Thin line between poverty and homelessness

Two events this week prompted me to think  about the thin line between poverty and homelessness. This is my very personal response.

The first event was an article on Facebook, ‘View from a Treehouse,’ written by Melbourne feminist writer, Jane Gilmour,  published in Meanjin in 2016. She describes the kind of poverty that is one small step from homelessness.

The second, an alert about the theme and paper of this year’s Catholic Social Justice Sunday, ‘A Place to Call Home’. The paper considers the right of everyone to somewhere they can call home, and discusses homelessness in Australia.

Probably like most people reading this blog, I’ve never been homeless. But I do know people who are homeless, and others who have been homeless. I don’t know if the people I’m talking about often slept rough, although they may have. By ‘sleeping rough’, I mean in doorways and parks and under bridges in the city.

They told me they slept in their cars because they had nowhere else to go. They slept on floors in the corners of friends’ houses, or in their sheds, moving on often. One homeless couple set up a permanent camp in the bush.

Every night in Australia, 116 000 people have no place to call home. Reasons for homelessness include domestic violence, child abuse and elder abuse; mental illness; substance abuse; release from prison; poverty; family breakdown and bankruptcy.

These days I rarely think about how close I could have been to homelessness, because it was a long time ago. But my reading provoked painful memories.


Left with the care of six children between 13 months and 13 years, I experienced the kind of poverty which rips away a person’s remaining self-esteem. My family was middle-class  with a Catholic background.

No one I knew was divorced or separated. I had no idea how to access even the meagre handout for which I didn’t know I was eligible from the Department of Child Protection (called something different in those days).

Eventually, I made a tentative request for help and responded to questioning.

‘Because your husband gives you $50 a month, it’s unlikely you’d be eligible,’ a receptionist told me from behind her counter. ‘You have a home. And any way the social workers are all at a Christmas lunch.’

My husband enjoyed a professional position in a government authority. His salary would have been way above the $60.68 weekly minimum wage (1974). Not that he ever discussed  finances with me. It was, apparently, none of my business. He gave me housekeeping money which was never enough. Sometimes I ‘stole’ from him to make ends meet.

I didn’t know how to argue with authority. I didn’t say to the woman behind the counter, ‘But I also have a mortgage and six children’.

But at least the beatings had stopped. Our poverty was only marginally worse than when we lived with a drinking, gambling alcoholic. And I was in control the tiny amount of money I did receive from my husband.

Some of the things I experienced in poverty

  • Hunger, and the fear my kids would be hungry
  • Rationing slices of bread until I worked out I could make bread that was denser and more filling than bought bread
  • Rationing each child’s half an apple a day
  • Cleaning our teeth with salt and washing our hair with cheap soap
  • Praying we would not run out of toilet paper and need to use newspaper which would clog the septic system
  • The indignity of using and washing rags every month
  • Mortification when someone brought a St Vincent de Paul parcel at Christmas
  • Making presents from scraps for six children for Christmas. Now I’d call it recycling and be proud of my ingenuity
  • Humiliation at the hands of a teacher because the pencil case I sewed for my son was not ‘suitable’, whatever that might have meant
  • Embarrassment at my situation which led me to withdraw even more
  • Feeling excluded from the Church which had been important in my life
  • Depression.

Help in poverty

Some people were wonderful, helpful and kind

  • My much younger brother and his wife lent me their second car and gave me what they called ‘an early birthday present’, a 44- gallon drum of petrol. That car, which we named ‘Gertie’, made an enormous difference to the quality of life of my family
  • The husband of a friend brought us a box of grapes and peaches and plums that the younger children did not remember tasting before
  • Somehow, I managed to pay the mortgage and keep a roof over our heads
  • A friend from church asked a friend of hers, a dietitian at Curtin University, for a meal plan that would work, given my tiny resources. The dietitian said it was impossible to feed seven people in such poverty and provided information about the so-called ‘Widow’s Pension’.
  • My friend came with me to apply for the Pension.

Suddenly, conditions improved. I had an income to do what I needed. My life became manageable, and my children thrived.

My personal poverty is a distant memory, but when I see people with nowhere to call home I can say with feeling, ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I’

How can we support homeless people? What small steps can we make to improve their lives? I’d love to hear your comments.

10 replies on “Thin line between poverty and homelessness”

  1. Oh, Maureen, what an interesting article. Fortunately, I have never been in your position, it must have been absolutely awful for you and I am amazed that you managed to keep your family together.

