Content Warning: This article touches on issues of sexual and physical violence, borderline personality disorder, mental health, and drug and alcohol use which may be triggering for some readers.
Nearly 50,000 Australian women are experiencing homelessness every night, with women aged over 55 the fastest-growing group, as per the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in 2016.
After becoming disenfranchised from her family, Maurya Bourandanis once found herself a part of this statistic. Each day became a battle of necessity.
“You don’t have time to think a whole lot because you’re either trying to find a place to stay safe, and then the other times you’re trying to find places where you can eat for free. You’re just kind of in survival mode,” she tells The Australian Women’s Weekly.
Night-time came with the most anxieties – the volatile Melbourne weather second only to the threat of violence.
Women sleeping rough are more at risk of both sexual and physical violence and have a higher risk of mortality, according to the UWA Centre for Social Impact.
“Along St Kilda beach there’s some benches that are made of cement, and they’re kind of curved in and you could kind of sleep there for a while until maybe you heard voices or whatever, and then you’d move,” Maurya explains.
“You never really slept at night. It was just trying to find places that nobody was. You didn’t know if it was better to sleep near a street light, because there are lights in some parks that you could sleep in, but then you’re exposed more, or to be in a dark alcove where you’re still scared and no one’s going to see you if you are assaulted.
“I was assaulted when I was in the park.”
There was CCTV footage, says Maurya. “But you just can’t do anything, and you don’t feel like you can go to the police. You don’t know where to turn. You’re just all upside down.”
Last year, a study from the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Health determined that older homeless women’s perception of shame and stigma impacted their ability to reach out for help.
“I always felt like this kind of thing, it’s your fault,” Maurya says.
“You’re feeling guilty. How did I get myself in this situation? How did this happen? You don’t know where to turn. If you’re disenfranchised from your family, you can’t really go anywhere.
“You could sneak into a community room in social housing or whatever to sleep there, but then those are mainly all men as well. So you’re just leaving yourself open to that. I’ve been sexually assaulted three times when I was sleeping rough.”
Catherine Hill is a case worker who has worked with marginalised and often street homeless people for over two decades. She has seen first-hand the spectrum of housing services available and how they can significantly impact someone’s homelessness journey, particularly when it comes to homeless women.
“Oftentimes housing services will be able to find a rooming house or a boarding house where you are basically renting one room in a house with a shared bathroom, shared toilet, but those environments can be incredibly dynamic. And can be quite scary,” Catherine tells us.
“Women often choose to return to perpetrators because it’s a violence they know and comprehend and feel that they can be safer because they understand the triggers. The trauma of being in a property that is just too dynamic is worse than the trauma of returning.”
WATCH: Julie Goodwin on the homelessness crisis in Australia. Article continues after video
Maurya herself managed to find housing in a since de-funded boarding house that had a reputation for violence. But it changed her life for the better.
“You had case workers, you had legal aid, you had health professionals, you had a podiatrist, you had it all there,” says Maurya.
“That’s when I got the case manager, and she helped me walk through this system and get help.”
Navigating what Catherine choruses to be a “broken system” is a complex feat.
“I cannot tell you how many times I’ll say to people: ‘When was the last time you had permanent accommodation?’ and they look at me blankly: ‘What do you mean?’ and it’s just like: ‘When was the last time you stayed in a place for more than 12 months?’ and they can’t answer,” Catherine explains.
“There’s a pride in it as well. They will say: ‘but I was in that rooming house for three months and then I was there, I have had accommodation’. They don’t even have a concept of stability.”
The traumatic histories that accompany homelessness make building trust a very complex process. For Catherine, it’s all about contextualising her clients’ situations in a way that makes them feel understood.
“I was, and constantly am, inspired by the humanity, but also the aspirations of these women who have so little, have suffered so much,” Catherine says.
“They’ve come to a point of introduction to me via trauma. They’re homeless, and they’re dealing with generally other complex issues like family violence or mental health decline or drug and alcohol use, but they come with this sense of hope. And I have often been challenged by their own humanity.”
She continues: “Trust often takes time. It’s about being there and building that trust, not assuming it because I think so many people have been burned before and they’ve arrived at the place they’re in because of breakdowns in relationships and family violence and lack of social connection. It’s also about me contextualising for that person, in a strength-based context, my understanding of why they are there.”
The case worker shares a story of an “incredibly complex” client with whom she was instructed to keep doors open around while visiting.
“I was working with her for a while and she would say to me: ‘you don’t even trust me; you’ve got the door open’. And I would be really upfront and would say: ‘I have to have the door open, but I’m sitting within one foot of you because I trust you. I believe that you want the best, you’ve turned up for this meeting, but I have to have it just because of the context of where you’ve been before’. You are basically trying to get a sense of where they have come from.”
When writing case stories to find housing for her homeless clients, Catherine will always focus on their capacity to get to this point in their journey in spite of circumstantial and systemic obstacles.
Speaking of the same client, Catherine says: “I remember reading (the case story) to her and talking about how she had borderline personality disorder and I remember contextualising borderline and what that means, saying this usually comes from massive trauma as a child.
