New research into the experience of local homeless people suggests that while some community members are kind and accepting, others have a lot to learn.
The academic undertaking the research, Rohena Duncombe, said the homeless people she interviewed spoke of a ‘mixed experience’ in their interactions with the wider community.
‘It was really varied,’ said Ms Duncombe, a lecturer at Charles Sturt University.
‘Some [locals] seemed to appreciate what the [homeless] person been through, but others didn’t really seem to understand the circumstances that led to homelessness at all.’
Ms Duncombe said this lack of understanding was quite common within the broader Australian community.
‘If we asked the standard conservative person they would probably tend to think that people are homeless because they’re drinkers or because they’re just lazy,’ she said.
‘The fact is that in the vast majority of cases people are not homeless for those reasons. There’s a whole history and background, often going right back to childhood.’
The interviews Ms Duncombe conducted locally are part of a project exploring the barriers homeless people face when attempting to access services, particularly healthcare.
Research has shown that while homeless people get sick more often and have shorter lives they use fewer primary health services than the rest of the population.
When they do seek medical attention, it is usually for an acute or more advanced condition that requires admission to hospital.
Part of the reason for this reluctance to seek help early, Ms Duncombe says, is that the entry points for health services tend not to be easily accessed by homeless people.
This difficulty in obtaining access may be because of a lack of knowledge about the available services, or because a homeless person feels alienated and isolated from the health system.
According to Ms Duncombe, this is where their treatment by the community comes into play. She says the experience of homelessness often exacerbates existing trauma, which in turn often results in mental health issues and substance use.
The good news, Ms Duncombe said, was that there were simple things locals could do to make homeless people’s lives easier. ‘The more we can do to reduce the isolation and discrimination many homeless people feel, the more we are supporting their chances of recovery.’