Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 12, 2019

We Are Here, Stories of Home, Place and Belonging, edited by Meg Mundell

Did you know that

  • homelessness in Australia increased by 14% between 2011 and 2016?
  • some 116,000 people go to sleep without a secure home on any given night?
  • around 16,000 of these are children under 12?
  • 8000 of them are the most visible of the homeless community, sleeping rough on the streets?
  • Older women—those aged 55 and over— was the fastest growing cohort of homeless Australians between 2011 and 2016, increasing by 31%? (See why, here).

And yet we hear very little from the people experiencing this situation…

Edited by former Big Issue editor Meg Mundell, (whose latest novel The Trespassers I recently reviewed) We Are Here, Stories of Home, Place and Belonging gives a voice to 42 diverse artists who have experienced homelessness.  Some contributors are well-known names that will surprise you, while others are emerging writers.  There are also four visual artists whose artwork is placed among a profusion of photographic images which complement the four themes of the collection:

  • Home Truths
  • City Streets
  • Cast Adrift and
  • Belonging.

In the foreword by Tony Birch, he reminds us that any one of us, regardless of our economic and social status, could easily find ourselves homeless.  In a supposedly egalitarian society such as Australia, many people live only a few absent pay packets away from poverty.  (p.x)  Meg Mundell’s Introduction tells us that the stories in this collection reveal just how easily, if our own luck turned bad, we might find ourselves unhoused.  (p.xiii)  She also tells us that

Homelessness is often seen as a result of bad choices made by flawed people.  This convenient myth supports the illusion that it could never happent to ‘us’, ignoring the well-documented structural causes and unforeseen life events that can render people homeless.  These include a dire national shortage of social and affordable housing, punitive welfare policies, inadequate social security, poverty, unemployment, rental stress, gentrification, family violence, sexual abuse, discrimination, injury, disability, mental illness and traumatic incidents. (p.xiv)

Mundell also says that it’s a common perception that homeless people have nothing to offer, which causes a parallel reluctance to disclose membership of this maligned group. The sheer quality of the contributions to this collection gives the lie to that assumption…

One of the stories shows us that there is an all-too-predictable path to homelessness for young people in state care.

I was evicted from state care and became homeless before my eighteenth birthday.  Not many people know that in all Australian states, except Tasmania and South Australia, we cut off all kids in state care, including those living with a foster care family, when they turn eighteen.  For me, and other kids like me, that means no ongoing emotional or financial support.  No case manager.  Nothing.  Within one year, thirty-five percent of these kids will become homeless.

While most of my friends were celebrating their eighteenth birthdays, finishing high school, or getting their driver’s licences, I was trying to figure out where I was going to sleep that night and searching for my next meal.  It felt like a nauseating spiral with no end.

The extreme sense of anxiety, social isolation and fear I felt as a young homeless man was terrifying.  These were meant to be some of the most memorable and formative years of my life.  Instead I was just trying to make it through each hour and each day desperately holding onto what was left of my sense of pride and self-worth.  That got harder the longer I was on the streets.

There continues to be a crushing stigma around young homeless people, that it’s somehow our fault we don’t have a roof over our heads.  That we have a criminal history or substance abuse issues.  That we’re out of control and dangerous.  But most of us have suffered trauma, neglect, abuse — homelessness is just the result of it all.  For me, there isn’t a family to turn to when something goes wrong. There never was. (p.201)

Breaking out of that cycle is really difficult.  Turning up for job interviews when you haven’t showered or eaten results in superficial judgements about the applicant’s capacity or potential.  And even those with a job find that landlords are averse to offering a lease to a youth with no rental history or references.  Clearly young people in this situation need extra support if they are to avoid permanent joblessness and homelessness.  We ought to be doing better than this.

Some of the stories will move you to tears.

I’ll be hearing contributors Claire Coleman and Rachel Kurzyp in a panel discussion with editor Meg Mundell at the forthcoming Word for Word Non-Fiction Festival in Geelong in November, see here for further details).

BTW All profits from the sale of this book will be donated to charities that work with people experiencing homelessness. The writers and visual artists featured in We Are Here have been paid for their contributions.