“And my client’s parents were both addicted to alcohol. She grew up in a really violent situation. And it’s a testimony to her for even sitting here in front of me because she’s managing borderline, which results in more impulse control issues and much higher level of addiction, etc.
“She just burst into tears. And she said: ‘Catherine, no one has actually ever explained that to me, what’s going on for me.’ And so that was the first time she had a real sense of where she was, was not her fault. And it’s through that kind of respecting a client and educating them about what trauma does and why that has impacted on their lives that I think you then also build that trust.”
The benefits of “feeling seen” were certainly not lost on Maurya throughout her own journey to being housed.
“I had an outreach worker that took me to the doctor and the doctor said: ‘let’s get you healthy’. And all of a sudden, somebody was looking at me. Looking at me, seeing me. Not thinking: ‘you’ve got this or that issue’,” Maurya tells The Weekly.
“And then the continuation of a case manager or services where you can join social inclusion groups, where you start to feel like you’re part of a community and not just a homeless person, but you have meaning.
“All of a sudden you’re starting to feel good about yourself. And it has this giant ripple effect of wanting to do better and make possibilities for yourself. And also being able to connect with family again, which was really important.”
While case managers intricately understand the many factors that lead people to live on the street, for the rest of us, misconceptions about homelessness can remain ashamedly ubiquitous.
“I think people often think that it’s the choices that people make that land them in this situation so that then allows them to step back and think: ‘well, it wouldn’t happen to me’,” Catherine suggests.
She continues: “There are 405,000 women over the age of 45 who are at risk of homelessness today. They are only one or two pay packets away. And that’s from the housing for the aged advocacy group who particularly are focusing on that cohort of women.
“I think people assume it’s poor choices rather than systematic issues that lead to women being far more vulnerable than men to homelessness and that’s to do with age and lack of super and lack of affordable housing and lack of support.”
Maurya, of course, knows first-hand the misconceptions people have about those living on the street.
“Oh, that we’re all dangerous, mentally ill, full of drugs,” she lists off. “And that they’re going to hurt you. And that there’s something to fear and that you don’t want your kids to see, you don’t want anyone to see. You’re just nothing.”
WATCH: Some Happy Day trailer. Article continues after video
She shares a story of a time a group of young kids threw eggs at her while she was sleeping rough.
“They hard boiled them to maximise the pain for the hurt when they hit you. So it left bruises when they hit you. They went out looking to do that.”
These misconceptions and dehumanisation are amplified by the government’s efforts to further isolate homeless people to the point of invisibility.
“The council even put planter boxes on public seating, so people can’t sit there, they’re making it so no one can sleep there. I mean, how dehumanising is that? They divide us,” Maurya adds.
In the lead up to the Federal election back in May, Are Media’s Unhoused campaign called on both the coalition and the opposition to commit within the next term of government to invest $7.6 billion to provide 16,810 new permanent homes for women.
Now, Anthony Albanese’s Labor government has pledged to invest 10bn into social housing to build 30,000 affordable homes for vulnerable Australians, but Catherine says this should just be the start.
“We need the private sector working as well. There’s wastage of housing in every state in Australia. And how do we access those empty buildings while we’ve got people on the street? We can use those.
“There’s a great organisation called Housing All Australians which works separately from government. They are doing a lot of work trying to bring private sector people in together and trying to get accommodation up and running because they know economically the benefit, financially, for having people housed who can then contribute to community, etc., is far greater than the economic cost of leaving people on the street.”
But what about on an individual level, what can we do?
“I really do believe that we just have a natural default to assist people and to be kind, and it’s about us seeing the need,” Catherine says. “When my clients saw the need of others who they thought their need was greater, they would give what they had, even though they didn’t have much.”
Maurya agrees that “seeing the need” is essential when it comes to making change.
“You need to humanise the face of people; there are always stories behind (homelessness),” she says.
It’s for this reason that Catherine directed, wrote and produced the award-winning independent feature and social impact film Some Happy Day which aims to change perceptions of homelessness and inspire action and behavioural change.
Some Happy Day follows Tina, a homeless woman in desperate search of a better life, who meets Frances, a social worker with troubles of her own.
Over a single day their lives interweave, revealing unsettling connections that lead to change and redemption.
“I think story is so powerful because in story you see the need. It’s humanised; it’s no longer a data point,” Catherine explains to AWW.
“Hopefully it means that the next time you walk past someone who is in the street and is sleeping rough, it’s not just a judgment around the poor decisions they made, but it’s more a sense of the context of what could have taken them there.
“And then that compassion absolutely impacts even how you address that person, whether you smile at them when you walk past or whether you feel there’s an opening for a ‘hello’ or just that shift in perspective that allows us to use our natural inclination to help or to want the best for other people.”
To donate, or for information on screenings and fundraisers, visit somehappydayfilm.com. Some Happy Day debuts on SBS On Demand on August 1 and will be available on Some Happy Day website from August 8.