Housing The Homeless: An Introduction

You’ve just got off the Mandurah Line. You’re running late for your appointment (as usual) and you hear the same old man you pass everyday shout “Big Issue!” outside Ernst & Young amongst the crowds. You watch as the woman in front of you stops to exchange a few gold coins for a copy of The Big Issue. You admire her interest in this strange magazine, but what really catches your attention, however, is the way she strikes up a conversation with the man after passing him a packet of muesli bars along with her $7, which he seems grateful for. Oh, you conclude to yourself. This man is most likely a recovering alcoholic, druggie or ex-criminal, selling a street magazine in order to lift his quality of life.

The above situation is not a hypothetical or an uncommon occurrence in the Perth CBD. In fact, I happen to witness this situation on a regular basis on my way to UWA most days, and I’ve often spotted young men and women around other parts of the city doing a similar thing:

Many sellers of these street magazines have been homeless in the past or empathise with the homeless and get involved to support them, though most vendors consist of people trying to transition from a state of dependence to independence, and many of them are currently living in crisis accommodation. The vendors are trained to purchase The Big Issue magazines and sell them for a profit, to help them save up money to move into more permanent sole-occupancy units; a place they can call “home”, at a peppercorn lease [1].

Michelle Blakeley, a Perth-based practicing Architect and UWA staff member, says that some might be surprised to hear that homelessness is more common in European countries due to the mentality that family ties and loyalty is stronger in Eastern cultures. I have visited a mix of both first-world countries (Australia and America) and third-world countries (Africa, Bali, India and Singapore) and from my own personal observations I believe this to be true when I compare the two. In third-world countries, usually if poverty exists it will affect the entire nuclear family, and you will see all members struggling on the street, as opposed to spotting individual homeless people in Western countries. But regardless of culture, homeless individuals have either felt oppressed and run away from home, have been kicked out of home, have committed crimes in the past, have mental health problems, have escaped from domestic violence or have been left alone and unemployed after deceased family members [2].

Despite the causes, anyone can agree that homelessness and poverty are inextricably linked. My father, Keith, was born into poverty and grew up in the slums of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) in West Bengal, North India. Though my dad still had a roof above his head and was not “homeless” according to the literal meaning of the word, the living conditions were still extremely poor, and some might argue that it “lacked the amenities or resources necessary for living”, at least according to the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program Act of 1985 that attempts to define the term [3]. I sat down with my father, and asked him about his experience growing up.

Roland, Gertrude and Keith Rozario

ME: “So it was just you, your brother Roland and your mum, Gertrude, living in Kolkata in the 1950’s. What did your mum do for a living?”
KEITH: “She was a telephonist. Very little pay. Single-parent.”
ME: “Can you tell me what the living conditions were like?”
KEITH: “One bedroom house. Rented house. At one stage my mother, my brother and I all shared one bed. When my brother and I got older, there was less space so my mum had to sleep on the floor.”
ME: “How big was the house?”
KEITH: “We had a small little room that was combined as a toilet, bathroom and kitchen area. Hot water had to be boiled on a hand-made clay oven using charcoal for fuel. Mother had to heat up the water, and we would have a 44 gallon drum with tap water and that’s how we would bathe. The amount of hot water we got determined how long the bath would have to be. We became very good at sussing out how much water to use. One pot of hot water in winter. Cold showers in summer.”
ME: “That doesn’t sound very sanitary. Anyway, what was your life like?”
KEITH: “We walked to school everyday. 8am to 8pm. Studied in a Catholic school called Don Bosco, in West Bengal, that catered for the rehabilitation of street kids because that’s all she [Gertrude] could afford. Jam sandwiches for lunch.”

When I observe cases like my father, I notice how his childhood lifestyle and habits have carried over into his adult life in Perth. He lives like a minimalist and he doesn’t even know what that means. One good quality item is all he needs. His handkerchief draw makes him look like he has OCD. His hygiene is impeccable because he does not take it for granted. His brother, Roland, on the other hand, lives by himself but still holds onto the dream that he can put together his very own prefabricated flat-pack “kit home” one day. Perhaps the idea is a subconscious coping mechanism that will heal the wounds from his past. Either way, it is because of my father’s story that I feel responsible to give this particular demographic a louder voice in the architectural field, so stay-tuned.

[1] The Big Issue, “About.” Accessed March 10, 2018. https://www.thebigissue.org.au/.
[2] Salvation Army, “Why Are People Homeless.” Accessed March 10, 2018. http://www.salvationarmy.org.au/en/Who-We-Are/our-work/Homelessness/Why-are-people-homeless/.
[3] Australian Institute of Health And Welfare (1985). http://meteor.aihw.gov.au/content/index.phtml/itemld/327316. ACT: Australian Institute of Health And Welfare.

Disclaimer: all images belong to me.

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