The area between Melbourne Central and Emporium is a Jumanji-like concrete jungle. For most Melbournians, you would most likely know what it’s like to weave your way between the throng of busy passers-by rushing to maximise their shopping trip – even on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Once you’ve made it to the finish line, the cars whizz past behind you without missing a beat, oftentimes honking at each other impatiently. Relieved, most of us would then continue our way through the well-lit shopping malls, noticing the carefully crafted products placed behind walls of clean glass. We would fail to notice, or perhaps deliberately ignore, Travis Bishop, the forty-seven-year old homeless man who blends right into the dark wall outside the Forever New store.
On this day, he sits with his eyes closed. Countless city-folk hastily make their way before him. He doesn’t seem to mind. The weather is cold, but he only has a worn-out black hoodie and ripped jeans to brave the wind, his dusty haversack a trustee companion. The coins that sit in the beanie before him appears to be the only thing that beckons at the world around him. He seems consoled to have someone for a few minutes of conversation, even if it’s a university student asking for an interview.
“We used to move around when I was young with my dad with work. Moving to a new school, the easiest people to become friends with were usually the wrong people. I was around thirteen or fourteen when I started (drugs).” Travis admits that he felt insecure during his teenage years, and thus resorted to drug use to escape the doubts and self-defeating thoughts in his mind. This eventually turned into an addiction that spiraled out of control, one that he tried to hide from everyone around him, including his ex-wife.
“When I was married, I kept my addiction hidden from her. I told her a lot of lies to cover my addiction. When she found out… it broke the marriage down. I lied to her about where my money was going or where I was going at times. I was the one who lied and cheated so I was the one who had to prove I was serious in what I was doing.” Despite his painful past, Travis has not lost hope. “Living here… I never thought I’d end up having to do. It took everything from me. I gotta live. I’m still thankful. I’m still young.”
Even as we were talking, a lady walks by and quickly hands him a box of food. She smiles, satisfied with her random act of kindness. I could not help but to identify myself with this lady, buying food for the homeless on an occasional basis. Yet, I would soon come to realise that perhaps this is not a viable solution in the long-run.
Travis graciously accepts her gift and continues sharing with me about his efforts to improve himself. He joined a 24-hour rehab programme at Odyssey House, where he managed to clean himself up – especially so he could see his eleven-year old daughter again. After his divorce, his wife had initially stopped him from contacting his daughter. She was, nevertheless, willing to let him “do what (he) gotta do” and “see what happens”. He wanted to prove that he was serious about changing, and even started studying at Deakin twice a week to become a youth worker. This was where he could work with troubled youth, perhaps as a way to make peace with his past. Still, it has been a challenging journey for Travis, especially since he had to do it alone.
“I lost contact with my dad for ten years. I told him when I went into rehab. I told him I was sorry for what I did. I asked if he was willing to come to a visiting day and he could see I had been in rehab for a few months. He came along one day and we talked and were open and honest about everything. At the end of the conversation, he said to me he was proud of me for trying to change and being open and honest about everything. It’s one thing I never really heard from my dad before. Those words stuck with me and gave me that extra motivation to keep going.” His voice starts shaking a little. It’s the first time he seems distressed ever since we started talking. Travis looks away in the distance, wringing his fingers.
Research conducted by Dr. Yi-Ping Tseng, Senior Research Fellow in the Labour Economics and Social Policy research programme of the University of Melbourne, has found that although drug abuse and homelessness are interlinked, traumatic childhood experiences are usually the key driving factor for homelessness. “We looked at very disadvantaged people, whereby a large proportion have a mental illness or use drugs. Most of them had a bad childhood experience such as child abuse, rape, physical or sexual abuse, or were placed in foster care or state care.” With this in mind, she and her team took a harm-minimisation approach for their research, whereby the main goal was to gain trust and ensure that the homeless did not overdose on drugs. This was significant as in one case, it took four months before one of the homeless person being studied could even make eye contact with the case worker.
Dr. Tseng also mentions that intensive care was provided for severely disadvantaged homeless individuals over the course of three years. This included on-site counselling services, and providing access to permanent housing quickly. Still, she admits that “it’s a very difficult task to help people with chronic homelessness”. It was found that out of the 80% who managed to acquire public housing, only 50% remained after three years. Dr. Tseng states that in her study and other similar studies conducted in the US, most people became homeless again once the support ended. This was discovered under her Journey to Social Inclusion Programme, which involved supporting the chronically homeless.
“In J2SI, Journey to Social Inclusion, we found that public housing is actually the most important factor to prevent people from entering homelessness. Unfortunately, the state government keeps transferring public housing to community housing – which is not as effective.” It is evident that Dr. Tseng feels public housing the the most important factor in reducing chronic homelessness, even more so than on-site counselling services. She even mentions that rehab is ineffective due to the long waiting list and the volatile nature of most chronically homeless people. As such, public housing was seen to be the most effective solution. Her conclusion was largely based on her research in Journeys Home: Tracking the Most Vulnerable (2017) and Using Private information to Predict Homeless Entries: Evidence and Prospects (2017).
She mentions that the reason why this is the case is because community housing is normally run by NGOs, and as such, rent is necessary to finance the housing stock. Public housing, on the other hand, has a longer tenure and provide support services for rent. It is owned by the government, so they are “less harsh”. Although both housing systems charge a similar rate of rent, the pressure of dealing with rent is higher in community housing, which results in more evictions. This is in spite of the fact that most homeless people transferred to public housing are on income support.
The Homes for People Housing Strategy published by the City of Melbourne in 2015, reveals the expected increase in residents and dwellings by 2031. According to the report, it is expected that 190,000 residents and 115,000 dwellings will be living in the City of Melbourne. This is a sharp spike contrasted to the 116,000 residents and 68,000 dwellings reported in 2014. As mentioned above, public housing could be the key driving factor in eradicating homelessness. However, the Homes for People report indicates that social housing makes up only 6% of housing stock, while private rental has 40% of housing stock, the highest out of all types of housing.