On any given night in Australia, 105 000 people are homeless. Nearly half of these people are under the age of 25.
These staggering statistics speak of the suffering and desperation of many young Australians and it’s easy to feel compassion towards these young people. What proves more difficult is translating this emotion into concrete and meaningful action.
Youth homelessness does not just mean sleeping on the streets. In the 2006 Census of Population and Housing, the Australian Bureau of Statistics considered a cultural definition of homelessness in three categories:
- Primary homelessness includes all people without a roof over their head, often known as ‘rough sleepers’. This means people who are living on the streets, in parks, or other temporary shelters.
- Secondary homelessness includes people who frequently move from one type of shelter to another, including hostels and boarding houses.
- Tertiary homelessness refers to people who live in boarding houses on a medium to long-term basis (more than 13 weeks), whose accommodation does not meet the minimum community standards for housing.
The first obstacle to tackling homelessness is simply that homeless people are, by definition, transient. Most studies have found that around 90% of homeless people fall into the second category at any one time, but half have slept rough and most have stayed in a boarding house at some point.
So, if homeless people are always on the move, how can we adequately care for them? If a person rests at a boarding house, they are not assumed to be homeless and they certainly cannot be tracked without their permission. If others are surfing their friends’ couches temporarily, they, likewise, will not consider themselves homeless, even if others might.
The inability to recognise or track the problem means that homelessness, particularly youth homelessness, is largely a hidden problem. According to the 2006 Census, many teachers and welfare staff were worried about undercounting the students they thought were homeless, particularly in large schools. Add to this the fact that homeless youth are more likely to drop out of school altogether, and this is enough to substantiate the fear of students ‘slipping through the cracks’ and youth homelessness going largely unrecognised.
The question then becomes: how can we get people to recognise the difficult realities of this issue?
Dan Balcaban hopes he’s found one solution. On 31 May, he will be travelling to far-flung corners of five continents, from Sydney to Hong Kong to Cairo, Stockholm, Barcelona and New York (among others). His mission is to capture on film the stories of homeless people from around the world to form a patchwork portrait of these individuals in crisis. He will then upload the footage for free on the Internet for all to see, on the website for his project, ‘Care About Us’.
Dan is choosing to “go big” with his project because he sees the issue as both local and global – “it’s not just in our own backyard. By looking at different places around the world, people can see what others have done that works well for them.” Of course, Dan acknowledges that broader political issues will come into play in each location, but he wants to “at least find out what the individual core is.”
Even on the individual level, the line between cause and effect can become blurred with the issue of homelessness. The people Dan has encountered in Sydney so far highlight the sheer diversity of experiences. There is one man in Pitt Street Mall named John* who shines shoes, simply because he can find no other work. He is saving money to visit his brother’s grave, since he could not go to his funeral.
As Dan says, “there are so many reasons why someone could become homeless – mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, financial issues.” For young people, the three most common ‘at risk’ groups are Indigenous youth, who make up 19% of homeless school students, as well as those from alternative family types and those who have been in the state care and protection system.
Even then, the effects of homelessness differ radically: another woman whom Dan found begging for money in the tunnel at Central Station said she had a mental illness and has a home, but does not receive enough benefits for the bare costs of food. While not technically homeless, she forms another category of entrenched disadvantage.
Now we return to the million-dollar question: how do we translate these stories into action? Dan makes the point that, while money is only part of the solution, it does help: “if you’ve lost all of your money, and people tell you to ‘get a job’, it’s not that easy because you need a place to live and shower, to clean yourself up, and eat to survive.”
But throwing money at the issue does not equate to compassion. From the people he has talked to so far, Dan says that to break the vicious cycle of depression that many homeless people experience, we must treat them with respect. For many of them, it’s the indifference which stings more than outward rejection from the public. “You can’t force people to care…no one will change if you tell them they have to. People need to acknowledge the issue, and my next step is to intrigue them so they will be further engaged.”
From there, Dan says, it’s up to us.
On Wednesday 30th of May, Dan will be holding a fundraiser for his campaign ‘Care About Us’ at Jacksons on George in Sydney. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased here. Alternatively you can purchase a $25 ticket here from IndieGoGo and receive extra perks on the night !
For more information about Dan’s project, visit any of the following pages:
*Not his real name.