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Last Updated: Monday, 17 December 2007, 00:07 GMT
Hard life for Australia's homeless
By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney

Life on the streets is a maze of uncertainty and danger for Australia's army of homeless people.

Pastor Graham Long with service user Rebel
The Wayside Chapel is a safe haven for Sydney's homeless people

"You're always worried someone's going to rob you, or beat you or set you on fire when you're asleep, which has happened on a few occasions," explains Snowy, who has been living rough for seven years.

Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has made homelessness a priority for the new Labor government. He has ordered his MPs to visit hostels for those without a home to gauge the scale of the problem.

"The turn away rate for people (at) homeless shelters is horrific," Mr Rudd told Australian television.

"Turn away rates of something like 80% or 90%. Now this is just wrong in a country as wealthy as ours."

Charities estimate there are more than 100,000 homeless people in Australia with indigenous people the hardest hit.

This transient population includes families with small children and divorced women as well as those suffering addiction and mental illness.

You can be functioning quite well and have a mental illness hit you in the same way that a truck would run you over
Pastor Graham Long

Some are without a place to stay for a few days, while others spend their lives looking for a safe place to sleep in doorways and parks.

Many homeless Australians are 'lounge surfers', who rely on the hospitality of relatives and friends and are always on the move.

Government agencies and charities are all working to ease this crisis.

No normal life

The Wayside Chapel in Sydney's tough Kings Cross district is a haven for the city's street people.

Alice with her dog Buddy
When you're on the street it's hard ... because you get really depressed and you just don't see any hope

It offers food, hot showers, advice and above all respite from a society that often chooses to look the other way.

"Within walking distance of Wayside there are between 300 and 600 people sleeping on the footpath every night," said Pastor Graham Long.

There are various triggers to homelessness. Demons unleashed by drug, alcohol and gambling addictions are often responsible.

Psychiatric issues play a big part too.

Pastor Long told the BBC that the chaotic journey from a secure life with a job and a family to despair on the streets can be frighteningly easy.

"You can be functioning quite well and have a mental illness hit you in the same way that a truck would run you over. It all happens in a blink of an eye."

Alice has been homeless for five years.

I've got no faith in the government ... one politician is as much of a liar as the next

Sitting wearily outside the Wayside with her puppy, Buddy, she told me her story.

"Originally it started through drugs, drinking alcohol and then I became a heroin addict and all your money goes on heroin," she said.

"You don't have money to pay rent and it's impossible to lead a normal life."

"My health has diminished a lot in the last five years since I've been on the streets. I'm on medication for schizophrenia and depression.

"When you're on the street it's hard to keep your medication going and do the right thing because you get really depressed and you just don't see any hope," she said grimly.

Despite her frustration with the authorities and a lack of social housing, there is a steely and determined edge to 28-year-old Alice. She has needed it. Women can be easy targets when night falls on the homeless.

"I've woken up with people trying to get into my sleeping bag, touching me," she said.

But can Kevin Rudd help people like Alice?

Housing shortage

Mary Perkins
Mary Perkins believes there should be more affordable housing

Charities say that affordable homes for low income families should be top of the new government's list.

Mary Perkins from Shelter New South Wales says there simply is not enough public housing.

"It's no longer good enough to be doing it tough and to be poor you have to have other complex problems as well," she said.

Many of Australia psychiatric institutions were closed decades ago. Many of the half-way houses and special needs facilities that were promised were never delivered.

So state-owned flats often accommodate the mentally ill, while poorer families are pushed to the back of a very long queue.

The situation is equally daunting in the private market.

House prices have soared across Australia. Rents have gone the same way, along with interest rates. The result is increased mortgage stress and crippling costs for some tenants.

"It's a pretty short road between an unaffordable housing arrangement and homelessness," said Mary Perkins.

Despite the gloom charity workers are optimistic that Kevin Rudd's promise of a more compassionate approach to government will help those without a roof over their heads.

Not everyone is convinced though.

"I've got no faith in the government," roared 48-year-old Snowy. "Maybe Kevin Rudd might change things but as far as I'm concerned one politician is as much of a liar as the next."

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