Melbourne, Australia – On any given day or night in inner-city Melbourne, thousands of pedestrians pass by people “coal biting” on the sidewalks.
Some may be rough sleepers, others might be hoping to raise some money before heading back to temporary, overcrowded housing. Some have cardboard signs, some sit staring at the concrete, while others are vocal.
All of them have a story.
Coal biting is street slang for begging, an activity of which former heroin addict and homeless man Troy, who asked that we only use his first name, says “There’s nothing more humiliating.”
“I can say that now because I’ve been through it. But when you have an addiction, you don’t even think about it,” the 46-year-old adds.
“Now that I’m clean, I just couldn’t do it – you’re baring your soul,” he says. “You have to swallow your pride.”
Troy has a weathered face and scarred arms that show the many years he spent on the streets using heroin. But there is pride in his voice when he discusses his journey to beat addiction and remain permanently housed.
Troy and his wife Cheryl, 64, became homeless after their addictions spiralled out of control.
Cheryl was attacked by a male friend when she was a teenager and says the trauma of this was one of the underlying reasons she began using heroin.
“With heroin, I’d have a good sleep,” she says. “Which isn’t a good excuse, but in my mind, that’s what I was doing – having a good sleep. I wouldn’t remember all the trauma of being attacked as a kid.”
Despite having heroin addictions, in the early years of their marriage both Cheryl and Troy worked – Troy as a computer programmer and Cheryl as a teacher’s aide.
However, after Troy lost his job due to downsizing, their addictions grew until they took over their lives.
They lost their home and lived on the streets of Melbourne for more than a decade.
“We lived on the streets,” says Cheryl. “We lived in my car until it got stolen. We lived in boarding houses. Couch surfed for a while.”
The couple managed to stay married throughout their shared experience of homelessness.
Cheryl, who has two adult children, is now a grandmother. She says it is her children and grandchildren who motivate her to stay clean.
“[It was] a sense of accomplishment [to get] clean and see my grandchildren,” she says.
But despite their experience, Cheryl is quick to point out that not every heroin addict is homeless, and not every homeless person is an addict. She says that each story is both complex and different, and not always related to drugs.
“Until people actually get out there and talk to homeless people and understand their story behind them, there will be a stigma,” she says.
Safe accommodation is key
Cheryl and Troy have been fortunate to find permanent housing in a council flat in North Melbourne, which they say has been key to them beating their addictions.
Not only does stable accommodation make it easier to tackle the complexities of addiction, mental health issues and poverty, it also offers safety. Cheryl says that the options that are most available to rough sleepers – such as temporary boarding houses – are often more dangerous than sleeping on the streets.
“We stayed in boarding homes,” she says. “But we left there because one night a guy decided to kick everyone’s door in with an axe.”
Cheryl says that since moving into their own home, the couple now feels much safer than they did when they were living on the streets.
“You’ve got the security,” she says. “You come inside and you shut the door and you know you are not going to get attacked. What’s inside is yours.”
‘Put a roof over their head’
This basic need for housing is echoed by Steven Perrson, CEO of the Big Issue, a social enterprise by which homeless and other marginalised people can sell a magazine as a means to employment.
Steven acknowledges that people experiencing homelessness often have complex needs, experiencing drug use, trauma, mental health issues and domestic violence. Yet he also maintains that their basic need for a house is central to the challenges they face.
“If you assist people to be less poor, they are no longer in poverty. If you put a roof over their head, they are no longer homeless,” he says.
Justice Connect, a community legal service that ensures underprivileged and marginalised people have access to the justice system, recently surveyed 30 people who currently or previously begged on the streets of Melbourne. This sample showed that 77 percent were experiencing homelessness, 87 percent had a mental illness, and approximately 33 percent had experienced family violence or reported childhood abuse or trauma.
While Steven supports the varied organisations that work to assist people experiencing homelessness with complex needs, he firmly believes that the first step is to simply provide secure, affordable housing.
He remains adamant that until people have a secure home, the complex needs of people experiencing poverty and homelessness remains somewhat of an “unknown”.
“Put a roof over people’s head, it’s the beginning of the solution,” he says.
“What we’ve done is assume everyone is complex. Until we actually put a roof over someone’s head and see if the baseline need has been met, then we can have the debate about where those additional services need to be associated.”
As well as being CEO of the Big Issue, Steven is also the lead advocate in the Homes for Homes programme, which encourages developers and homeowners to donate one-tenth of one percent of any profits made from housing.
This money, he says, will be dispersed throughout community organisations in order to help provide affordable housing.
He says the Homes for Homes project is a way of “democratising the issue” by way of voluntary funding.
“We need to stop all doing our own thing and come together, raise the money that’s needed and disperse it where it should go.”
‘Your little piece of Australia’
Cheryl and Troy are now clean and Cheryl works as an advocate for homeless people for the Big Issue.
Like Steven, she agrees that having a safe, secure home is the first step towards dealing with more complex issues such as mental health and addiction.
“Your highest priority when you’re living on the streets is trying to survive,” she says. “[But] once you’re housed, everything falls into place. You have to deal with your mental health, you have to deal with your physical health, you can get that job because you have an address.”
Yet both Cheryl and Troy are quick to assert that it is not simply a case of providing a house and giving someone a key.
They say that many people need to be supported to transition into stable housing, and assisted with simple tasks such as paying bills, shopping and cooking – aspects of life they may have not had to deal with in their life on the streets.
“We had to get used to sleeping in a bed,” says Cheryl. “We slept on the floor for ages, even though we had a bed to sleep in. You’re just not used to sleeping in a comfortable bed, you’re used to sleeping on concrete.”
However, now that the couple have secured permanent accommodation, they say they have been able to address their addiction and move forward with life.
They have also found a sense of belonging.
“It’s your little piece of Australia,” says Troy.
This series was supported by the City of Yarra.