BY SHAINA BLOOM
You’re soaked to the bone. The coat you had for seven years has finally worn out, tearing at the seams and providing almost no protection. You try and sleep but the wind is slapping against your face. In an attempt to shield yourself, you’ve buried your face on the stone pavement, but its effectiveness as a pillow is dubious. You can’t remember the last meal you ate and your stomach grumbles at the mere thought of food. You don’t remember night being this dark. You don’t remember feeling this alone. You are homeless.
There are approximately 105,000 homeless people throughout Australia. In New South Wales alone, the 2006 Census put the figure at more than 27,000. Of these, there are nearly 4,000 who are sleeping rough on our streets. In a nation of such prosperity, many have expressed alarm at the stubbornness of these figures.
Governments have consistently reiterated their commitment to solving the issue. One of Kevin Rudd’s first moves after his 2007 election victory was to visit homeless shelters and report on the findings. As a result, Mr Rudd said that by 2013, the number of homeless would be cut by 20 percent, and that figure cut by a further 50 percent by 2020.
Yet although this push saw $5 billion invested in the fight against homelessness, the government has yet to come close to meeting its goal.
The latest national Census figures, dating from 2006, recorded an overall increase in the number of people who sleep rough since 2001.
Part of the reason for this is that homelessness is not a standalone issue. It is a problem which often goes hand-in-hand with mental disorders, substance abuse and other medical issues.
The Australian Government’s Institute of Health and Welfare stated that more than $120 billion is spent annually on health in Australia. Mental health ranks third in this distribution, with some $6.1 billion being spent on the cause. Despite this significant spend, it is unclear how much of this goes towards the people who undoubtedly need it the most.
There are services available for the homeless with mental disorders. However, in a 1997 survey conducted by ACCESS, some 32.4 percent of respondents did not know where to locate such services. Engagement with these services was also a problem – some 29.5 percent stated they were unable to afford them, while 27.1 percent did not properly understand how to seek the service. A further 16.5 percent sought to use the service, but were denied access.
More recently, Down and Out in Sydney undertook a comprehensive survey of 210 homeless people aged between 17-87 years in inner Sydney. Their findings exposed the prevalence of mental illness in homeless people in Sydney estimated at 75 percent, compared to 20 percent in the population as a whole.
Clinical psychologist Renee Mill has worked in her private practice in Edgecliff for 23 years. “My clinical observation is that 99 percent of homeless people suffer from mental illness,” she said. “They definitely go hand-in-hand. It is their state of mind and inability to function in normal society that makes them homeless.”
According to Mill, the tendency may also go the other way. “Homelessness may be a contributing factor in people who have a disposition for mental illness,” she said. “If there are several factors, homelessness and the others could trigger mental illness: for example violence or rape, poor nutrition, lack of sleep, exposure to extreme temperatures and discrimination.”
Mill says that while mentally stable individuals will take offers of help and shelter, “no matter what you offer homeless people, they will soon move out and go back to the streets.” Adding to their problems in this context can be a sense of paranoia – “[they] avoid what they perceive as entrapment.”
Despite an annual spend of some $6.1 billion on mental health, Mrs Mill affirmed that it remained insufficient to tackle the scale of the problem, especially in the context of providing quality treatment facilities and research. “Recently the government reduced spending, so mentally-ill patients are only eligible for a rebate for ten sessions with a psychologist, which is not nearly enough,” she said.
The Federal Government’s Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs acknowledges the lack of use of the homelessness services, stating that they only provide accommodation to 14 per cent of those who are homeless each night.
On an average day 12,300 people will be accommodated in services funded by the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program (SAAP). However, approximately half of all those who do seek new emergency accommodation will be turned away.
“Under-funded, incomplete, fragmented, and poorly monitored community-based services make community services inaccessible to many people,” wrote Susan Parker, Lucy Limbers and Emma McKeon in a report on behalf of the Mental Health Coordinating Council in 2002. “The homeless mentally ill arguably have suffered most as a result of these shortcomings, having multiple needs for intensive and ongoing support.”
Related story: The price of homelessness
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare: http://www.aihw.gov.au/home/
Australian Census Homelessness fact sheet: http://www.abs.gov.au/websitedbs/censushome.nsf/home/factsheetsh?opendocument&navpos=450
City of Sydney Homelessness services: http://www.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/Community/HomelessnessServices/Default.asp