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
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.