The homeless bleed onto our city streets. There are more every week it seems, whole dormitories of them. And it’s so very cold, and windy, so that the rain comes at a slant – fine if you have four walls, not so good if all you have is one and an awning.
It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I realised that housing was more important than food, thanks to reading ‘A bit of a struggle’ - a study of poverty and family life written by Jean McCaughey and published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies. I’d always assumed that food was the basic human need; reading about families living in cars, however, I learnt that if you have a roof to keep you warm and dry and a locked door to keep you safe, you can scrounge food somehow. If you have a secure place to stay, you have a base from which to start on welfare, health, education, employment. If you are homeless, no dice.
I lived in other people’s houses until I was 41. Church houses, for the most part, and sometimes we stayed with relatives. They were good houses, but there were a lot of moves. So I never shared the assumption, common to many Australians of my vintage, that I would have my own place. I was amazed when a convergence of events, a bit of luck and a life time of thrift meant that we could do that very grown up thing and get a mortgage. In the 16 years since, there are not many weeks that pass where I don’t pinch myself - we have a house! It is ours! No one can kick us out!
Not having so much as the humblest rental is a universe of insecurity away from my experience. And every day there are more of these folk, in Lygon St, all over the Hoddle Grid, huddled in their makeshift camps, with shopping trolleys filled with blankets and festooned with plastic bags containing their meagre belongings. They have an upside-down beanie for money and a cardboard sign written in texta; often they have a dog curled up with them, keeping each other warm.
I like giving money away, but I cannot give money to all these people. I go home to my own stout roof and sturdy front door with a renewed sense of gratitude. I am unable to get them out of my head.