Out cold in Sydney

Pascal and Linda Davies, Manger, Communications
Pascal and Linda Davies, Manager, Communications

For the last two years I have owned a dog. Not so remarkable – but having a furry companion has changed the way I understand and experience my neighbourhood.

Dogs have few boundaries. They eat what they want, they greet who they please and they sniff all manner of things and people in all types of places. Every morning and evening Pascal walks me through the streets of inner Sydney. He loves laneways, but even more he loves walking down the main street past the shops.

It’s been cold in Sydney. Some mornings have dropped close to freezing point.

As Pascal and I rug up and walk towards the shops he gently greets his friends sleeping rough in shop doorways. He sidles up and they greet him by name. They also have names, but I don’t always know them. Until I had Pascal I would have just walked by, embarrassed by my inability to know what to say.

One older man who Pascal noses each morning has startling ice blue eyes. I call him George because although he knows my dog’s name, I don’t know his. Each day he emerges from under the pile of blankets he calls home and pats my dog. We talk about the weather; he always knows the temperature. He has experienced it throughout every hour of the night. He chats to Pascal and gives advice on not getting caught up in alcoholism and sleeping rough. It’s all good advice.

George is what many think is typical of homelessness. An older male without a job, without possessions (except a plastic bag of blankets), unwashed and seemingly unloved. But the numbers tell a different story.

At the last official count on census night in 2011, 105,237 people were experiencing homelessness in Australia. Homelessness Australia report one in two hundred people are homeless on any given night. They are not all sleeping rough, many are in hostels or shelters, but none of them have any safe or permanent shelter.

Sixty percent are aged under 35. An even more alarming 17 percent are aged under 12 – which means nearly 18,000 young people are without their own home to go to at night. Overall six percent are sleeping on the street, so the homelessness we see is only a very small part of the total.

Homelessness is without gender bias with 56 percent men and 44 percent women. The largest proportion (23 percent) are there as the result of domestic violence, followed by financial crisis at 16 percent.

I often read the #ChangeTheWorldIn5Words twitter feed. Sometimes it is fun, often poignant, because the reality of social change is so much harder than just finding five words attached to a hashtag.

I can only imagine what it would be like to be without a home and in the face of growing homelessness I feel increasingly powerless. But there is one positive thing I am going to do tomorrow. I am going to sit down and ask George his real name.

August 3 is the start of Homelessness Prevention Week. So #step up to end homelessness and #give a homeless person hope.

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