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Family Matters No. 30 - December 1991

Nomads in a settled population

Families and homelessness
Jean McCaughey

Abstract

In 1991 the Australian Institute of Family Studies undertook a study of families and homelessness in response to a request from Hanover Welfare Services, a non government welfare organisation in Victoria which was concerned about the increasing number of families with children seeking assistance with basic housing needs. The study was qualitative rather than statistical, and designed to provide a view of individual experiences of being homeless. Discussed are some of the preliminary findings of the study including the pathways to homelessness and how families cope. The article concludes with a consideration of what solutions to homelessness exist, and suggests the fundamental causes are more structural than personal.

In 1991, the Institute undertook a study of families and homelessness in response to a request from Hanover Welfare Services, a non-government welfare organisation in Victoria which was concerned about the increasing number of families with children seeking assistance with basic housing needs.

Hanover Family Care and Hanover Access Service were seeing families who had reached crisis point after eviction, sleeping with children in cars, sharing cramped quarters with friends and relatives, or illegally occupying public housing.

The Institute study had two main aims: the first was to investigate the various pathways to homelessness and to identify any points at which appropriate intervention may have prevented homelessness; the second was to suggest policy options for emergency housing, for permanent affordable housing and for the services needed to re- establish families in the mainstream of Australian society.

The study was qualitative rather than statistical, designed to provide a view of individual experiences of being homeless through the voices of the families themselves. Most of the 33 families interviewed had approached Hanover Welfare Services, and a small number had sought help from either an outer suburban service (Community and Volunteers of Eltham) or an agency in a Victorian regional city (St Lukes Family Care, Bendigo).

Fourteen of the families were in emergency housing and 19 were housed in the community about half were in public housing and half were renting privately. Some families had thus passed through the emergency stage and were established in more or less stable housing (sometimes very precariously) but were still in touch with an agency.

Where there were two parents, both were interviewed and, with the parents' permission, so were children over the age of 12 years. De facto partners were included when the relationship appeared relatively stable, even though in many cases those partners were not the children's parents. In all, 59 people were interviewed.

Pathways to Homelessness

The ways to becoming homeless are many and varied. For some adults, constantly moving house had begun in childhood and was, by now, almost a way of life. For others, homelessness had suddenly and recently come upon them as the result of losing a job, domestic violence or family conflict, or a decision to change a way of life as was the case for two women in their forties who decided to leave their husbands and comfortable homes and start new lives.

The study confirmed that homelessness is directly related to poverty, unemployment and to lack of affordable housing, but that many families experienced multiple problems.

The pathways are complex, and result from deep-seated factors, often linked and usually difficult to deal with: social factors such as poverty and unemployment, the instability of family and other relationships, the violence of men towards women, and more personal factors such as the network of support which a family can call upon, the health of family members, and the ability of the family to cope with problems and to establish some control over their lives. All of these elements were found in varying combinations in the stories of the families.

Unhappy families of origin

'The kids at school used to pick on us. They'd call us names like maggots because Mum couldn't afford to buy us nice clothes and we were always sort of untidy going to school.'

Several of those interviewed reported a pattern of ongoing family hardship and disruption since their early childhood days. The underlying causes of their unhappiness were poverty, violent and often drunken fathers, the difficulties of single mothers, parents separating and repartnering, the trauma of becoming a Ward of State or being placed in foster care, and physical violence and sexual abuse.

Many respondents said that such experiences drove them to leave home at an early age. Fourteen had left home before the age of 15 years, and 19 between the ages of 15 and 17 years. The girls usually formed de facto relationships and became pregnant, eventually finding themselves left with a baby, no money and no home; 18 of the females interviewed had their first baby before they were 20.

Poor performance at school

'I was at so many schools I can't remember. I used to like school but all the problems at home reflected on it. I had to leave at 15 because Mum and Dad couldn't afford it.'

