Last month I saw a report on child homelessness in Australia. Last year in Australia 84,000 children tried to get help from a homeless service, but more than half of them were turned away.
The number is frightening. Even more frightening, however, are the real life stories behind this number; stories like the following one that was reported by the ABC:
When 31-year-old Darlene Teitou became pregnant last year, she was already homeless.
After her daughter was born she was given temporary accommodation, but a week later she was told by the New South Wales housing department she had to find another place to live.
She ended up having to sleep in her car, with her one-month-old baby wrapped in her jacket.
"That's when we got sick, she got sick, I got sick because she had all these bugs bites and she was getting the fevers, getting the flu and it was the same as me, so it was really tough," Ms Teirou said.
Darlene spent the next 10 months sleeping on the streets, in her car or staying with friends and was told she could be on the waiting list for a department home for as long as two years.
"Sometimes you feel like you want to do something stupid, I mean like...commit suicide," she said.
"It's a lot of things that comes in your mind when you're in that situation, you feel scared. It's like what will happen to you and your daughter?"
It’s hard to believe that in a prosperous country like ours we are still hearing these stories. As the Society has never tired of telling governments, housing is a human right. If we can’t even guarantee this right to children then we’re seriously in need of re-examining our priorities.
A prosperous nation like ours should not be experiencing such scandalous levels of homelessness. Conservative estimates are that there are over 105,000 people experiencing homelessness every night in Australia. Even worse, with such levels of homelessness, no one should ever have to be turned away from a homelessness service. In the meantime we need to be there at the coalface of marginalisation, not as paternalistic dispensers of charity, but as real sisters and brothers to the people that have been pushed to the edges of society.
It has been said in many places that a society should be judged on how it treats its most vulnerable members.
For me, I will always remember these words being uttered by our former Governor-General, Sir William Deane, a man who continues to bear prophetic witness to this Gospel value.
Our work with Christ’s Poor should not stop with simply supplying the immediate solution to an immediate need. We are challenged to go much further. We are challenged to enable vulnerable people to take control of their own lives. We do not accept the idea that people are to blame for their own marginalisation. We do, however, believe that people are able to overcome the odds that have been stacked up against them if the right resources are made available and, most importantly, if we are able to change the conditions in society that make things impossible for them.
We also need to keep thinking beyond our shores. We need to think of the people, including many children, who seek asylum in our country after suffering incredible traumas in their own countries. We need to remember that the St Vincent de Paul Society is a global network of love and that we should join in the global effort to prevent the conditions that cause poverty and homelessness on a massive scale across the world, especially as Third World countries continue to carry the burden of allowing First World countries to enjoy unprecedented wealth.
No one should be turned away. In the words of Blessed Frederic:
“It is time to seek the abolition of poverty.”
Anthony Thornton, National President of the St Vincent de Paul Society
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