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Understanding homelessness
By Tammy May

Being homeless is not a choiceBack in June, I spent a cold night sleeping on a thin piece of cardboard on the street. The weather was wintry, with a frigid breeze and light rain. I was lucky—I found a spot under shelter and I was wearing a thick snow jacket. My belly was full with a bowl of tasty free soup, and I was not alone. Yet still the night was long and difficult.

I was participating in the Vinnie’s CEO Sleepout, an annual event that raises money and awareness to address homelessness. I was surrounded by other leaders from the South Australian business community, including MyBudget’s Juliet Cameron and Sue Newberry. As well as experiencing the physical discomfort of homelessness that night, we also learned more about its causes.

The biggest take-home message is that being homeless is not a choice. Most homeless people are running away from abuse or hopeless situations, like the heartbreaking story of a young woman who told us that she had been sexually abused by her parents from the age of three. At 13 she felt no option but to run away from home and live on the streets.

I asked Juliet and Sue to reflect on their experiences, too:

Juliet: “I really wanted to do something bold to raise awareness about homelessness and also gain a better understanding of what thousands of homeless people experience every night. It was a strange sensation trying to sleep while lying outside and in the dark! I heard a lot of strange noises and overall felt very vulnerable and exposed. I now understand that some people could feel like there is not much chance of a different future. But being homeless is not who they are as a person. If you see a homeless person on the street, even if you don’t want to give them money, at least give them the gift of a warm, loving smile or just a kind hello. It could make a huge difference.”

Sue: The sleepout changed my understanding about homelessness completely. I believe that we make choices in our lives and these have consequences, so I always thought that homelessness was a choice. After hearing from a couple of presenters—in particular, learning about the circumstances surrounding their slip into homelessness—I realised that it’s anything but a choice. There are no other options for some people. The depletion of energy and exhaustion I felt the next day stripped my soul, self-esteem and the want to do anything productive. It would be very difficult to break the cycle of homelessness and to try to better your circumstances. I have more understanding and compassion for people who experience homelessness now and a greater admiration for those who are able to break the cycle and change their lives.”

Tammy May raises awareness about homelessnessIt’s important that as a community we change stereotypes about homelessness and raise awareness that with a sudden change in circumstance it can happen to anyone. As Juliet points out, “Homelessness also refers to people without a fixed address who couch-surf at friends’ houses or sleep in their cars.”

Since the sleepout—usually as I tuck my kids into bed or climb into mine—I can’t help but spare a thought for those who don’t have a home to go to or even a bed to call their own. Money is part of the problem which is why MyBudget will continue to do charitable work for these sorts of  causes, as well as remain committed to our mission to reduce financial stress in the community.

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