How easy is it for anyone to become homeless?
To be an intelligent, kind, articulate person and one day find yourself sleeping on the streets?
Just ask Rachel, 37, who grew up in a middle class house in Melbourne’s north-eastern suburbs, and who now sleeps in parks at night.
‘‘I didn’t think that I would end up here at all,’’ she says. ‘‘It didn’t take much.’’
It also happened to alleged murder victim Courtney Herron, who was from a loving family and went to the exclusive Genazzano College in Kew as a teenager and yet due to a complex set of circumstances, found herself homeless at age 25.
Ms Herron’s plight, and her death, her battered body found in Royal Park in the inner suburb of Parkville, on Saturday, did not surprise Rachel*.
‘‘It’s not uncommon that [homeless] people would get bashed ,’’ she said.
Rachel feels society is getting more violent ‘‘and we don’t understand what compassion is anymore’’.
She says many of today’s homeless are women, although there is ‘‘a smidge more men’’.
But it is more dangerous for women.
In the past, Rachel spent many nights in Melbourne’s CBD but ‘‘you sleep with one eye open,’’ she says.
A drunk might throw water on you, and you can’t get warm or dry. A year ago, in a lane off Flinders Street, she was kicked and punched in an altercation. She says when you don’t sleep, the next day you’re so tired you look like you’re on drugs, and the police can move you on.
‘‘I’m busting to go back to work. I have got a little bit of work from this sign. I did a lady’s ironing and a bit of gardening, odds and ends. But I’d do factory work or retail, or whatever.’’
At night Rachel retrieves her bedding from a railway locker and she and a male friend head out of the CBD. They take the train to Box Hill or Balwyn, where they sleep in a park, preferably in a rotunda, or under a tree; somewhere ‘‘as dry and as warm as I can get it to be’’.
Rachel wants us to challenge the stereotypes of the homeless. ‘‘A lot of us are here because it’s a crappy situation we’re in, and we’re trying to get out of it.’’
Fifteen years ago, Rachel’s mother became ill, suffering seven strokes. As a loving daughter, Rachel looked after her, for which she received a carer’s pension.
When her mother died two years ago, age 60, Rachel did not have work experience to find a job. Without a job, she couldn’t afford rent. Within six months, she was evicted.
She now sees that ‘‘it really is a fine line, between having somewhere safe to call home, and being out here’’.
According to the Council to Homeless Persons, 24,817 people were homeless on census night 2016, and 10,432, or 42 per cent of those, were female.
CHP chief executive Jenny Smith said there are no one-bedroom rentals anywhere in Victoria that a single woman on Centrelink can afford.
‘‘So if you lose your job, or you have to move out of your rental, and you’re on a low income you can very quickly find that there is nowhere to turn.
‘‘You might couch surf for a while until you wear out your welcome, or stay in a rooming houses. But rooming houses are often dangerous and women are particularly vulnerable, so then they end up on the street.
‘‘That’s why we need the Victorian government to deliver at least 3,000 new units of social housing each year and the federal government to more than match that effort.’’
Last January, in response to a public outcry over the number of rough sleepers on Melbourne streets, the government released a plan to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping.
But while homelessness services welcomed these initiatives, safe and affordable housing is so limited that workers are often only able to refer people to motels and rooming houses. The social housing wait list is more than 80,000 people long.
A person with drug and alcohol issues, who is escaping family violence or has been repeatedly homeless can be placed on a ‘‘priority’’ list. But the average wait time for priority cases is currently 10 months.
*Not her real name.
This article first appeared in The Age.