Outcasts – the silenced, invisible and vulnerable people living on the fringe

In this particular time – when generally the population is coming together to support one another and keep everyone safe by staying at home – there is a significant, supremely vulnerable group of people who are once again being overlooked.

The press talks about the vulnerable. They talk of elderly folk unable to venture out, isolated through lack of companionship. The community rushes to help. Neighbours leave notes in letterboxes, meals are cooked and delivered and socially distanced chats had on the doorstep.

The risks to people with compromised immune systems are widely reported. The community gets it. We can all relate to the fear for a loved one whose health is of grave concern, even without the threat of COVID 19.

The government is providing funds for people who have lost their jobs. They have also decreed that no one in housing stress can be evicted from their rental during this time. This is a laudable and necessary piece of legislation.

The group to which I refer are the rough sleepers, the homeless. If we consider the meaning of that word ‘vulnerable’ this group epitomise it. They have no home to go to. Their usual sources of food are shut down or severely constrained. Initially, in our area, the seemingly sensible decision was made to turn off drinking fountains to contain the spread of the virus. This would have forced the homeless to obtain their drinking water from wash basins in public toilets. Luckily the fountains are by and large still operating. Their regular sources of clothing – charity shops – are all closed for the duration, and there is nowhere to shower.

Their very circumstances isolate them—not just now, always. In the search for somewhere safe to sleep, they hide. Their health is generally poor, their teeth bad. Their long-term insularity often leads to mental unwellness. Many are not on housing lists or even Centrelink because the paperwork or the queues defeat them.

If you are reading this you have access to the internet which means you probably have a roof over your head and a bathroom at your disposal. For a moment, try to imagine standing in a queue at Centrelink when you know that you smell, that your clothes are dirty and your hair unwashed. You may even be barefoot. A particular kind of resilience would be needed for that. The homeless people I’ve met have plenty of resilience and courage but it is chipped away at, day after day. They don’t want to be grubby and unkempt, they have no choice.

I am driven to write this piece by a couple of experiences I have had whilst working with the homeless in our area. Twice now, in just two weeks, people living in tents in local parks—well hidden and not in anyone’s way—have been issued with move on orders.

Where is the logic or compassion in this?

The latest move on notice was issued yesterday to Nicky and Ben (not their real names), a couple in their thirties I would guess, who we have been taking hot food to. Nicky has brain cancer and Ben is her partner and carer. They have been living rough for over six months. They are remarkable and brave, but this latest event has left them reeling. Where are they to go?

My husband had helped to organise a visit to the street doctor in Perth for Nicky on Wednesday but they didn’t make it as she was too ill. Ben told us she had been fitting. He is very frightened for her. The fits are a new complication.

If they were housed they would be safe, not just physically but also from eviction; but on the street, even the small amount of relief afforded them when they find a safe spot is overshadowed by the probability that they won’t be allowed to remain there.

We can’t know the reasons that put them on the street. It may have been family violence, loss of work, divorce. It could also be for less socially acceptable reasons—drugs or alcohol abuse. Some of the people we are working with may have been in prison.

Fundamentally, it doesn’t matter. They are all human beings. What if it was your mother, brother, son or daughter? I put myself in their shoes and shudder. How long could I maintain my sense of self, my sanity in those conditions?

Friends have said to me that they wouldn’t know where to start to help. I get that. My first outing on the streets was extremely confronting. It pushed me far outside my comfort zone. The interesting thing is that my comfort zone has stretched. At the moment, the biggest challenge is actually finding the people to help. We have been in contact with 41 individuals in the last month but that is only a fraction of the problem.

For friends in my area who have seen someone they think is a rough sleeper, please let me know. If you want to help yourself, bottled water is very appreciated right now. We leave water and sandwiches at tent doorways if no one is there. Tents are a luxury, many don’t even have that and winter is coming on.

If you are afraid of offending by asking if someone is sleeping rough you can always ask instead whether they know of any rough sleepers in the area because you have some water and sandwiches for them. They will soon tell you if they’re homeless.

We have a huge capacity for compassion, let’s extend the helping hand that we would want ourselves to this silent, largely ignored minority.

How you can help.

Lobby your MP – there are thousands of empty homes in Australia and yet we have people living on the streets.

In a wealthy and progressive country such as ours, I believe that this is a totally unacceptable situation.

4 thoughts on “Outcasts – the silenced, invisible and vulnerable people living on the fringe

  1. Mandy Buzzard says:

    A very interesting and insightful piece Penny. We are indeed lucky….any of us could find ourselves in their position if certain events befell us. Thank goodness for people who care enough to “go out of their comfort zone” and help. 🙏


  2. captsimonwalker says:

    This is one of your best pieces of work; straight from the heart and full of the passion you have to help those in need. I am so proud of you!


  3. Pauline Joanne Lee says:

    Insightful article, your compassionate work to support those who are most vulnerable is commendable and inspiring. Thank you for all you do. Let’s hope that there is a groundswell of change to make lifting people out of poverty and pain a reality.


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