Streetwise

August 17, 2018

In a disturbing report released earlier this week, there are as many as 150 people sleeping rough in Byron Shire in any given night.  ‘Sleeping rough’ is the term given to the most extreme form of homelessness and means that a person is without shelter entirely, sleeping on the ground on footpaths, parks or in cars.

 

While there is a much larger population who are homeless and seeking refuge in temporary accommodation or ‘couch surfing’, the report (originally published in The Echo, here: https://www.echo.net.au/2018/08/213543/) states that the around 40-50% of the Byron Shire homeless are at the extreme end of homelessness, whereas nationally this figure would sit at around 7%.

 

Such a report highlights that homelessness is affecting our community more significantly than in other areas and that we need a more concentrated focus for those in crisis.

 

From the perspective of a real estate agent, there is a particularly strong importance of ‘home’. Home, and all of the emotion and anthropological meaning that is attached to it. Those without a home don’t have that safety, certainty or sanctuary.

 

And here is where we diverge from the statistics and I describe what sleeping rough is like….from a very limited and privileged view.  Recently, the author took part in a relatively low key fundraiser that challenged real estate agents to ‘sleep rough’. It was not what I was expecting.

 

There were no signs or cordoned off areas, no security or protection – no special treatment or public awareness campaign on site…just a deeply spiritual night for 6 of us in Brisbane who got a taste of true vulnerability…before heading back to hot showers and our work desks.

 

The physical discomfort of ‘sleeping rough’ was tolerable. Thanks to a hectic work schedule and an utter lack of camping supplies…I found out that if you are tired enough, you can get around five hours sleep with just a blanket on a concrete surface. There was also an eery beauty to waking up at dawn and gaining a glimpse of the city before it stirred.

 

The serenity was quickly shattered by the stranger, standing over my bed as I woke, with a disposable razor dangling on his tongue – mumbling – and obviously burdened with complex social problems and barriers to mental health.

 

You see in the hours prior, we had met many folks like him and folks who were greatly affected by substance misuse and addiction as well as those who were just angry at their reduced circumstances.

 

I learned three things that night:

 

  1. Homelessness is a much more complicated issue than I thought. With an up-close assay of the complex needs of this community, it became clear that resources were not the only problem. More housing and crisis shelter ought to be made available but there are other types of crisis intervention that this community needs. There are physical health concerns that would be both complex and acute. There are barriers to mental health that do not have easy solutions. There are social issues, such as so-called anti-social behaviour and difficulty communicating, that make this community difficult to reach.

  2. I learned that physical discomfort of ‘sleeping rough’ took an absolute back seat to the openness and vulnerability that came from living without boundaries. Don’t get me wrong…my back is yet to truly forgive me for the night but without ‘home’, at the mercy of public space, my constant concern was not having privacy and ‘safety’. Even with the 5 other people in our group who agreed to participate in the sleep out, there was a great sense of personal risk and exposure which, were that my permanent predicament, would inevitably (and sadly, invariably) lead to some kind of trauma. The other uncomfortable factor that outweighed the physical reality was the boredom. We had strict rules about not using phones and there was no alcohol allowed. Even though I’m not normally a drinker…I found myself wanting to break that rule…because there was simply nothing else to do.

  3. It was also my first experience wearing an invisibility cloak. Tourists, partygoers, late workers and commuters all bustled past our little group – not knowing that we were undercover people from their side of the wire. The invisible line that keeps the homeless separated from ‘us’ as we go about our day was more powerful than I ever could have imagined.  As groups of young people walked past us as they poured out of clubs and into cabs, they shouted and sang and had no regard that there was a group of people huddled in the cold – trying to get some sleep. We were, to them, irrelevant. It was a matter of hours before the shame of the label and our (temporary) circumstances started to sink in.

 

So, in one night…a total of 11 hours on the streets, I learned a little bit about the shame, insecurity and invisibility of the homeless experience. To get a tiny taste of sleeping rough was enough to feel like I didn’t matter and that no one cared.

 

Yet, returning to our lead story, people do care. The fact that in Byron Shire, there are people like Byron Community Centre Manager Paul Spooner and a team of 20 volunteers seeking to understand and support the homeless community in Byron Bay speaks volumes about the spirit of our Shire and the people in it who are ignoring the convenience of that invisible line.

We have amazing front line initiatives such as The Liberation Larder that seeks to support the needs of those with food insecurity with a mission that no one in our community should be without access to food.

 

There is a kindness in our town that was nowhere to be seen on my night out in the city. We have an engaged council and concerned community leaders who are actively lobbying for more resources and front line services. We also have social enterprise through organisations like these where people help people – and it is as simple and as difficult as that.

 

Here is how you can care:

Join the volunteers at Byron Community Centre. There are a variety of ways that you can help according to your skills, interests and time. You can find out more about their projects and volunteering here: http://www.byroncentre.com.au/volunteers/

 

You can volunteer for the food distribution programs run by The Liberation Larder. Volunteering is also a great way to make friends with your like-minded neighbours: http://www.liberationlarder.org/volunteering/

 

3 Responses to “Streetwise”

  • Mariana says:

    Thank you for writing this article and opening my eyes a little bit more.
    I hope this reaches, and i will be looking into my local community centre to see if they need any volunteers in my area.

  • Steven Hord says:

    Such a powerful reminder of our connection- that we are all one! I volunteered for a few months at the Lib larder, actually at one point I too was “homeless” but it took some time to see through that invisible line segregating me from “them”.

    I pray for a joyous world, where everyone’s needs are met and everyone rekindles there passion and purpose in this lifetime. God Bless, AHO

  • Christopher says:

    Hahahaha! A non-productive real estate agent suggesting productive things to help the homeless in one of the most if not the most expensive property market in the world! My sides hurt!

    I truly feel for the homeless and give money to them more often than not, but it’s too funny and ironic to let it pass!

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