Many respondents had been unhappy at school, especially secondary school; they had performed badly and left as soon as possible 20 by the time they were 14, and another 16 by the age of 16 years. The resulting low levels of basic education limited the opportunities for further training or study opportunities and resulted in poor employment prospects. The unsettled life of the family and frequent changes of school had adverse social and educational effects on young people, and these carried through into their later life experience.

Unemployment and poverty

'It's like a vicious circle. To go to interviews you need a baby sitter but you haven't got the money so you can't go. But even when you are working, the wages you get by the time you pay child care fees you may as well sit at home on the pension.'

Many respondents had depended on low-skill, short-term jobs and now found such jobs hard to find. Others had been retrenched during the current recession and were not optimistic about finding another job. Many of the women had not been employed since their children were born, and those with older children who were now looking for work had little hope of finding it. Sole parents had the additional problem of lack of child care services. Most families were dependent on unemployment benefits, a sickness allowance or the sole-parent pension. One man was in full-time work, one woman had just lost a job, and two were about to repartner with men who were working and so would lose the sole-parent pension.

Poverty, mounting debts, bills and arrears of rent, caused many families to move on in search of jobs and/or cheaper accommodation. But even when this was available, families sometimes could not afford money for a bond and so were stuck in an impossible financial double-bind.

Unstable of relationships

'I've had many [relationships] but they all turned out the same. The father of S was very violent when drunk and used to kick me with his boots. In the six weeks after S was born I had to move three times.'

Many changes in housing were caused by breakdowns in relationships. Some women were escaping from violent partners; two middle class women left their husbands and found themselves in a rapid slide to poverty. On the other hand, some sole mothers who had managed to achieve stable and affordable housing relinquished it to move in with boy friends who offered often only very short-term security.

Family support

'After T got out of gaol, we lived with my mother a flat at that stage. It didn't really work out ... we were all living in one room actually T, myself and two kids.'

Family support was an extremely important resource for the families. Where it was strong it enabled families to cope with very difficult circumstances, and where it was absent problems could quickly become crises. Minimal support usually consisted of the offer of accommodation in a crisis. Even if it was offered for a short time only, it gave a much needed breathing space. Moderate and strong support involved a longer-term commitment to providing accommodation, money and, perhaps most important of all, care of children.

Lack of family support could be due to geographical distance, to bad family feeling, to poverty which limited the help that could be given, to the unwillingness of the family in need to reveal how bad things were; occasionally, the extended family refused to provide help for adult children.

Poor health

'I am on pills which cost $25 per week. It makes me mad when doctors prescribe things which are not on the health card - probably they never even think of it.'

Poor health plays its part in homelessness, with loss of employment through ill health or injury increasing the vulnerability of families affected. Some families with children needing continuing medical treatment found the cost of pharmaceutical items a major problem. The unrelenting pressure of poverty, unemployment and housing drove some people into deep depression and put a great strain on family relationships.

Involvement in crime

'We had a good house, but the other street kids used to crash in every night and make trouble. A neighbour threatened to shoot us all and the police raided us every day looking for drugs and stolen goods. So we just shot through.'

Escaping from trouble with police and from criminal associations through drugs and theft, could lead to gaol and the utter disruption of families. In several instances, both father and mother were gaoled and children sent into care. Individuals and families frequently felt themselves to be harassed by police and accused of crimes they had not committed. Sometimes the only way out of the drug scene and/or perceived police harassment was to pack up and move on.

Availability of housing

'If you're not in Commission housing most of your pension just goes on rent, so then you're battling to eat and feed the kids and survive. You might pay the rent but not have any gas or electricity or food to eat. It's "Welcome to my Nightmare".'

An obvious direct cause of homelessness is lack of stable, affordable housing. If public housing were available to all the families who need it, most housing crises could be solved. But at present people may wait for three years or more. Priority listing helps some of those in direst need, but it is hard to obtain and it leaves other families still in need. Lack of choice of location means families may have to move away from work (if they have any) and from friends and familiar suburbs. Many people do not want to live in high rise flats, especially if they have young children. On the other hand, several respondents were impressed by the high standard of the newer Ministry housing. One family with five children who had moved around for ten years were thrilled with their house: 'It's a palace compared to most of the places we've been in.'

