I'm proud to be one of the inaugural conveners of the Parliamentary Friendship Group on Homelessness. It's really important that we talk about homelessness in our community so that those who are experiencing it don't become invisible. In my launch speech I shared the stories of a couple of Fraser locals who know first hand what it's like to live on the streets; now you can read about them too...
ADDRESS TO THE LAUNCH OF THE PARLIAMENTARY FRIENDSHIP GROUP ON HOMELESSNESS
I acknowledge the Ngunnawal people, the traditional owners of the lands on which we meet today; my co-convenors Senators Ludlam and Seselja; Shadow Minister for Housing and Homelessness Jan McLucas; Homelessness Australia CEO Glenda Stevens; Chris Hawley, who will share his story with us later; and the many members and senators who have joined us today.
Let me start with a story.
Glenn Tibbitts was born at 26 weeks in the back of an ambulance because his mother had endured another beating. Glenn’s first recollection of abuse he suffered was between the age of one and two. Around the age of 7 his parents broke up and as Glenn describes it: ‘the door of the cage was left open and that was my opportunity to go’.
As it happens, my eldest son Sebastian is 7 years old. On a good day, he can – with a bit of cajoling – eat breakfast and get himself dressed for school. It horrifies me to think of a 7 year old boy living on the streets – having to make the decision to choose homelessness in order to survive.
Glenn slept in car parks and under bushes and bridges. This was interspersed with short periods in refuges and shelters. As a child he experienced the indignity of having scraps of food thrown at him by strangers.
Not given but thrown.
Of this time he says: ‘You are always constantly hungry, you are always constantly cold’. Dealing with the abuse and trauma he suffered was a constant struggle that kept him on the streets.
As heart-wrenching as Glenn’s story is, it is also a story of hope.
Today, Glenn is a successful businessman, a loving and caring father and husband.
He courageously shared his story of homelessness on the 7.30 ACT program last year. Glenn demonstrates that despite the complexity of homelessness, we can – with the right supports – provide hope for those living rough.
You might have noticed that two-thirds of the co-chairs for this group are from Canberra. The ACT has the second highest rate of homelessness in Australia. According to the 2011 census, 1785 ACT residents were homeless on Census night. That’s 1785 people more than we should accept.
Children together with women comprise largest homeless cohort in the ACT. Harold Chatfield works for St Vincent de Paul’s Street to Home Program. He has seen the number of homeless people in Canberra steadily increase. He describes homeless people as: ‘resilient, brave and misunderstood’. Two former residents of Samaritan House also shared their stories.
Mathew Richards, a once successful restaurant owner, puts his journey into homelessness down to bad decisions and the tendency to drink too much. ‘I lost my way’, he says. For him being homeless is soul destroying. His plans for the future are modest: ‘to have a decent life’.
Brady Martin says of being homeless: ‘You feel like you are bottom of the pile. Everyone looks down on you’. He had a drug issue that in his words ‘destroyed my life’. He used to have a place to live, a job and nice car. ‘We’d love a fair go, just to try and get ourselves back to what we used to have’. Brady tells how being homeless you ‘have to sleep with one eye open because you don’t know who or what is out there’. He says ‘I ended up sleeping on Tuggeranong Hill. I’d dug a hole in the ground and was curling up in that for a couple of weeks before I got here’.
Both Mathew and Brady spoke of how quickly life can turn.
‘Things can change like that’ says Brady, snapping his fingers.
* * *
One of the reasons I ended up studying under Christopher Jencks at Harvard was reading his excellent book, The Homeless. It describes how homelessness is both a cause and a reflection of complex disadvantage in society.
Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, every story of homelessness is unique. But in every homeless person, there is hope for a better future.
I want to thank everyone for coming today in support of this Parliamentary Friendship Group on Homelessness.
Together we can all work to bring about effective solutions, and help provide a better future for those who are homeless.
MEDIA CONTACT: JENNIFER RAYNER 0428 214 856