Homelessness is not about the roof you don’t have over your head, says Kate Young.
It’s about everything else that has happened within the walls of your heart, mind and body.
The Albury salon owner who rescued a young homeless man from the streets nearly a year ago has seen first-hand the complexity of factors that contribute to homelessness.
She’s the first to admit that tackling those issues is not a job for the faint of heart.
There’s no quick fix and in the past 12 months she’s experienced a roller-coaster ride to help her young friend.
From the shortage of available and appropriate accommodation, history of violence, limited educational and employment opportunities, and financial hardship to poorly diagnosed and treated mental health issues, Kate has had a horrifying glimpse into a broken system unable to help a broken soul.
Most days she feels like she’s rowing through mud.
And there’ve been plenty of people who (almost smugly) predicted that she would abandon her mission of mercy … eventually.
Kate will tell you there’s been more downs than ups.
But those who know her well also know she’s a fighter, she’s loyal and she knows a thing or two herself about getting back up again when you’ve fallen a long way down.
“What can I tell you about our young friend?” she says in response to my question about where everything is at now.
“We take two steps forward, six steps backwards and a couple sideways every now and again.
“It’s going to be a long journey – a lifelong journey.”
What Kate knows for certain is homelessness is not about a dwelling place.
“A warm bed and a blanket is one thing but it’s the mental anguish that goes it,” she says.
“You can’t just put a roof over a broken person; there’s a haunted existence that comes with being homeless.
“Many are so broken and bent by what has happened to them that they don’t know how to exist in the world.
“You can’t just expect them to blend back in, find a job and work 9 to 5 with a lunch break.”
The rate of homelessness in Australia has increased 4.6 per cent in the last five years, according to 2016 census data.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported more than 116,000 people were experiencing homelessness on Census night.
Dr Paul Jelfs, the general manager of population and social statistics, says while there was an overall increase in the estimate of homelessness in Australia, this number is made up of various distinct groups and each tells a different story.
What is well known is the interrelationship between mental illness and homelessness, long noted by service agencies, health workers and welfare bodies.
“Poor housing and housing stress, together with other life stresses, reduces psychological wellbeing and exacerbates mental illness,” Mental Health Australia’s Frank Quinlan has said.
A briefing by the National Mental Health Consumer and Carer Forum in 2014 stated: “A secure home is widely recognised as providing a fundamental basis for building mental health.”
“It is essential that mental health issues are a part of any discussion on homelessness and housing.
“Those who are homeless or vulnerable to homelessness face many difficulties that largely exclude them from participating in the wider community and can have a considerable impact on a person’s health and wellbeing.”
That’s been a brutal learning curve for Kate in relation to her young friend.
Homelessness, like mental health, is very unattractive ... it doesn’t sit well with Facebook or Instagram.Kate Young
For you see you can have the best intentions in the world and all the love in your heart but the outcomes can still be, well, not the best; even dangerous.
Kate likens it to the poor treatment of animals.
“You can’t beat the sh*t out of a dog from the minute it opens its eyes and then expect it not to be a cowering, unpredictable animal capable of biting you,” she explains.
“Perhaps, like Oscars Law, we need to get rid of the human equivalent of puppy farms.
“We don’t accept it for animals; why are we accepting it for humans?
“We need to give little babies being born some respect because they are not all going off to lead lovely lives.”
With our population officially ticking over to the 25-million mark this week, Kate says policy changes are critical.
“If we can’t care for the people we already have, what are we doing?” she asks.
“(But) homelessness, like mental health, is very unattractive.
“It doesn’t sit well with Facebook or Instagram.”
That’s why Kate knows it will take a crescendo of voices – and action – from the community to change lives.
“I’ve made a lot of noise,” she laughs ruefully.
“We have to speak up, we have to demand change, and not just sit around the dinner table talking about it.”
In her heart Kate knows she can’t wave a magic wand to change her friend’s story to a fairytale ending.
But she refuses to abandon him to his fate.
“I’ve seen the torture this person goes through on a daily basis,” she says firmly.
“The system is still so antiquated it can’t provide what individuals need.
“(My friend) is running the gauntlet; he doesn’t know how to operate in mainstream society.”
And for the detractors who lay the finger of failure at the young man’s feet and scoff at Kate’s well-meaning but often futile efforts to help him?
“People say he should take the opportunities (I’ve tried to give him) and run with it,” she says.
“But let me be quite clear, he is the victim here and he is not to blame.
“I won’t let his story of homelessness be a lasting one of hopelessness.”