Update 9/12/19 Following on from a discussion about the homelessness of older women on my post about Charlotte Wood’s new novel The Weekend, I have (thanks to my dear friend Mairi Neil who is active in so many causes) located HAAG, Housing for the Aged Action Group.  You can add your voice to others who are gravely concerned about this by joining for a mere $5, (pensioners for free) and you can do what I did and donate at the same time.  It is important to join even if like me you enjoy secure housing, because politicians take notice of numbers.  They need to know that lots of people care about this social issue and want something done about it.

Editor: Meg Mundell
Title: We Are Here, Stories of Home, Place and Belonging
Publisher: Affirm Press, 2019, 240 pages
ISBN: 9781925870619
Source: Review copy courtesy of Affirm Press.

Since We Are Here was sent to me courtesy of Affirm Press, I have donated the equivalent purchase price of this book to Launch Housing.

It says on the receipt that in a country as wealthy as Australia, no one should be without a home.  If you would like to donate, follow this link to make sure that your money goes to agencies that offer a range of services and can help people find long-term solutions and pathways out of homelessness.  But don’t just do that, make sure that your local MPs know that you care about this, especially if you live in a marginal seat!


Responses

  1. A bit disappointed nobody’s commented on this one – thanks for the review, I’ll ask my local library to purchase it.

    I have come across several older homeless women while staying for some time in a caravan park on the north coast of NSW – they would be living in their cars and would try to afford a night or two in a caravan park so they could briefly feel safe (this was an overwhelming need) and have access to laundry facilities etc.

    Their stories were terribly sad and mostly their homelessness was the result of low wages, time spend away from work caring for a relative or family member, inability to get re-employed as they got older (this was a major factor), never having been able to afford a home and priced out of rentals (also a huge problem). We’d try our best to help them in whatever way we could but the wait time for public housing is obscene and they would just cry and cry, it was dreadful.

    Their experiences were overwhelmingly of terror (an older homeless woman is incredibly vulnerable), shame, worthlessness, desperation, self-blame and hopelessness. One woman had been living in a tiny van moving from place to place for eight years waiting for a public housing unit to become available. She had marginally more comfort than the ones who only had their cars.

    Talking to the librarians in a major town in central west NSW they told me the youth homelessness situation there was terrible (mostly fleeing domestic violence) and the reason the library staff knew about it was they were the only place that stayed open until evening and the kids would come in asking if they knew anywhere safe to stay overnight. Mostly they’d huddle around the library building. This in an area where in winter the temperatures can be sub-zero.

    It’s beyond shameful in a country as wealthy as this. Apologies for the lengthy rant Lisa but having witnessed so much of it myself I just had to comment!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Don’t apologise Sue, I welcome your humane response and your sharing of these situations that you know about.
      I’ve just retweeted about this post: it was published on the day of the catastrophic fire situation in NSW and I think everybody was preoccupied by that. (It’s a horrid coincidence that many people were made homeless by fires on that day and since). I remember thinking at the time, that chatter on Twitter from overseas seemed so inappropriate when we were all beside ourselves with anxiety, remembering Black Saturday and all those people who died that day… although of course overseas friends couldn’t possibly have known.
      Kevin Rudd was the last PM to express concern about homelessness: he made all his MPs visit a homeless shelter and set up The Road Home with money for the states to halve the homeless rate by 2020. But argy-bargy with the states caused delays and successive governments abandoned his strategy and the money has dried up. You’re right, it isn’t good enough…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. […] I said in my review of this profoundly moving book, the theme is ‘place’.  Meg said that though the book grew out of workshops where […]

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  3. Homelessness is the saddest thing in our rich country. Politicians throw money away on themselves and other willy nilly events and so many people sleeping rough. Then once a year they take their expensive sleeping bags and sleep overnight in the yard of the Grand Chancellor hotel and think they understand the issue as they all head for breakfast on the most expensive restaurant on the waterfront complaining about the night’s hardship. Makes me so mad I could spit. Australia, of all countries should not have this epidemic of nowhere to live. Now you’ve got me started!!! Books like these are so important but sometimes I think they are singing to the choir. The wrong people read them.

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    • I don’t understand why there isn’t more rage about it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. […] more aware of homelessness among older women as a growing matter of urgency, and my reading of Meg Mundell’s We Are Here, Home, Place and Belonging was a vivid reminder that it can happen to anyone.  In this novel, Wood demonstrates with […]

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