As the chills of winter become harder to ignore, it also becomes harder to ignore the other side of Canberra – the one that doesn’t meet our well-known reputation of being one of Australia’s most affluent cities, where progressive and liberal-minded, exercise-keen intellectuals sip lattes and draw public service incomes.
This past week, I’ve noticed signs of increased desperation among the poorest in our community everywhere I turn.
Every morning I walk my dog in a public area and quietly pass a man who has been camping in bushland for nearly six months now. The past few weeks, I’ve been rugging up more and more as the chilly weather sets in, and I can’t help but worry once again for rough sleepers who aren’t able to access emergency housing for complex reasons and who are facing a long, cold winter ahead.
During the rain this past week, I ran into my local shops to grab dinner supplies and paused out the front to speak with one of the regular folk who linger outside, hoping to nab a few coins from shoppers like me. I asked if she wanted anything from the shops, and as we chatted, I asked why she was sitting in the rain and not under cover.
“They won’t let me sit near the doors,” this young woman shrugged. As I handed her some food and cash on my way out, I had to reflect that anyone who thinks these people are ‘choosing’ their conditions of poverty aren’t considering the reality that people must be facing to sit in the freezing rain, drenched to the skin in the hopes of some food and cash.
Later in the week, I was driving through the city and watched a window washer try to wash three windscreens, despite the drivers shaking their heads. One driver put on their wipers, and the man just quietly finished cleaning their windscreen anyway and shuffled away, looking downright dejected.
Friends in the community sector tell me about the complexities of the cases they’re dealing with. Families who have arrived on refugee visas who can’t find work. Clients who are managing domestic violence experiences, mental illness, chronic health conditions and social isolation. Every step forward is usually followed by a few slips backwards before they can gain solid footing again. It’s relentless.
It’s easy for us to blame the poor for their circumstances. People like to say beggars and rough sleepers have chosen their circumstances – why don’t they work? Why don’t they access support services? Why don’t they find an interim solution through a friend or family member until they can figure something out? Why don’t they move to where they can find jobs if it’s too hard here?
But of course, it isn’t that simple. The bureaucracy involved in even just finding out what services you might be eligible for requires a level of capability that many simply don’t have, and for so many, there simply aren’t fallback systems and networks to rely on.
The other week I was in Melbourne for work, and I stepped into the Melbourne Central shopping centre in search of a pharmacy.
As I was walking, I passed a man I recognised. Middle-aged, with a ruddy face and tired eyes, he carried a big yellow hold-all over one shoulder and shuffled in socks and flip-flops. We clocked each other, and I realised he was a rough sleeper from Canberra. I had seen this man in Civic for well over a decade. He used to sit in the Canberra Centre during the day and sleep at the bus interchange at night. Now here he was in a different city but in the same situation, carrying his belongings with him and finding shelter in public places during the day.
Just looking at him exhausted me. I can’t even fathom what it would be like to be him.
He clearly left Canberra, perhaps hoping for better luck somewhere else. But in a population as small and well-resourced as ours in the ACT, I still can’t quite comprehend how it is that we have over 3000 people on the waitlist for public housing, who can expect wait times of at a minimum 291 days and up to five years. That number is not insurmountable, but with cost-of-living pressures as high as they are right now, it’s likely to increase.
Poverty and homelessness are treated like complex ‘wicked’ problems by decision-makers, but at their core, they’re remarkably simple.
Resources are unevenly distributed and economic inequality is fundamental to the system our society is built around. As radical as it may seem to think about meaningfully addressing this, it also feels unfathomable that we should allow people to sleep in bushes, sit in the rain, and shuttle from shopping centre to park bench, living just to survive, while others flourish.