All of us are guilty at looking at other people’s problems and thinking ‘that would never be me’ or if ‘I was in that position, I could handle it better’. We often perceive other people’s problems in neat packages with easy solutions. Why? Because it is easier to live our lives creating distance between ourselves and others, especially those that are struggling. By perceiving any marginalised group as responsible for their own circumstances, being the sole reason for their own problems allows us to go on with our lives with a clear conscience. But we know there is a range of factors that influence our lives: what family we were born into, our social status, race and gender, the list goes on. We also know that a key part of inciting change requires empathy, which in a way, is what Filthy Rich and Homeless attempts to evoke.
Brave or Biased?
Filthy Rich and Homeless is a tv-show on SBS that shows privileged Australians swap their lavish lifestyles for ten days on the street. Before their journey on the show, the majority of celebrities say they ‘are arrogant’ and that ‘it is all in the mind’ and they themselves could overcome it. The purpose of highlighting those statements is not to perceive them as unkind or uncharitable; instead it is to show how brave the participants are. We all stigmatise and stereotype certain people or groups, it is an inescapable aspect of human nature. What is not inescapable is the decision to recognise our inherent bias and confront our own beliefs.
The Australians that took part in this documentary go through a transformational journey. One participant in the course of 2 days went from purposefully ignoring people experiencing homelessness, to crying when he was shown the smallest human kindness. 2020 has been a tough year on all of us, but with the pain of 2020 has come opportunity. Opportunity to recognise that we are all in this together. Opportunity to fight for one another and focus on what it is important in life. During this pandemic The Victorian Government has taken the opportunity to show the value it places on the health and wellbeing of all Victorians. The Homelessness Hotels Emergency Response Plan has resulted in rough sleepers being placed in hotel accommodation to protect them from outbreaks of COVID-19 and reduced the strain on homelessness and housing organisations. This proves that, when push comes to shove, we can find the will and the funds to create solutions to social problems.
The isolation we have all felt in our homes may be a fraction of what someone sleeping rough, living in an overcrowded dwelling, or struggling to put food on the table is feeling with minimal support or in an unstable environment. The economic crisis we now face has made many of us realise people experiencing homelessness aren’t bad people that have made bad decisions as more Australians than ever before are facing the same frightening possibility.
The Federal Government’s decision to significantly cut JobSeeker has reportedly pushed 370,000 people back into poverty. The “coronavirus supplement” which was worth $550 a fortnight (or $39 a day) when it was introduced earlier this year, was given to welfare recipients on top of their eligible income support payments and immediately lifted 425,000 people out of poverty. In September the Government reduced the fortnightly supplement from $550 to $250 a fortnight. This month it was announced the “coronavirus supplement” has been extended until March 2021 but will be cut by an additional $150 a fortnight. Deloitte Access Economics has estimated cuts to the coronavirus supplement will cost the economy $31 billion (in lost economic activity) and 145,000 jobs over the next two years. The Blessing Bags team is deeply disappointed in the Federal Government’s decision to further cut welfare payments. This is a missed opportunity to permanently lift welfare recipients out of poverty and reduce the risk of homelessness. John Freebarin an economist at The University of Melbourne has campaigned for welfare rates to be increased stating ‘there had been no real increase in Newstart since 1993 — which was 27 years ago — and many Australians relying on the payment were in demonstrable poverty’. By continuing to cut welfare the Government continues to put those who are reliant on welfare at risk of homelessness. The need to raise the rate for Jobkeeper and Jobseeker has never been greater, as we mentioned in our last blog post.
Stigma Management Strategies of the Past and Present
Since the 1980s, the gap between the rich and the poor widened significantly and there was a dramatic increase in the rates of homelessness. Social scientists responded to this crisis by studying the rates and causations. However, with a few exceptions there is still limited research into the everyday experience of homelessness and people’s journey to housing. Leading sociologists like Erving Goffman believe stigma and homelessness to be a structural component of identity that can define you and therefore dictate the interactions you have with broader society. Stigmatised individuals broadly lack the power and ability to protect their sense of self and become who they want to be. Due to this some academics and theorists have concluded that marginalised people may unintentionally augment their status and perpetuate structural relationships that cause them to be marginalised. Psychologists call this the confirmation bias, in short you become what society believes you to be as you have no other option. We also know the ongoing criminalisation of homelessness has further entrenched this stigma. Mead and Rankin (2018) outlines laws criminalising homelessness which bans from of behaviour such as sleeping in vehicles, standing around in public and lying down in public. Our article ‘Criminalising people experiencing homelessness: a counterproductive approach’, further explores the punitive, cyclical relationship between imprisonment and homelessness.
Where does that leave us?
The reality is that homelessness is a systemic issue. Yes, some academics and theorists perceive homelessness as nearly impossible to eradicate, but that does not mean any of us are powerless to make a difference. Finland also defies this stance, with homelessness completely eradicated through the provision of the Housing First model Blessing Bags advocated for in our recent submission to the Inquiry into Homelessness in Victoria. But we can all make the choice to share a smile and take the time to connect with people experiencing homelessness. We can all make the choice to once a week give up our coffee to help someone we pass by who may be experiencing homelessness. If there was one thing Filthy Rich and Homeless showed was the impact a smile and acknowledging someone can make. A minute of time spent acknowledging someone who usually would just be ignored may give them the strength to keep going for another day.
Department of Health and Human Services. 2020. "Homelessness Hotels Emergency Response". Victoria.
"Filthy Rich And Homeless | TV | SBS". 2020. Programs. https://www.sbs.com.au/programs/filthy-rich-and-homeless.
Gerrard, Jessica, and David Farrugia. "The ‘lamentable sight’ of homelessness and the society of the spectacle." Urban Studies 52, no. 12 (2015): 2219-2233.
Henley, John. 2020. "'It’s A Miracle': Helsinki's Radical Solution To Homelessness". The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/jun/03/its-a-miracle-helsinkis-radical-solution-to-homelessness?fbclid=IwAR3HM9L3JocUMUhv4YVGtPXtMt1jYsE3hen72nn9obhVhNrj5lH3EOYG_zY.
Hutchens, Gareth. 2020. "Who's To Blame For Unemployment And Poverty?". Abc.Net.Au. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-10-04/coronavirus-government-policy-jobkeeper-jobseeker-unemployment/12729136.
"Jobseeker Covid Payment Extended Till March But Will Be Cut To $150 A Fortnight". 2020. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/nov/10/jobseeker-covid-payment-extended-till-march-but-will-be-cut-to-150-a-fortnight.
Mead, Joseph, and Sara Rankin. "Why Turning Homelessness into a Crime is Cruel and Costly." The Conversation (2018).
Rayburn, Rachel L., and Nicholas A. Guittar. "“This is where you are supposed to be”: How homeless individuals cope with stigma." Sociological Spectrum 33, no. 2 (2013): 159-174.
Roschelle, Anne R., and Peter Kaufman. "Fitting in and fighting back: Stigma management strategies among homeless kids." Symbolic Interaction 27, no. 1 (2004): 23-46.
Stafford, Amanda, and Lisa Wood. "Tackling health disparities for people who are homeless? Start with social determinants." International journal of environmental research and public health 14, no. 12 (2017): 1535.