Forget 'us' and 'them' - for many, homelessness is just a few steps away

For many, homelessness is just a few steps away

We use the "us vs them" separation tool to justify all manner of blindness in our society. Assumptions of mental illness, drug/alcohol addiction and a history of poor personal choices tend to go hand-in-hand with generalised opinions regarding homelessness, especially if social media is anything to go by.

It is so easy to separate people experiencing homelessness from "us" when we pigeonhole and levy judgment on "them" based on our own beliefs about what life should look like. It makes it easier to dismiss and overlook them, to perpetuate the myth of the invisibility cloak in which they struggle to survive. But the reality is that homelessness is an incredibly complex issue.

No one is actually immune - there's no vaccination against homelessness.

And while many people living this experience are trapped in a lifetime cycle of poverty that sometimes stretches back generations, many people started out in a very different lifestyle.

I know firsthand how fragile our lifestyles can be. When our son was not yet two years old, my husband and I lived in the heart of the NSW coalfields where he made a great wage working in the mines.

We had a house full of furniture, two cars, my husband had a full-time (albeit casual) job and I was in the beginning stages of growing my own business.

We lost both our cars to engine seizures (combined $15,000 repair price tag) and we received an eviction notice. Our landlord's son was moving to the area and the housing crisis (thanks to the mining boom) meant he had struggled to find a place to live, so they decided to evict us so their son could live in their investment property (as is their right).

With 15 to 20-plus applicants for each rental available, it was a landlord's market. Families started to offer to pay more rent to entice the landlord to choose them, which only served to hike the rental market even higher. It was a disaster. And we weren't the only family in this situation.

We went from doing well at life to homeless and temporarily sleeping on my sister in law's sofa in two months. We were lucky we had family to offer temporary refuge.

Homelessness in this country is growing. According to Homelessness Australia, there are more than 116,000 people experiencing homelessness, an increase of 13.7 per cent since 2011. Just to put this in perspective, imagine the entire population of Ballarat in Victoria becoming homeless, and then add 10,000 more people.

It was a disaster. And we weren't the only family in this situation.

There isn't just one pathway to homelessness. Homelessness is often the end of a long road that can involve financial disasters, housing availability problems, health and mental health issues, family violence and conflict, exiting state care or prison, long-term unemployment and social and economic exclusion. In fact, 12 per cent of people experiencing homelessness actually have jobs, despite the stereotype.

Similarly, homelessness is not just "rooflessness", according to Council to Homeless Persons. Five per cent are living on the street, 12 per cent are couch surfing, 18 per cent are living in rooming houses, 29 per cent are in supported accommodation and 36 per cent in severely overcrowded dwellings.

However, one thing that seems to correlate quite clearly, is the decreasing availability of funded community services as the Commonwealth decommissions previously supported programs and pushes vulnerable members of society towards the NDIS.

Funding and initiatives announced in the 2019 budget fall far short of meeting community needs. As these provisions dwindle, the number of people sinking further and further into the seemingly eternal abyss of poverty grow, especially when recent crack downs have seen 55,000 at-risk and homeless people having their Centrelink payments suspended.

Yet we sweep it all under the carpet and claim that "people who have a go will get a go," while hostile architecture is erected across our cities - things like spikes, sprinklers and harsh lighting around buildings and parks - to prevent people living rough from seeking shelter where they can. Thus perpetuating this separatist idea of "us" vs "them". After all, if we can't see them, they don't exist, right?

Is this really who we are? Is this who we want to be? Is this our national identity?

When social services funding is inadequate, when social security payments are withheld, when we close our eyes to the reality of homelessness, are we not first creating the problem and then punishing it?

Zoë Wundenberg is a careers writer and coach at