Monday, August 31, 2009


I have been thinking a lot about homelessness lately- working in the city it can be quite in your face- and so I thought I would share some things I've come across in the past little while...

My thinking for this post started with a bit of a rant about political correctness. Triggered in turn by a comment on an internet site who created a character who was homeless and mentally ill, of perpetuating stereotypes of homeless people as having mental illnesses and being drug and/or alcohol addicts. Sadly I do not remember exactly what the person said, but it puzzled me somewhat.

The first thought I had was that when I think about people being derogatory toward homeless people is the accusation of laziness and the need for hard work/a job. The second was that a large proportion of homeless people have addictions and/or mental illnesses, and the third was that in a way the remark could in a way be construed as saying that it was right to dismiss people who are mentally ill or addicted, but that there were deserving individuals out there who were homeless for no fault of their own.

To sum up, my response internally was that although I understand that it is a good thing to see people as people and not stereotypes, it is important not to whitewash the problems of homeless people, because they need to be addressed in helping the homeless. After all, mental illness and addiction can adversely affect people's ability to hold down a job or a house, particularly without proper support. Which they should have. And I disliked what I felt was a kind of stigma associated with mental illness implicit in the remark... Maybe I was being overly sensitive.

I guess talking about these things is difficult, I feel the need to clarify- I don't think that everyone with a mental illness is homeless or unable to hold down a job, since I can clearly see that this is not so, and I don't think that everyone who is homeless is mentally ill. Or addicted to drugs or alcohol. I don't think that everyone who is mentally ill takes drugs or drinks, or vice versa. Have I covered all my bases? Have I been offensive? Let me know if I have, I will try to address it.

Alrighty then. According to ABS statistics from 2007 54% of people who have ever been homeless have a mental illness, compared to 20% of all Australians. There could be a few reasons for this high proportion- one is to do with Government reform which left a large number of mentally ill people without proper care or resources. Then there are the effects of living homeless, and the effects of life events that make people homeless. I found it harder to find drug and alcohol stats... But I hear the proportion is high. So what should we do with this information/ We should help the homeless. Provide better mental health and rehab facilities. Homelessness can happen to anyone. Yeah...

Really you should read this blog: Micaiah Sells Out. It really says it all a lot better than I do... It's written by a Christian guy (my friend's little brother actually) with a social work degree and a job at Mission Australia working with homeless people. Which makes him better qualified to talk about homelessness than me.

And I found this story touching- it's about a one-time pop star, now aged, who has experienced mental illness, homelessness and alcoholism... I didn't save the link, but I found it on SMH:

Depression has been a constant companion for Cave. Uncomfortable in the company of strangers, panic attacks have been a regular feature of his life. Even in his heyday, he says, he would get nervous for days before appearing on stage. Tragically, these problems would eventually bring him into the orbit of notorious psychiatrist Dr Harry Bailey, the man at the centre of the Chelmsford Hospital scandal in which many patients died during, or committed suicide after, Bailey's unregulated experimental techniques.

Cave blames Chelmsford for much of his physical and mental decline over the next few years. In the 1980s his alcoholism and mental illness accelerated until he found himself sleeping in the toilets opposite the St George Leagues Club in Kogarah.

“If it wasn't for the people at the club, I wouldn't be here. They looked after me, gave me breakfast and kept an eye on me. I'd be dead if it wasn't for their kindness.”


  1. Incidence rates of generic mental illness would if anything be likely to underestimate its contribution to homelessness, since they don't account for the fact that:

    1) Some people can have more severe cases of a disorder than others, and similarly,

    2) Some disorders tend to be more debilitating than others.

    So for example, take Schizophrenia, arguably the most severe mental illness in terms of impaired ability to function successfully in society. I'd wager the prevalence rate amongst the homeless population is massively higher than the common 1% estimate for the general population - propotionally much more so than other mental illnesses.

