New profit-for-purpose book We Are Here, edited by former Big Issue deputy editor Meg Mundell, is a vibrant and moving collection of true stories showcases the creative talents of people who have known homelessness. In this extract from her introduction Meg explores the collection’s themes of home, place and belonging.
In 2018 I ran a series of place-themed writing workshops in Melbourne. All participants had known homelessness. In Australia, ‘homelessness’ includes sleeping rough, living in a vehicle or tent, squatting or couch surfing; staying in a rooming house, refuge, caravan park, crisis accommodation or transitional housing; or in other inadequate, severely overcrowded, or temporary shelter due to lack of alternatives. Each week, the writers produced an astonishing volume and variety of work. The resulting book features all fourteen workshop attendees, plus twenty-four other writers, and four visual artists. Prize-winning authors appear alongside newer scribes. All the writers have some link to Melbourne.
There’s humour, joy and strength in these true tales, but also hardship, loss and trauma. They reveal just how easily, if our own luck turned bad, we might find ourselves unhoused. Nobody was encouraged to write about being homeless, but half the pieces here touch upon the topic. The only condition was that ‘place’ had to be present in some way.
Place is a vital pillar of human life: we are always, unavoidably, somewhere. Transcending setting or location, places are made of stories, people, emotions, relationships, actions, landscapes, sites, objects, images and traces. From our mother’s womb to our hometown haunts, places shape how we live and who we become.
But if you’ve been cast adrift from that most essential place – a secure home – how do you understand, experience and imagine place?
From these pages, some clear themes emerge. One is that having a secure, safe home is vital to people’s wellbeing, inclusion and participation in society. The formative power of place is another. Childhood looms large, childhood homes in particular. While ‘home’ usually carries positive associations, for many contributors the opposite has been true. One-third of them disclose early experiences of trauma, violence, abuse, neglect, family breakdown, grief or loss. These distressing life events often led to displacement.
Homelessness is often seen as a result of bad choices made by flawed people. This convenient myth supports the illusion that it could never happen to ‘us’, ignoring the well-documented structural causes and unforeseen life events that can render people homeless. These include a dire national shortage of social and affordable housing, punitive welfare policies, inadequate social security, poverty, unemployment, rental stress, gentrification, family violence, sexual abuse, discrimination, injury, disability, mental illness and traumatic incidents. Some studies have found that ‘the homeless’ are seen as subhuman, ‘the lowest of the low’, incapable of rousing empathy. This denial of people’s essential humanity reflects poorly on the deniers, and causes real harm to the people being dehumanised.
Blaming people for becoming homeless fosters stigma and prejudice. It is also inaccurate. Research shows that choice is constrained by context: rough sleepers who framed their homelessness as a choice often exaggerated their own agency as a self-protective measure; sleeping rough is unpleasant and dangerous, but some ‘choose’ the streets over chaotic, crowded and temporary homeless shelters. As one writer notes, choice is largely about perceived choice: which options seem available to us. And for many rough sleepers, housing seems unattainable, and homelessness inescapable.
Marginalised groups are now making hard-won gains against discrimination and prejudice. Yet the 116,000 Australians who are homeless every year remain a shadow population, vilified and silenced. It’s partly categorical: for the vast majority who endure it, homelessness is a situation, not an identity. Other silencing factors include poverty, lack of resources and the ‘hidden’ nature of homelessness: the visibly unhoused, rough sleepers, make up only seven per cent of the total figure. But prejudice plays a big part: the assumption that ‘the homeless’ have nothing to offer, and a parallel reluctance to disclose membership of this maligned group.
This world-first collection of personal stories bears witness to the intelligence, creativity and strength of their writers. In doing so, it challenges many of the damaging myths and misconceptions about people who experience homelessness. Here, these writers claim their rightful place – in public conversation, in literature, in the world. We hope you enjoy the read.