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We Asked a Sociologist Why Australians Resent the Homeless

Scratch the surface and you'll find a lot of Australians believe the homeless are lazy. We asked Prof. Kathleen Hulse, an expert on homelessness, where these beliefs come from.

by Max Rann
May 21 2015, 2:31am

Illustration by Michael Dockery

Scratch the surface of Australian culture and there's a pervasive resentment of the homeless and unemployed. For example, stories in the press often paint homeless people as lazy, while throwing around words like freeloader or leaner. Case in point, the Herald Sun recently used a story about a couple living under a bridge in the CBD. "An apartment at nearby Freshwater Place currently rents for about $850 per week," read the article. "But their triangular Southbank "studio" beneath the Sandridge Bridge costs nothing." The readers, picking up the thread, left a slew of angry comments.

"I hope they are paying tax on their earnings like I have to," wrote Jacqui. "They are earning way more than I am and I am paying rent, utilities, health insurance, tax, still have a life and have a nice warm bed at night. So sick of begging freeloaders."

"Am I supposed to feel sorry for this guy and his partner?" Asked Kevin. "$76 per day between them in CenterLink payments is $532 per week or $27664 per year. Add to this $100 per day begging which equates to another $700 per week or $36400 per year giving a total annual "salary" of $64064, tax free I assume."

So why do people without jobs and homes fuel so much anger? To find out we contacted Prof. Kathleen Hulse, who is an expert in affordable housing and homelessness at Swinburne University. She gave us her thoughts on the psychology of homeless antipathy.

VICE: First of all, why do you think our media talks about homelessness in these terms?
Prof. Kathleen Hulse: I think it's to get a certain response from people. These are prejudices about who's deserving and who's undeserving, which have been around for a very long time. This particular article was designed to portray the couple as sponges. It discusses the rental prices in the area, all of which implies that other people manage to rent, so why can't they?

So how should the media discuss homelessness?
Stories should recognise individual circumstances rather than lumping everyone together. Without detail, it's really easy for people to make pre-conceived judgments, which of course is the problem with this article. Details help us to see others as people.

Where do these attitudes come from?
Young and able-bodied people are often seen as undeserving of assistance compared to, for example, a family with children or an older person. These really are very old, outdated attitudes, but they still get readers interested. And I think people make comparisons with themselves. They work a job for long hours and wonder why others can't do the same. It's a funny argument though. I mean by living under a bridge you're not displacing anybody, it's not like squatting in someone's apartment. It's hardly desirable living conditions and if you added up what their collective income is, it's not very much at all. It's actually really expensive to live on the street. If you want to eat something, you've got to go out and get it. It's not the cheapest way to live. I think people don't consider those things.

It also seems people get upset about the homeless spending their money on stuff like cigarettes. Where does this come from?
People make judgments about what others spend their money on. Really though, in that circumstance, what would they have done themselves? You might behave in different ways if you were in that situation. Many homeless people turn to alcohol or whatever helps them to escape. I imagine in that situation we too would want to escape from the world, from the present. And anyway, they're not homeless because they're smoking. I'm an anti-smoking person but it's a legal activity. And it's not causing their homelessness.

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Related: VICE spends time with the homeless living in the sewers underneath Bogota.

Like that? Then watch Sisa, Cocaine of the Poor

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What about the notion that begging is actually lucrative? It seems some people think they could earn just as much begging as by working.
I think people are often anxious about their own work, so they might compare themselves to someone who appears to be having an easier time. But I hardly think that begging and living on the streets is having an easier time. I don't have an exact figure on what begging here can make, but anecdotally I know it's not much.

A lot of comments in the Herald Sun article call for the police to evict the homeless couple. Should the police be evicting people?
The police normally refer these things to welfare agencies that then offer support. If you walk around Melbourne at night, you'll see people offering coffee and stuff like that for homeless people. But the information that's missing here is why this couple isn't connected with that help. Now, they might not want help or they might have had bad experiences, I don't know. But I'm a little bit surprised that they're not getting any assistance.

Is there something particularly unsympathetic about Australian culture?
I think what's unique about us is that we have services to support the homeless. What people then ask themselves is why homeless people aren't using these services. That again can cause resentment.

So why aren't people using these services?
I think most are. And for the ones you see on the street, maybe those services aren't a good fit. I know that some people actually find it safer on the street than in rooming houses, for example.

If homelessness isn't a result of laziness, what's the cause?
There're no easy answers here. There's a lot of debate around whether mental health is a trigger for homelessness or if homelessness is a trigger for mental health. It's a chicken and egg thing.

Finally, it seems we're equally judgmental of the rich as the poor. Why is that?
Yes but I think we treat the rich as exotics, whereas most of us aren't fascinated by homelessness. I think people are just interested in extremes. Extremes provoke a response, which again is what that article is about.

Follow Max on Twitter: @RannMax