JEAN* was a grandmother in her 60s with a new love in her life. Geoff was an account manager with a mortgage and a young family. Sue and her husband were paying off their own home, and an investment property, and cared for foster children. Very different people, different circumstances, one thing in common: they all found themselves homeless.
Tragically, many of us are just one or two significant life events away from becoming homeless.
Jean’s grandchildren were placed into her care, then together they had to flee her violent partner. After being retrenched, Geoff spiralled into deep depression and abandoned his home and family. Susan guaranteed a loan that went bad, eventually losing almost everything including her marriage and her properties.
People experiencing homelessness are very likely to be ordinary people like you and me. Contrary to the oft-depicted stereotype of a street-sleeper, the majority of people experiencing homelessness are not really visible.
In fact only around 6per cent of people who are homeless (probably even less in the Hunter as a result of Newcastle’s Reaching Home assertive outreach project) are actually on the street. Most people finding themselves homeless are hidden: ‘‘couchsurfing’’ between family and friends, sleeping in intolerably over-crowded accommodation, in caravans or even cars; where available, in some kind of crisis accommodation, or some other insecure or inadequate dwelling.
For many people the experience is a brief one, but for others, homelessness becomes a prolonged and very difficult journey.
Causes for homelessness are varied and usually complex: in the Hunter, escaping domestic and family violence is one major trigger for homelessness, the other is financial difficulty, often as the result of unemployment. Some people are more vulnerable to becoming homeless, due to factors as varied as poor mental health, entrenched poverty, family dysfunction, lack of social networks, even disability and age. Disturbingly, homelessness appears to be on the rise across the country, and according to 2011 Census data, around 2800 people in the Hunter are experiencing homelessness, but given the nature of homelessness and difficulty in accurately counting, the figure could be even higher. More still are at risk.
Unfortunately, the complexity of homelessness means that there is no one simple solution. Many very effective services and programs are available to people experiencing or at risk of homelessness, and over recent years the Hunter has benefited from additional specialist support through federal and state government partnership funding.
Many people who find themselves in need of support however, may not know what is available to them, and by the very nature of their circumstances, some people living with homelessness find it difficult to access the help they need. In order to help people connect with a range of important assistance, the Hunter Homeless Connect Day (HHCD) was conceived and first delivered in 2009.
Now an annual event, the HHCD brings together accommodation and housing services, legal and financial services, a comprehensive health centre, support for vulnerable families and young people, and services that support social and economic participation together
in one place at one time.
As a one-stop-shop, the HHCD makes it easier for people to connect with services and support.
Each year up to 1500 people have attended the HHCD where they have also received hot meals, take-away packs of toiletries and food, clothing, blankets, books, immunisations, even haircuts, massages and manicures. For some of our guests, this is the first time they have been pampered, or even touched in a caring way, for a very long time.
Homelessness can be much more than ‘‘rooflessness’’, and for some, is better described as ‘‘communitylessness’’. Despite trying to maintain a normal life, the challenges of homelessness can stretch relationships and sever social ties, leaving people isolated and on the margins of society. Run by a ‘‘community coalition’’ of non-government and government services, groups and an increasing number of volunteers, Hunter Homeless Connect also attempts to address this ‘‘communitylessness’’ by engaging with the broader community and raising awareness around homelessness.
Community activities such as the annual Woolly Hats Week and Hunter Connect Sleep Out in October raise both the funds needed to put on the HHCD, and awareness in the community about the realities of homelessness.
This week, June 2-8, is Woolly Hats Week, and workplaces, groups and schools across the Hunter are encouraged to hold a Woolly Hats Day, inviting people to wear their favourite beanie, make a donation, and have a conversation about homelessness in their community. Information is available from our website hunterhomeless
connect.org.au and fact sheets, statistics and other discussion starters can be found at www.homelessaustralia.org.au Woolly Hats Week will be launched today at the Life Church’s Soul Café on Watt St Newcastle, where around 700 meals are served each week to people living with, or at risk of homelessness.
Blankets, pillows, woolly hats, scarves, and winter socks, all hand knitted or donated by people of the Hunter, will be given out.
The next Hunter Homeless Connect Day is Tuesday August 6 at PCYC, Broadmeadow.
* names have been changed