Every night on the streets of Sydney people sleep on make-shift beds on footpaths, huddled under blankets in bus shelters, train stations and doorways.
Every day people beg on street corners around the city, sitting on the cold, hard footpaths, ignored by the majority of people passing by.
As the bitter chill of winter sets in, one can only imagine how harrowing it must be to “sleep rough” on the mean streets Sydney, or any other city for that matter.
One can only imagine the loneliness and sense of isolation that such an existence must induce in a person – not to mention the effect on physical and mental health.
According to the St Vincent de Paul Society, on any given night, more than 116,000 people are homeless in Australia, people from all age groups and backgrounds. That figure includes those living in temporary or overcrowded accommodation.
It is estimated that 8200 of those are “rough sleepers,” literally living and sleeping on the streets. Most are men, but the number of women on the streets is increasing.
At last count—in February this year—it was found that 329 people were sleeping rough in Sydney’s CBD. In the slightly larger area of Sydney metro, there are about 1,000.
Vinnie’s has called on the Federal Government to recognise that housing is a human right and to put together a National Housing Plan. They’ve also called for homelessness to be halved by 2025.
“In an economy as wealthy as ours, providing affordable housing for low income families and individuals is a crucial responsibility that governments can and should lay hold of,” chief executive of the St Vincent de Paul Society NSW, Jack de Groot told The Catholic Weekly.
“We have a situation where housing is seen as a privilege. It’s not, it’s a right, and that’s been something consistent in Catholic social teaching for decades,” Mr de Groot said.
“The Vinnie’s CEO Sleepout is about decision-makers getting an understanding of the realities of homelessness and then lending their voices and influence to the decisions made in our broader society in respect to homelessness and housing insecurity.”
The fastest growing groups among the homeless are older women and young people and Mr de Groot said there is a range of reasons.
“Mental health, domestic violence. For older women it doesn’t have to be domestic violence but the breakdown of relationships. We’ve seen an increase in the number of women over 55 facing homelessness, whose marriages have broken down and who, throughout their working lives, were not able to secure adequate savings and superannuation.”
“We’ve seen an increase in young people who are homeless as well. That can be for a variety of reasons but again, mental health, family breakdown, domestic violence. All those things create insecurity and so young people flee. Vinnie’s and other charities work with those young people at that moment of crisis.”
Fr Peter Smith, from the Sydney Archdiocese’s Justice and Peace Office, said the Catholic Church, as well as other churches and NGO’s are doing “wonderful” work in caring for the homeless.
“Groups like St Vincent de Paul, Catholic Care, Cana, David’s Place and St Canisus’ have picked up the slack where government funding has been reduced and Social Security payments such as the Job Search Allowance have remained inadequate,” Fr Smith said.
“The Church needs to continue and expand our care for these already homeless. In addition we need to address the causes of homelessness: poverty, mental health, and domestic violence.”
“We as a Church need to lobby governments to provide more social housing, increase Job Search allowances, address both mental health and domestic violence and not leave it to the private sector.”
Mr de Groot said there are many things the average person can do to assist the homeless, including finding out more about the issue and raising awareness, volunteering with Vinnie’s or other charities in serving the homeless, and making financial contributions to such charitable organisations.
On a societal level he said Australia desperately needs an economy that serves all people.
“It’s what we call a wicked problem. We live in an economy that puts great value on property values and we see more and more of a crisis of housing for people on low incomes. There are 60,000 on the wait list for housing in NSW so we need more housing and that’s an area for the government to lead.”
He also said treating the homeless with the dignity they deserve as our brothers and sisters is something everyone can do.
Donate to Bishop Richard Umbers at the 2018 Vinnie’s CEO Sleepout: www.ceosleepout.org.au/donation