More than Meets the Eye: Understanding Visible Homelessness in Civic

Illustration: Eben Ejdne

Eleanor, along with her classmates Bodhi Randell-Deptula and Lawrence Rogers, conducted a survey of students last semester regarding their perceptions of homelessness within the community.

As any student who ventures to Civic would know, homelessness is a visible issue in the Canberra CBD. Based on the typical middle-aged male who frequents soup kitchens or settles in Civic, it is a common assumption that the face of rough sleepers is not a diverse one. And via our limited interactions, it is not unusual for us to subscribe to the viewpoint that the majority of the homeless we see face drug or alcohol addictions because, unfortunately, these are conditions that attract the most attention.

However, the circumstances of a typical person experiencing first-degree homelessness – or, in other words, living on the street – is not what meets the eye. Rising housing prices in Canberra and a lack of public accommodation has seen an increase in the number of people who temporarily find themselves without a roof over their head. The typical homeless tenure is six months or less, with many only sleeping rough for a few nights. It is for this reason that projects such as Safe Shelter in Canberra – an initiative that opens churches overnight to homeless men – are so important. The ‘Bed First’ approach of providing somewhere safe and warm for homeless men to ‘sort out their lives’ can make the biggest difference.

This contrasts with the assumption that most homeless individuals are long term ‘beggars’ – a grossly exaggerated stereotype based on extreme homelessness. Also, while it is true that the number of men who experience first-degree homelessness outnumbers that of women, the gender imbalance is not as skewed as it may seem. In fact, the ratio is roughly two males for every one female. It is also true that the existence of women’s and children’s shelters make them appear less visible to the average pedestrian in the CBD.

Students also tend to underestimate the level of education attained by homeless individuals, despite it being accurate that drop-out rates are higher among the homeless population. This, in turn, can lead to assumptions about homeless people being inadequate to participate in society by getting a job and, instead, relying on government assistance. The reality for most homeless individuals is a distinct lack of financial support (the maximum often being the NewStart allowance) or an inability, due to a learning disability, to navigate the very intimidating Centrelink system.

These prejudices can also be viewed throughout the literature on this topic, with research focussing on substance abuse, mental illness and incarceration. It is an emphasis on the causation of homelessness, rather than feasible housing solutions, that contributes to the problematising of the issue. This is evident in Melbourne’s efforts to ‘clean up the streets’ around the Australian Open – an act that essentially attempted to criminalise homelessness. Schemes like this contribute to the vicious cycle of societal isolation facing those who are already vulnerable. It is a ridiculous idea to punish the homeless, yet law enforcers have been given the power to fine those living in cars or to remove encampment structures within the Melbourne CBD. It’s no wonder that students are reluctant to make eye contact with people on the street – something that many of us are guilty of – when we’re conditioned to believe that these people are criminals. It is, therefore, understandable that those homeless individuals who have been stereotyped as such exhibit exasperation, which we, in turn, might perceive as aggression. Of course, this doesn’t diminish the validity of the genuinely threatening situations which some students have been in.

It is also important to consider the context within which individuals view visible CBD homelessness, as this influences levels of both empathy and fear. While a student’s view of the homeless person may seem inconsequential, our internalised attitudes directly affect those who are homeless, regarding the amount of money or type of interaction they receive from students. There are also indirect results because student voices can potentially encourage the government to make homelessness a higher priority on their agenda. There is a correlation between students’ demographic before university – whether international or domestic, metropolitan or rural/regional/remote – and how serious they perceive homelessness to be. Research suggests that those with who’ve lived in high-density CBD areas are more immune to the characters they see on Canberra’s streets.

A presumption that homeless people are not actively trying to improve their situation influences students’ willingness to give money or food, or engage in friendly conversation. We’re conditioned to apply a stereotype of laziness or irresponsible financial priorities. For many homeless individuals, the disposable income for these luxury indulgences doesn’t exist.
Even if these behaviours exist within the homeless community, they’re often due to financial hardship or a family breakdown, which may have caused their homelessness in the first place, that has led to a need for a distraction. Further, mental health issues often emerge on the streets, or previous traumas may exacerbate in a feedback cycle – rather than homelessness directly producing ‘craziness’.

Despite these preconceptions, it is not uncommon for students to express empathy or concern about homelessness in the CBD – especially considering that our financial restrictions or lack of influence may leave us feeling helpless. There is a recognition that access to services, personal health, physical security and life satisfaction remain low amongst the homeless, adding complexities to the improvement of their situation. However, it is too easy to leave one’s sympathy there as personal life pressures get in the way. It is important to encourage conversion within the ANU community so that the lack of awareness regarding homelessness can be addressed and improved.

Note: For those looking to volunteer, Safe Shelter ACT provides the opportunity to undertake a two-evening induction course and help at their overnight shelters. Email: safeshelteract@gmail.com