Most families on the waiting list for public housing had no option but private rental. They experienced two main difficulties. First, the cost was much greater than they could afford. Many had paid and still were paying more than half their income on rent. Of the eight families renting privately, two could not really afford it, one was subsidised by Hanover, one depended on an unstable de facto relationship, three could afford it only by sharing, and one could afford it only by not disclosing other income. Families who never imagined they would have to ask for welfare handouts were having to do so.

Second, many families said they had been discriminated against by landlords because they were unemployed, were on a pension or were single parents. They had been refused tenancies, had to live in dirty, poorly maintained premises, and had their rent raised to levels impossible for them to pay.

Forced mobility

'We've shifted a dozen times. If we couldn't move our furniture we'd just sell the bloody lot for whatever we could get and buy again.'

It is not surprising that many families found themselves always on the move, running from one problem to another, in many cases having to shed furniture and possessions on the way so each new move meant starting again.

Frequent moves had a very destabilising effect on families. They did not make friends or become part of any community, and this increased their sense of isolation and having no-one to depend on except themselves. Children also felt alienated, wary of making friends soon to be left behind, and performing badly when they felt themselves to be outsiders.

How Families Cope

The capacity of all families to cope with their problems depends largely on the material, social and personal resources they have to draw upon. This is very apparent for families who are homeless.

Material resources

Most families had little money and few possessions. It is often said that homeless people are wasteful and don't manage their money properly. But spending habits are likely to be linked to problems in a vicious circle, the pressures of poverty and homelessness forcing many families into expenditures which further increase their problems. For example, some of the respondents smoked heavily to relieve tension; this was a drain on their finances which increased stress which increased their smoking habit. Several respondents owned cars they could ill afford but which were necessary in the search for jobs and cheap accommodation; for sole mothers with young children, a car afforded almost their only chance of independent social activity.

Social resources

Personal support networks of extended family, friends, neighbours and community groups strongly influence family wellbeing. They not only help families to cope with problems and unforeseen crises, they also give invaluable support for everyday living child minding, help with transport and shopping, and someone to confide in, cook a meal, offer a shoulder to weep on. There was not much help for many of the respondents from the extended family, because they lived too far away or were too deprived themselves to offer help, or because the family in need was too proud or too ashamed of their situation to ask for help.

The kind of help most commonly offered was accommodation, which often gave a breathing space and saved parents and children from being on the street. Grandmothers, in particular, cared for children, even when there was not a good relationship between the respondent and (generally) her mother.

Conspicuously lacking was help from friends, neighbours and community groups that invaluable support which many Australian families take for granted. This was partly accounted for by respondent families' forced mobility which left little opportunity for making friends. But it went deeper than that. Many felt themselves to be not 'normal' families, but rather nomads in a settled population which put great store on homes and possessions. As one woman said: 'Normal working families, they eat, they keep their bills paid, the wolf from the door. Just general normal living. This isn't normal living, it's struggle living.'

Personal resources

This is perhaps the most important resource for a family, but the most difficult to describe. It is especially difficult to make generalisations about such a diverse group or even to discern patterns, but it can be said emphatically that some families showed great strengths and powers of endurance: in battling (their word) to feed and clothe their children against heavy odds, for months and sometimes for years; in surviving crises of eviction, harassment over debts, being sent to gaol, having their children removed from them, and, for the women, of being beaten by violent, drunken partners. The fact that these crises were to some extent of their own making did not make them any easier to bear.

Of course this was not true of all the families. Some met violence with violence. In an act of what they saw as self- preservation, some handed their children over to government and non-government services to be cared for, then scarcely bothered to visit them. Some took refuge in drugs and alcohol and in promiscuous relationships.