  2. Anonymous2/9/09 19:53

    It seems to me that we should all regard ourselves as sojourners on the earth. Having said that, of course, there are some sojourners who are clearly a little more on a sojourn than others. Suppose we were Aborigines living on Port Jackson in 1750: what percentage of our tribe would be homeless? Dead maybe. I am guessing that none would be in any real sense homeless. The violently mad (paranoid schizophrenics and those of that ilk) would have had the bone pointed, or whatever the Cadigalians did, and have left human company, and quite quickly died. The interestingly mad might have got a job as prophet or leader depending on inclination. If they were just a little mad, there might be no notice taken, especially if they had useful skills, say as fishermen or hunters.

    I am not aware of any great availability of substances to abuse in the aboriginal population at that time. (Since 1788 is a different matter.) I think we can fairly regard those in the grip of serious addictions as having a kind of acquired madness, although I am aware that there is a school of thought that addiction is (at last in part) a conscious decision.

    In my country childhood, there were about 100 in the village, including some who would certainly have been homeless in the big city. In the village, they were taken care of. One in particular I remember was looked after by others from his church who made sure that the house he was left was kept for him, that he was not exploited by outsiders (he was a bit simple) and that he had a rôle (delivering the groceries by donkey cart as it happens) in the village life. My village upbringing in the 1960s was, I think, not so different in some respects to village life for centuries before. If you are part of our community, we will look after you. And expect the same in return.

    Christ said “the poor are always with us.”, and so they are. The people at the wrong end of the normal distribution for intelligence and sanity will always suffer by comparison with the rest of us, and some will manage their affairs so badly that they have no one who will have them in. That is the real problem. Owning a title deed is no big deal if you have the community of village or family to provide shelter.

    So what can we do? Be a neighbour to the poor. The rest of it: the mental hospital reforms of the 1960’s and so on, are really only a small part of the whole deal. You can’t legislate against individual folly, but you should be able to recognise it, and have some compassion on those whose fate is to destroy themselves. (Yes, some also have bad luck. There are those who can survive any catastrophe, some who would have done well but for a series of tragedies, and others who spiral in no matter what good fortune they are born with. Who are we to say which is which?)

    Man is born for community, so let’s make communities of the heart.

    This all sounds very twee, doesn’t it? Would I want some mad smelly old drunk as a guest in my house? I’ve never had the guts to invite one in, although I know some who have. Can we compensate by demanding action of politicians? I don’t think so. Me, I give to the Salvoes, and try not to sneer when I walk past beggars. Do I do wrong?

  3. With Respect to X: I think you're probably right about that, yeah.

    Dad: That is a long comment! Just to pick a little part of it: while a community can be great at supporting people things change when it comes to a big city, just logistically. I like to think that the Government has a responsibility to provide care for its citizens, particularly those who have very little other support. But I also think we have responsibilities, and I would like to be able to contribute to mental health institutions, because they seem to often get neglected, while there are often people fundraising for, say, children's hospitals.

  4. "The people at the wrong end of the normal distribution for intelligence and sanity will always suffer by comparison"

    Please - "intelligence *and/or* sanity." Craziness does not necessarily correlate with stupidity. In fact by some metrics the opposite is true. Not that I'm indignant or anything :P

    "I would like to be able to contribute to mental health institutions, because they seem to often get neglected, while there are often people fundraising for, say, children's hospitals."

    Hear hear! As a person who has spent time seriously ill in both Randwick Children's Hospital and Rozelle Psychiatric Hopstial, I couldn't agree more.

  5. Anonymous3/9/09 23:26

    "Please - "intelligence *and/or* sanity." Craziness does not necessarily correlate with stupidity."
    Nobody said it did, but there are many things that are required for success in this world. Having only one or the other attribute of personality working well will not do to make someone rich and famous "a success". (Indeed, earthly success is something else again, and I am not sure always to be desired.)
    Do you know the "happy families aphorism? Tolstoy (I think) said that all happy families are alike, but all unhappy families are unhappy in a different way. In other words, there are many ways to go off the rails, but to do well, everything needs to be done right. In individual terms, all faculties need to be engaged, and body mind and heart in good shape. Clearly there will never be a time on this earth when we are all perfect.
    More than that, as many people measure themselves against others. Most of us I suspect, there will always be those who see themselves and losers, and behave accordingly.

    SO what can we do? Just deal rightly with those around us. I do not think that humans are really made to live in groups numbered in the millions. Things work better if we look after our neighbours.