By Theresia Titus
The Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference (ACBC) has called for Australians to consider those who are at risk of homelessness and housing insecurity in their 2018-19 Social Justice Statement on 6 September at St Patrick’s Cathedral Hall, Parramatta NSW.
Titled “A Place to Call Home: Making a home for everyone in our land”, the statement is produced through the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council (ACSJC), an agency of the ACBC.
In his letter to parishes in Australia, President of the ACBC Archbishop Mark Coleridge said that the statement “is a response to the growing problem of homelessness in Australia”.
“It seems hard to believe that in a rich nation such as ours, the latest Census figures show that the number of Australians who are homeless has grown to more than 116, 000,” Archbishop Coleridge wrote.
The 2018-2019 Statement took the drawing Jesus’ famous parable of the Good Samaritan from the Gospel of Luke 10:30-35 as its scriptural foundation.
Aware of the persistent issue, The eRecord met Malcolm at St Patrick’s Community Support Centre in Fremantle, who told his story on homelessness.
In his late thirties, Malcolm started to live on the streets at the age of 15 when he decided to leave the foster home system.
“I used to run away from ‘homes’, so I felt more comfortable on the streets than ‘homes’, I have learnt to live off the streets from a very young age,” Malcolm said.
“I got taken away when I was young, and I was within the foster care system until I was eighteen. I moved from one home to another every year, it was not a happy time.”
Malcolm added that it was from living in foster homes and through his foster families that he came to know about drugs and alcohol, as well as experiencing mental and physical abuse.
By the time he lived on the street, he already tried marijuana, sniffing glue and consuming pharmaceutical drugs, however, alcohol was his biggest weakness.
“I don’t think I would be alive if I hadn’t run away. You don’t know what is coming up next when you live in foster homes,” Malcolm said.
Malcolm learnt how to live on the street quickly and believed that there are a lot of homeless people who became homeless because of situations similar to his.
Malcolm described that living on the street is a cat-and-mouse game; being homeless means people need to know precisely which crowd they should surround themselves with and judging people became necessary to survive.
“To survive is very tough, you have to judge people because you don’t know what people are going to come up with.
“If they are on drugs you don’t know what they are going to do next. It’s a dangerous, dangerous place,” he explained.
“To survive is hard, very hard; you’re looking for your next meal or where to find somewhere warm, and it is harder in the winter time. But I was lucky that I got into St Pat’s early.”
Luck, as Malcolm kept saying throughout his story, is the one thing he believed he always had with him.
However, Malcolm also believed that opportunities only come to those who seek them.
Malcolm asserted that homeless people need opportunities to do something meaningful in their lives such as working or doing community activities, including painting or creating arts to prevent people from consuming drugs and alcohol by having their energy spent participating.
St Patrick’s ‘Art in the Parks’ program offered Malcolm the opportunity to do just that.
“I am a trained brick paver, the first week I worked was killing me, but I soon adapted. These activities give people motivation; it’s the encouragement that they are missing,” he said.
“I am sort of lucky in my life that I got to work when I was young, I got taught to work when I was 10 years old, and I was lucky that people gave me a traineeship, so I stuck to it.
“I was lucky because someone gives me a chance,” he continued.
Malcolm spent 10 years living on the street before finally having an opportunity of full-time employment at the age of 25, and his life became more stable when he turned 33.
These days with his partner, Deb, he produces candles through a micro-enterprise project supported by St Patrick ’s and the candles are sold at a local Fremantle shop.
St Pat’s Community Support Centre Chief Executive Michael Piu explained that the cause of homelessness is a complex combination of factors such as the loss of income, education and employment, as well as family trauma and violence.
“An overwhelming proportion of our clients have experienced family violence or abuse in the past, and this can lead to a cycle of mental health issues and subsequent self-medication through drugs or alcohol,” Mr Piu said.
“Others have simply lost their jobs and cannot afford to rent a new place.”
Touching on whether homelessness exists because of a flawed social system, Mr Piu said that “no social system is perfect as it is dependent on human nature”.
“Part of the challenge is how this is prevented in the first place – and I feel in this regard we are barely scratching the surface as a community,” he said.
“The other challenge is as to how well we respond in helping those who are disadvantaged.
There are flaws within our support system of course, as there are in any system across the world you may care to look at.
“In Australia, I think we do better than many countries, but there is much we could improve – both on the part of the government, but also the community sector,” he continued.
However, Mr Piu pointed that the solution to homelessness is a community issue, involving not just the government and organisations such as St Pat’s but also community groups, schools, the police and healthcare providers.
“We all have a role to play; in the end, we must invest in both rapidly and effectively responding when people become homeless, but also in strategies which prevent homelessness in the first place,” he said.