    1. Hi, Sue, glad you thought the article is interesting. I guess not many people we know have ever been in a position of abject poverty and helplessness. It was a very long time ago (1974) and so much has changed since then. I managed to get back to work as a registered nurse about twelve months after we separated, because childcare became available and I was lucky I had enough support. I worked as a school nurse with school hours to begin. I completed a Bachelor of Arts Degree, and went from one good place to another. Interestingly, my children tell me they never felt poor. After the first shock, and as soon as we had a little money, we did lots of shared activities which I loved. Camping, reading together, picnics, hiking, fishing…

      1. Maureen, You obviously gave them all a lovely childhood which more than made up for the lack of money. I imagine your children are very proud of your achievements. 🙂

        1. Thank you, Sue. We are a close family, and I’m certainly proud of all of them.

  2. Thank you for sharing this Maureen. You’re right when you say poverty can affect anyone.

    It is hard to imagine now (with the benefits available) how difficult it was for you at the time.

    Your story about the pencil case you made hit home hard. I was speaking to a friend recently about this topic. That education is not free. And how kids whose parent(s) are struggling financially are punished/shamed.

    It was a difficult month for her and the school asked for money for the kids to go to a ‘compulsory’ dance class (3 kids meant she couldn’t pay this). Any children whose parents couldn’t pay would miss out and be sat aside doing worksheets.

    She told me how she hit the roof. Asked why can’t they go play or do sport or something similar to dance? It isn’t the children’s fault. And why in a public school does a compulsory activity require payment?

    Their reaction was typical in my mind. People were ashamed on her behalf. For speaking out. Admitting you can’t afford something or need help is still seen as shameful.

    It’s not poverty to the extent as you described it but to me it shows how important it is in any changes that we support all families within our community and show children that financial hardships happen to everyone and don’t make you less worthwhile. Children shouldn’t be punished or excluded.

    Breakfast clubs at schools I feel is a good start. Nearly everyone joins in. It’s not about poverty… It’s about sharing a meal.

    School activities should be next. Every child should have the same opportunity to learn. Isn’t that what public education is about? And yet it is already happening… Exclusion if you can’t pay.

    1. Hello, Nat. Thank you for your thoughtful response to my blog of a few days ago. The whole idea of free compulsory education needs to be looked at with fresh eyes. I feel for your friend and her children and the shabby way they were treated when they couldn’t afford to go to the compulsory dance class. How shameful that they were forced to do work sheets when the other kids were enjoying themselves. That children should be punished in this way is appalling.

      I totally agree with you about breakfast clubs at school. I heard very recently about a high school in the north of the state where the kids not only have a breakfast club, but also use the cooking period on Monday afternoons to cook lunches for everyone for the rest of the week. Volunteers and others provide the money (or the food) for this venture. The kids learn to shop, cook and share the enjoyment of cooking, sharing a meal and the food itself. Attendance has risen significantly since this started. There should be many more such programs.

  3. An amazing article, Maureen. Thank you so much for sharing your very personal story.

    1. Thank you Deborah. It took quite a lot of courage to tell that story, although I think I needed to tell it. I sometimes forget where I’ve come from and it is good to remind myself. Age and distance have made those times much mellower than I ever thought they could be.

  4. Gosh Maureen, you’ve been through some very difficult times. What great strength, courage and ingenuity you must have. I hope you are rightfully proud of how you survived this period of turmoil, raising your six children. Amazing.
    I’m sure living through this has also given you great compassion for others. As you say, it could happen to any of us, with a change in circumstances.
    As for how best to support people who are living in poverty, I guess there are a number of charities we can donate to, and I also love the Christmas appeal for women where handbags filled with toiletry items and a message of support are donated (‘It’s in the Bag’).
    I suppose bigger picture solutions are voting for political parties with policies that support people in the lower socioeconomic bracket, and not parties that cater to the fat cats!!
    Wonderful as always to read your post, Maureen.

    1. Wow, Fiona! Thank you. Yes, there have been tough times in my life, but I think everyone has their share of tough times they don’t share quite so publicly as I did in this post. And, yes, I am pleased that I survived through those times, which later provided a solid background for a career that encompassed working with hurting or marginalised people in a variety of settings.

      Love your suggestions for practical action to support people living in poverty. Someone else mentioned the Share the Dignity Christmas appeal. Such a concrete suggestion.

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