“Next time you put whatever spare change you have in a tin, think about that extra step you can take to breach that social gap. And just say something.”
Words by: Helene Lambetsos
Photo credits: Street Smugglers’ Facebook
If you’re reading this right now, consider yourself lucky.
Whether you’re on a tablet, smart phone or laptop, you have the means to buy something to read this on. Maybe it’s during your commute to work or school, or just during a break in scrolling your social media. Either way, you’re lucky.
You’re lucky because, by some twist of fate, you’ve found yourself in the ninety five percent of people in WA not homeless. Though this may seem like a vast majority, not particularly shocking, this puts our states number of homeless people at around ten thousand. Feeling lucky yet?
What’s even more concerning is the amount of homeless children under twelve years old, who make up over fifteen per cent of this number: by far the largest demographic.
It’s a lifestyle many of us could never understand. The notion appears fleetingly as you walk through the city and pass a disheveled man on the sidewalk, but not one that often sticks with people. To be frank, it’s a world totally outside our own.
It was this that made Conrad Liverus want to spend a week walking in a homeless person’s shoes.
“We saw that homelessness was on the rise and we decided that we wanted to do something about it,” says Conrad of himself and his brothers, co-founders of non-profit advocacy group Street Smugglers, who work in homeless issues.
“We’re just finishing off fundraising for support packs for homeless people, which may involve like toiletries and stuff like that, clothes. We also run this thing called a Street Store which is like a pop up shop for homeless people. It’s about shopping with dignity, and so all the clothes are free, but its set up like a shop, so it’s not as embarrassing as going to an op-shop when that’s you’re only option.”
On top of this, the guys recently spent a week living on the streets, to experience everything that the homeless of Perth do, feel and experience.
Photo Credit: Ruah, Not-For Profit Organisation
“It was an interesting experience,” says Conrad. “We were with hundreds of homeless people who were all in very different circumstances, all very complex. We were out there experiencing what homelessness in Perth, and in Australian cities at large, is really like. It’s pretty hardcore.”
And the most surprising part of the experience? Homeless people’s fear of the general public.
“But it’s definitely a thing that homeless people are concerned about. Basically the advice that we would strongly give them was to get out of the city, out of the nightlife spots, after about like nine, ten o’clock at night. Otherwise, you will get hurt.”
And this fear isn’t unfounded. Stories crop up every so often about homeless abuse, from cases of murder to sexual assault, but these are often met with shock that has a very short shelf life. But its all too real for those percentage of homeless who are “living rough”. And this is all the more concerning, considering a majority of those living on the streets are there because of some type of domestic violence.
The high percentage of homeless sleeping vulnerably on the street mean they are more likely to be victims of violence. In fact, a study by the University of Technology Sydney found that almost half of the homeless there experience violence at least once. And this is just reported cases. This means the problem goes beyond housing issues and being short on resources. It’s clearly a social issue.
But whose job is it to fix this problem, and help these people?
“I think one the things around policy and politics when it comes to homelessness is that everyone has a role to play,” says Conrad. “
And this is something that struck a particular chord. Obviously, there are countless shelters, Foodbanks and op-shops to help the homeless, yet this is an issue that still continues. Can it be a stigma surrounding the homeless, and a tendency to think of them as lesser than the average citizen be a hurdle to overcome in the fight to end homelessness?
“One of the things we encourage is actually being conscious about this issue, and talking to homeless people. Because communicating with homeless people is all about breaching the cycle of indignity,” Conrad says.
I ask if there is a cultural stigma surrounding the homeless, and he answers with a piece of advice that could be the step in ending this so called “cycle of indignity”.
“Completely. Basically homeless people are so distant from wider society that they feel the isolation and you know, everyone can walk past a homeless person and not actually see them there. We recognise them in the city, but we don’t actually connect with them. We should all take on efforts to actually engage them. And sometimes reducing homelessness actually just starts with a conversation, and valuing them as a person.”