relative, on the couch. Due to unforeseen circumstances, they are now in temporary accommodation while they look for a rental property they can afford.

Again, it is not this actual story that made me think about humanity, well, except for the part where the young lady talks about feeling judged because of her homeless status, no, it was the comments that appeared after the story, written by people who had read the story and had made judgements about this young lady, based on 650 words and 1 photo.

There were superficial judgements based on the fact the young lady has a couple of tattoos, they judged her because of her age, they brought into question her family assuming they were negligent, and it went on. Self professed Landlords citing they would not allow anyone with tattoos to rent one of their properties. Thankfully there were a few clear thinking people who left retaliatory comments in defence of the young lady, and people with tattoos.

I have to disclose right here that I have a personal interest in matters of housing and  homelessness. As some of you may know, I too have had a few problems securing long term accommodation for myself and my two sons due to the specific needs around LJ's safety and security associated with his disability.

It is because of my experience and this story about a young couple just trying to get a start in life, not to mention all the other stories I have heard as a bi product of my own journey, that has lead me to feel the need to explain a few things about the world of rental accommodation and social housing to the many who have not had the opportunity to live in that world and experience it first hand.

Public Housing and Community Housing Organisations only have so many properties available to rent to their clients. (Which is why the waiting lists are currently so long, they have none available.)
They rely on "natural attrition" for properties to become available.
In NSW, Housing NSW are selling properties that are in prime locations back to the public and not reinvesting that money back into replacement accommodations for their client waiting list, reducing the accommodations available while the number of clients increases.
People on those waiting lists are forced back into the private rental market to compete for properties.

Many people in the general population have never rented a property in their lives having lived at home and saved until they married and bought a home of their own. Some people's experience of renting may only extend to when they went on holiday. Some people may have rented for a short period of time while they saved for a deposit for their own home. Some people choose to rent and not to buy, often being able to find a rental property and be lucky enough to stay for many years in the one place. There are many scenarios here. And I will not take away from these people that have been conscientious and worked very hard to attain their goals.

The one thing all these people have in common, is they obviously all have some sort of consistent income. Now, I am not saying they are privileged or have any better opportunity than others, some would say, this is how most people live.

Well, that is not quite right.

Impacting factors that might not allow other people to make these same choices or have a stable income are their level of education, hence their inability to earn a reasonable wage, or find job security, they may have come from families who are already in crisis because of Domestic Violence, Gambling Addiction, Alcoholism, Drug Abuse, Mental Health Diagnosis, Disability, Cultural Diversity and Language barriers etc etc, therefore, have no support, no back up, they are on their own, or having to care for other family members, often from a very early age.

Sometimes, bad things simply do happen to good people.

During the time I have been in what they call "Housing Stress", I have had the opportunity to meet some really inspirational people, none so inspiring as a lady I met because she was volunteering at a charity that had helped her and her family when they were homeless. Mind you, that is a very common response from those who are truly trying to get back on their feet, to give back.

She and her husband had both worked very hard, neither of them were huge income earners, but they had a home and a mortgage, 2 cars and kids and were happy. After three kids, they decided to go for another, and were blessed with twins. They knew then they had completed their family and were content.  I'm not sure exactly when, but sadly, tragedy struck and one of their beautiful twins passed away as a result of cot death.

This loss tore their lives apart. Neither of them were able to recover from their grief.  The Mum had previously given up her job because she needed to look after 5 kids and so Dad was the only wage earner left.  He fell into a deep state of depression and despite their best efforts, he was finally unable to work.  They slowly started to sell what they could to keep on top of things, but eventually, they had nothing else to sell and had to sell their home. Because they had already been struggling to keep it, there was nothing left over once the sale went through and the debt was paid. They were now homeless with 4 children to care for.

They did spend one night in their car, but thankfully were assisted with Emergency accommodation from an organisation which deals in helping families.

That organisation helped them both to seek the medical care they needed and they allowed themselves time to process their grief and slowly, and very carefully, started to seek support in other areas.  They had been too embarrassed to ask for assistance prior to this, and too proud.

Now, they are public housing clients and are getting back on their feet, they believe they will own their own home again one day, all they needed was a little help to get them back on track.

