Published 13 August 2016, The Courier, Ballarat.

History tells us that wherever there are built communities, there are people living in less than ideal conditions. However, for the majority of us, homelessness is so vastly different to the circumstances we experience – the roof overhead that is ours, the family and friends who care for us, and the many involvements that fill our day – that we find it difficult to accept it exists in that very same community we enjoy and just how perilously close to that condition each of us is.

Make no mistake, homelessness in Ballarat affects each and every one of us, whether through personal experience, our interactions with those who are homeless or through the costs borne by the community in addressing it. In Ballarat in 2016, people from many different backgrounds in our community – gender, ethnicity, education level and age – can and do experience homelessness. Worryingly, the number of families with children who are either homeless or at risk of homelessness is on the rise.

Let’s be clear from the outset. Homelessness is not who you are; rather, it is a condition or set of circumstances you are experiencing. People who experience homelessness are not homeless people. How we think and speak about people can have a profound effect on the way they are viewed by the community and themselves and, sadly, this perpetuates erroneous stereotypes that are neither helpful nor respectful.

On the previous Commonwealth Census night in 2011, 520 citizens of Ballarat were experiencing homelessness that evening, an increase of almost 21% on the 2006 Census. In simple terms, that equates to one in every 183 of us; your colleagues at work, people you grew up with, classmates of your children at school, your one-time neighbours. Alarmingly, we know that the often hidden and silent nature of homelessness meant that many people who did not have access to a home on that night were not reflected in that 520, and, consequently, their stories were not captured. There is no doubt that the true number would have been much higher.

Homelessness is not a choice. The majority of people in Ballarat who are homeless are in that situation as a result of as little as one traumatic event in their lives such as family violence, job loss, sexual abuse or loss of a partner. Those working in the homeless sector know all too well that it only takes one such trauma for a seemingly good life to quickly unravel.
Life-chances, a sociology term, potentially provide us with a clear means of explaining this pathway into homelessness. Chances to realise your goals in life for education, health, material reward and other achievements quickly diminish when opportunities to thrive are removed or remain closed to you. Irrespective of the many pathways by which people come to experience homelessness, the one thing that they all have in common is poverty. It is the reason why the fall into homelessness is often so hard to arrest as well as being the barrier that prevents so many from taking up an active role community life.

Much has been written about housing stress nationally, with Ballarat not immune to its insidious influence. The 2011 Census reported that over 6500 Ballarat households experienced housing stress, which meant that the costs of maintaining a home were consuming more than 30% of the income available to those households. Unfortunately for a proportion of those people, the fall into homelessness had begun.

What Ballarat can be proud of is the sheer quantum of community support for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. There is a diverse range of services, programs and initiatives that are all trying to bridge the gap by providing emergency accommodation, food, clothing, health needs, education, counselling and other supportive measures. Nevertheless, without real-time and genuine capacity through which people can be supported to access affordable housing, is all we are really able to do is make being homeless more tolerable? Without a place to call home, anyone of us would find it incredibly hard, if not impossible, to stay connected to community life through education, training, employment, recreation and other activities we enjoy.

So what needs to change? First, the Ballarat community needs to believe that, together, it can reduce the experience of homelessness. This will be achieved, in part, through recognition that homelessness harms all of us and is preventing the city from being the vibrant, healthy and stable community we want it to be.

We need to build a shared vision, create action at a local level and advocate to state and federal governments for these commitments.

Ballarat has proven time and time again that it has the people, resources and compassion required for this level of community activism. So, let’s get on with it!

Melanie Robertson
Chief Executive Officer of Committee for Ballarat