On the whole though, it is remarkable that their personal resources enable so many families to maintain warm and close relationships through all their vicissitudes. One family with three children has been through many hardships including both parents being gaoled. The father said: 'S (his partner of 13 years) has changed me. After I was with her and having the kids and the responsibility, it settled me down a lot. I ended up staying home all the time, not out drinking with my mates.' And S said: 'My husband means the world to me, always has. All the kids have been through a lot, we all have. But we've tried our best to make up for all of it and to keep things going. I won't give up. I'm not the type that if something goes wrong, I'll sit down and cry about it. You just can't give up. If not for your own, then for the kids' sake.'

Parents' acceptance of responsibility for their children was also a sign of the strength of some of these families. The hopes and aspirations parents had for their children were usually in stark contrast to their own lives and to the reality of their circumstances. In some cases this may be wishful thinking, but it is on such aspirations that hope rests.

The Way out of Homelessness

The existence of homeless families in Australia raises challenges for many areas of government policy housing, employment, education, family support, health, the justice system and for community and welfare organisations.

Emergency housing and extensive support for families are essential, but the most urgent need for families is stable, affordable housing a place where they can feel secure, where they can settle down, make a home for their children, and start to plan. Any long-term planning is not possible when housing is so unstable.

While support is needed for families in crisis, prevention of homelessness is fundamental. We need ways and means of keeping families in homes, supporting positive family interaction and avoiding eviction which is often the start of instability and mobility. One of the most appropriate ways of doing this seems to be through an outreach model, through coordination of existing family support services as well as extension of other services so that families are helped before they reach crisis point.

There is a need for continuing support and follow-up after a family crisis. The experience of homelessness, loss of confidence and self-esteem and lack of money and possessions mean some families can be thrown into crisis very quickly. It only takes another bill, a sick child, a rise in the rent to tip the scales. Families with multiple problems need support over a long period. This may include financial support through difficult times, perhaps by payment of bills or subsidising rent for several months to allow a breathing space. The alternatives are almost always more costly in the long run, for the family and for society generally. For example, many of the families in the study had shifted on to avoid debts, thus in some ways exacerbating their problems, and one mother chose to go on the streets for three nights in order to pay pressing bills, a move that had devastating effects on her own self-esteem and on family relationships.

Many families were not only short of material resources, they were also low in confidence even where it does exist, confidence is easily eroded by the experience of forced mobility and instability. Therefore, advocacy is an important element of help for homeless families. It is needed with public housing authorities, with government departments (particularly the Department of Social Security), with estate agents, child welfare services and a range of other organisations and agencies. Unfortunately, the study showed that the requirements and methods of government services tend to increase pressures on families and make things more difficult for them at the very point when they are most vulnerable and most in need of support. As well as direct advocacy, putting families in touch with other services, such as consumer credit agencies, health services and legal services, is often necessary.

Support services need to build on the strengths which exist in families rather than focus on their difficulties and weaknesses. The range of specific services needs to include help to resolve family problems and relationships, financial counselling to sort out bills and debts and find ways out of financial muddles, parenting support, a drop-in centre, and help in establishing contacts with other agencies. The key elements are flexibility and accessibility.

But perhaps the most important support of all is unquestioning personal support when morale is low and confidence almost non-existent. Most families needed the reassurance of being treated as responsible people who wanted to resolve their problems and provide homes for their children. Pages could be filled with comments of commendation for support from Hanover Family Care and the other non-government agencies which helped people to struggle back towards some control over their lives.

There is no single solution to family homelessness, the fundamental causes of which are structural and not personal. But the bottom line is the provision of stable, affordable accommodation and access to support for as long as it is needed, given without blame and aimed at promoting independence.

This article is based on the initial sections of Jean McCaughey's report of the AIFS study of families and homelessness. The full report can be consulted in the Institute's Family Information Centre.