25/07/2016 7:20 AM AEST | Updated 25/07/2016 7:21 AM AEST

Homeless Shelters Are Not Only For The Homeless

The term encompasses anyone who involuntarily has no fixed address.

"There is a good chance that you regularly cross paths with someone who is or has been homeless."
"There is a good chance that you regularly cross paths with someone who is or has been homeless."

As Australia gets chilly through winter, many of us turn our thoughts to those 'sleeping rough' on the streets. But many of us don't; as if it's a problem we can't help with, or a situation we'd never find ourselves in. But homelessness shouldn't be such a distant concept.

The definition of what it means to be homeless is much broader than many of us think. It includes not only people sleeping on the streets, but is a term which describes a number of living scenarios. People living in cars, staying in motels, emergency housing, homeless shelters, and under casual arrangements with friends, are all considered homeless. The term encompasses anyone who involuntarily has no fixed address.

This means that the people we see sleeping on the streets are usually those who have absolutely nowhere else to go, but they are not the only ones who are classified as homeless. There are thousands of people who are homeless, going to work and school every day, who live in insecure accommodation, with society being unaware of their circumstances. There is a good chance that you regularly cross paths with someone who is or has been homeless; for example at work or the supermarket, at your child's school, or on public transport.

The lack of understanding of what it means to be homeless and at risk of it leads to some people in the community generalising that all homeless and disadvantaged people are lazy, welfare-dependent and/or mentally ill. There is an attitude out there that homeless people need to help themselves before they deserve support from the community, and that homeless shelters and day centres simply perpetuate a cycle of dependence.

Danielle Bayard, Development and Partnerships Manager of the Hutt Street Centre in Adelaide, said "homeless shelters are not about sustaining homelessness -- in fact, they aim to achieve the opposite." For example, many shelters provide the basics in human dignity and survival for anyone in need -- breakfast and lunch, a hot shower, clean clothes -- which could actually mean the difference between maintaining independence and losing it, for an at-risk person. Resources are accessed by many people who are not technically homeless, but who are, for example, spending all of their income in a desperate attempt to keep a roof over their head.

"For the majority of Australians, housing is the number one expense, and for many of them, there is often not much left over after rent -- if anything at all," Bayard said.

She explains that the centre -- and many others like it across Australia -- offer a variety of resources and support services to help people maintain their independence, or to attain it again as soon as possible. This includes facilities such a laundry, mail services, internet/computers, and resources such access to medical help, a legal clinic, drug and alcohol services, pastoral care, an employment program, a literacy program, case management, tenancy support in conjunction with the Red Cross, and community care for people over 50 who have experienced homelessness to help them maintain their independence.

Essentially, the entire point of homeless services is to get people back to independent living, because only anyone who has never been homeless, or at risk of it, could ever think that it's a lifestyle choice. Bayard said that many of her clients can't help themselves for reasons that are not just financial.

"Many clients have come from the foster system and they don't have the inner resources or the self confidence to know what to do. They haven't had role models to show them basic human behaviour. Luxuries that we take for granted, such as someone making us a cup of tea. Your environment often enables you, and it takes a special kind of person to rise above such a situation."

Bayard said that, of course, there are those who, due to mental health issues, will never be able to be completely independent. But it's our duty to support them -- because that could very easily have been any one of us.

I asked Bayard what she says to people who think being approached on the street for a couple of dollars indicates that person is entitled, or not doing enough for themselves. "Begging is only done out of sheer desperation; just imagine how desperate someone must be to do that -- it is not an easy thing to do. Imagine how difficult it is for us to ask for $20 back from a friend you loaned that money to -- begging is so much harder."

She said that the most fulfilling part of her job is to see people exit homelessness -- which definitively demonstrates that the centre, and ones similar to it, are not intended to be 'just a bandaid'. Homeless shelters and centres are not about sustaining homelessness and disadvantage; they are about something every one of us has a right to -- dignity and hope, on the way to independence.