On any given night in Australia, 1 in 200 people are sleeping on the streets. Best estimates at the moment put the total number at just over 100,000.
For local filmmakers Jacob Perrott and Derek Abel, those numbers don’t tell the whole story. They’ve been compiling interviews with people sleeping rough over the last four years, piecing them together for their documentary, Homeless Australia.
“It’s such a tough project,” says Derek, in a surprisingly candid interview. “The truth is, finding funding to finish the project is damn hard, and I’ve reached a point where I’m not sure if we should continue. It feels like it’s too personal. Like we’re taking advantage of the people on the screen.”
We sat down with Derek to discuss the current state of homelessness in Australia, what governments are messing up, and what you and I can do to help.
Why did you start this project?
We just wanted to show people that it’s not about being lazy. Homelessness is so much more complicated than that. It’s mainly social and economic problems, family problems, monetary problems. There are mental health issues. And if you don’t have anyone to support you, that’s it. You’re done.
Before we set out, we said at least let’s change the life of one person. Just one. If we do that, it’ll be worth it.
Do you think you’ve achieved that yet?
Yeah, well I mean the full documentary isn’t out yet. It’s not finished. But there’s this kid called Jake, and he was sleeping on the street when we first met him. And then he managed to get a flat. We asked him ‘How did that happen?’ and without prompting he said, ‘The minister saw your video and he was so embarrassed that he put me on the priority list and I got a house.”
What are the challenges for filmmakers looking to cover homelessness?
Yeah, it’s difficult. There’s a lot of people doing docos about homelessness, which is great, but it means it’s very hard to get funding. Plus in the past two years I’ve had two kids, so I’ve been busy with other projects. Jacob is the same thing.
The other thing is this sense of taking advantage. It’s a fine line. There’s this other boy in the video, we found out his mother kicked him out when he was 16, and it turns out she was raped by this serial killer, and the serial killer was his father. She couldn’t live with the kid, because it was a reminder of what happened. You come across stories like that and it makes you question everything.
Photography: Derek Abel
How have people reacted when you approach them for an interview?
Yeah really positive. Everyone’s very happy to talk. No-one really gives them that chance, I guess. Everyone wants to tell their story. The sad thing is, people just don’t give a shit. We’re all too busy with our own problems. There’s so much anger in the world. People are quick to judge. They take that anger and put it onto someone else.
Where does that anger come from?
I think the anger is, ‘It’s not fair. Why do they get to just sleep on the street and not work while I have to pay bills?’ Plus people have their own problems. We found it’s usually drunk people attacking the homeless, so alcohol plays a big part. But alcohol is just a symptom of a bigger problem—you’re just fed up and you have no money and you have to work at a job you don’t like and you’re probably in a relationship you don’t want to be in, so you take it out on someone who can’t fight back.
Do you reckon the government is doing enough to fight homelessness?
Probably not. There are some services. If you’re living on the street and you’re lucky, the government will find you a flat and put you on benefits. But that’s it. They don’t offer any psychological help. No consultations. A lot of people find it really difficult to transition. They’re so used to sleeping tough, the pressure builds, and they’re not used to it. A lot of the times the government gives them these units on the 10th or 20th floor of these massive buildings, which is just stupid for people who should probably be on suicide watch. We met one guy who used his mattress to cover the window so he didn’t have to look outside.
What can people do to help?
I think just empathise a bit more. Have a conversation with people sleeping rough. Just talk to them. Another good way to help—you don’t need to give money to people on the street, just support good organisations. Wayside Chapel and Vinnies do great work. Honestly, just stop and buy them lunch or something, have a chat. That makes so much difference.
If you want to learn more about homelessness in Australia, and how you can help, check out homelesnessaustralia.org.au. You can find out more about Derek and Jacob’s documentary at homelessaustralia.com.
Image credit: Unsplash