Poverty Home Truths
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These days, I’m pretty good with broken sleep – reflux babies being the parenting equivalent of the sleep deprivation training frontline soldiers go through, so I wasn’t too daunted by a night on the concrete at GMHBA Stadium for the Vinnies CEO Sleepout last week.
‘Were you cold’ has been the most common question I’ve heard since, and the simple answer is yes, but not too bad, and yes, I would definitely do it again.
Sure, it wasn’t the most restful or comfortable night, but being surrounded by security and a group of people all in this together, cocooned in a good quality sleeping bag and the novelty of engineering (or decorating) your bit of cardboard for the night made it a good experience.
The difference is that at home you really rest, even if it’s in snatches between waking.
But waking up to a freshly made coffee and hot brekkie roll in this safe space is a very different thing to what it must be like to wake up in the car, or in a park or on the streets.
In recent weeks, we have heard our politicians warning Australians against compassion. Guest speaker at the Sleepout, Diana Connell, said hearing this broke her heart a little bit.
Diana is 46, she has three adult kids and her story of homelessness and poverty is complex and ongoing, with no clear beginning, middle and end.
She talked of coming to Australia life some fifteen years ago from New Zealand and of life on the dairy farm with her husband and kids. The Connells were one of many dairy farmers who couldn’t make it through the economic disasters that struck the industry and they lost their farm.
Spiralling domestic violence eventually saw Diana and the kids kicked out of their home. She spent three weeks living in her car with her son while he was finishing Year 12 – not telling anybody because they were just too ashamed.
Fighting cancer and unable to work herself, Diana’s daughter quit uni in Melbourne to get a job and help pay the bills. As New Zealand citizens, there was limited access to services and together, the family is trying to make the best of it. But court cases with her husband are ongoing, the bills keep piling up, and Vinnies are helping where they can.
The big things that would make a difference – availability of crisis and affordable social housing, changes to family law legislation and protections for non-citizens – require more than volunteers and fundraising. They require the will of politicians to implement change, and that will only ever come from the collective push from the wider community.
The Vinnies CEO Sleepout is a brilliant way to raise awareness of a serious and growing problem – and housing affordability and cost of living are not going away any time soon.
Was a bit like an experience of homelessness? No, nothing like it at all; there was no sense of gut-wrenching fear or shame or isolation or absence of hope. We didn’t have go and find food or beg for it. We brought our sub-zero sleeping bags, wore our new beanies and were handed a cup of soup, could make a cup of tea, have some fruit or a protein bar.
There was respect and a shared experience amongst a group of people with an extraordinary capacity to drive real change and a sense of accomplishing something.
We got to go home, have a hot shower and refresh, knowing a warm and safe bed was waiting. Our kids were safe and warm at home too.
Too many people don’t.
Broke and alone, life at age 27 was really tough for author and social commentator Nikki McWatters. Her latest book, Madness, Mayhem and Motherhood tells her story and it’s one of bloody hard fought endurance. Raising two young boys in a rat-infested apartment in Sydney, Nikki was hiding the truth of how she was living from her schoolteacher parents in Queensland. There was never enough money for anything, the kids lived on peanut butter sandwiches and 2-minute noodles, the other mums wouldn’t give her the time of day and any birthday party invitations her kids got had to be turned down because she couldn’t afford to buy a present. Then a couple of Vinnies volunteers knocked on the door…
So no, the CEO Sleepout wasn’t comfortable and it wasn’t easy, and that’s what made it work.
In the past, I’ve known what it is to be broke and I’ve known what it’s like to be poor. But listening to Diana and Nikki sharing their home truths hit your sense of fairness like a sucker punch. We really do have so much work to do.