Being homeless

Last night I caught up with a fascinating program screening on the SBS. Filthy Rich and Homeless took five well to do and wealthy Sydney-siders and deposited on the streets of Melbourne to live in the middle of winter. They slept rough initially, dossing out on the streets in nooks and crannies and begging for loose change. They moved from there to halfway houses and boarding houses, and in one instance, a squat, each of them expected to live on the same income of someone typically in that situation. They had 10 days of this, and their perspective radically changed had changed by the end of it.

I found it quite emotional viewing. It’s an awful way of life, but for the most part we look past it. Taking people out of their environment and shoving them into something as foreign as this is a shocking and effective way of highlighting the gulf, which is as much psychological and philosophical as it is purely circumstantial.

In a small way I admired the guys who volunteered to do this. It was only 10 days, at the end of it they could go away and sleep in their warm bed again. While there though they became our proxies, exposing themselves not just to the harsh life of the streets, but to our scrutiny also.

There were a couple going into the experiment who had very common, but uneducated views on the homeless. It was a life choice they thought. We made it too easy for them. Why don’t they get a job? It was a superficial take on something which had always had an unpleasant taint to it, and so something they never dwelt upon – and therefore, had developed their views.

Now they were on the streets themselves they realised how wrong they were. It was not as simple as they believed. There were reasons people ended up in such a place. It was not as easy as just getting a job. They began to appreciate not only the practical difficulty of getting by, but also the awful emotional and psychological cost of it. In those few days they felt the insecurity of not having a fixed abode, the difficulty of getting by on the scant dollars they’re entitled to, and the harsh sense of isolation. They were changed people, and it was great to see – if only more could be so changed.

There’s no doubt that homelessness is a blight on our society. We discussed it at work this morning and we decried the lunacy of spending tax dollars on spurious, but glamorous initiatives when more and more there are families who can’t get by, and individuals left by the wayside. Unfortunately, it’s become political, with the less advantaged so often being called bludgers, or ‘leaners’, with benefits cut or frozen. There’s no humanity in our policies, and precious little compassion in our politics.

Of course watching the program reminded me of when I was homeless. I was lucky. Though it was 15 months I found a bed or a couch for every night of it bar a few. I had a good support network and, mostly, maintained a positive frame of mind. Still, it feels a dark period and not something I like to dwell upon.

I considered that. My general belief is that I’ve got a lot of unprocessed grief – about the death of my mother, and later on, the tribulations of being unemployed, broke and homeless. As is my way I powered through, but that doesn’t allow for the proper acceptance of circumstance. I was too busy surviving, too busy defying it, that when I got through it I never went back to it.

I think now that I have to own what happened to me. Naturally I’m circumspect, and much embarrassed, about what happened to me. I know in my heart I shouldn’t be embarrassed, and in fact there is much to be proud of, and yet… I remember what it felt like, like I was a non-person, as if I was separate to the world, as if I had become irrelevant. I don’t feel still yet that I have returned to a normal life, but I am much closer now than for years. I understand the isolation the homeless feel, but I wanted to put it behind me. I can’t though, because it’s still inside me, because I’ve tried to ignore it.

I don’t think I can ignore it anymore. These things happened. I have to accept and acknowledge and even open up about it. I need to lance that boil. I went to bed thinking I can’t ignore it any longer. I’m not about to celebrate what happened, but I won’t hide it any longer. This morning talking to the show with a colleague he mentioned how easy it these days to become homeless. I took a deep breath and admitted to him that I too, had been homeless. Really? He said. He was predictably surprised. I’m not going to broadcast every detail, but I explained to him a little more.

I’m not sure how I feel about it, but think I must open myself to this.

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