Or as I like to say, and hand up, not a hand out.

Unfortunately, when you mention "Homelessness" to most people, the image they get is usually something like this fairly famous image …

Homeless people don't always live on the streets, they are not always carting their belongings with them, they are not necessarily drug or alcohol addicted, they often have access to showers at a friend's house, at local beaches or school or gyms etc, maybe even work, yes, some homeless people have jobs! They eat because they access charity organisations, they may "rough sleep" (on the streets) some nights and be lucky enough to find an hostel or refuge other nights, they may have friends they can stay with occasionally, usually on a lounge or floor, and, in this day and age, they may even have a mobile phone.

You may say WHY??? Why when you are homeless do you need a mobile phone??? Why would you not is more the question?

How else can you stay in touch with Real Estate Agents, Housing Departments, Centrelink, Charities, Health Services, have access to information about bus and train timetables, keep in touch with Lifeline, make applications for rental properties etc etc.  In this day of technology, where to even be considered to inspect a rental property, some agents require you to "register on line".

The one thing I do know for sure ... The majority of people who are homeless, do NOT choose to be and are trying very hard to find stable accommodation for themselves and often their family.

And herein lies the problem of Humanity that I am writing about.

If you are really in a situation where you are completely unable to afford a rental property in the public market and find yourself having to apply to become a Public Housing Client, the first thing you have to do, is front up to the Office of the Public Housing organisation in your relevant state and start by jumping through hoops.

The situation of Homelessness is so bad in Australia, that even the Public Housing Organisations are not accepting applications from just anyone, you need to prove your case, you must show evidence of need or that you have made a concerted and legitimate attempt at searching for and trying to secure properties independently before they will even consider offering you assistance. You also need to have some sort of income. It is NOT FREE HOUSING. I know some people believe it is.

I believe if you are living with ongoing or severe Mental Illness, or are Disabled or if you are escaping a situation of Domestic Violence things are a bit different.

If you are simply applying because you are starting to feel the pinch and your situation is not critical, you can look forward to going on the end of the, 15 - 20 year long waiting list for Public Housing.

If your situation is extreme, you can apply for Priority Public Housing, that will reduce your waiting list to 2 - 5 years!

If your situation is critical and you are accepted as a Public Housing client, you can still wait 15 years for Public Housing, but they can then offer you other services such as subsidised rental assistance if you have extenuating circumstances such as mental health, disability etc.

So you can now go out into the Private Rental Market and apply for properties.  Mind you, you will be competing against everyone else. People who have two incomes (because there are two parents in the family), people who can offer to pay more rent on a property to secure it (not sure if this is illegal, but it happens), people who may offer 6 months rent in advance to secure a property and finally, and most relevant, people who are NOT Public Housing Clients.

Public Housing Clients are 50% less likely to secure a property they can afford (with subsidised rental assistance) because of the stigma attached to being a Public Housing Client. Many Landlords will simply not accept applications from people who are registered on the Public Housing waiting list. It is part of the application process that you either declare you are receiving assistance to pay for the rent you will pay, or, that the Community Housing Organisation you are represented by will make the application. So a Public Housing client cannot hide this on a Private Rental market application. But a landlord can hide their discrimination, because legally, they are not required to state the reason for not accepting an applicant.

That stigma is not only reflected in dealing with Landlords, it is carried over to many other areas.  How do you think "No fixed address" looks on a job application?
Every form you fill in these days asks for a residential address. Medicare, Centrelink, Drs etc all require an address. 

When I experienced homelessness, I had friends who did not believe me.  They thought I was exaggerating, being a drama queen, stretching the truth!

I can assure you, it is hard enough to have to say those words, to admit it to anyone when it is true, why the hell would anyone PRETEND they were homeless? The stigma it brings with it is soul crushing.

So, I ask you all this very day, be more empathic, have some humility, be more considerate of other people's circumstances, consider they may really be having a hard time and need a short term hand up, not a hand out.

My Happy Ending will be when the Public Housing System is a solutions based service which will help people to recover from life's tragedies, not just keep kicking them when they are down.

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