Can a person with access to all the comforts life has to offer ever understand what it is like to be homeless? As they walk down the street, can someone who is recognised for their celebrity status ever comprehend the facelessness that comes with homelessness?

My personal belief is no.

You can never truly understand the sheer relentless stress of homelessness or poverty until you are in it. If you know at the end of the day, or week, you are going home, you will get fed, this nightmare will become just that – a nightmare. Then, of course, it changes how you experience it.

Yet, that isn’t to say people cannot learn and grow, not only from taking part in such experiences, but also from watching them on TV. Who hasn’t been moved by a challenging documentary to ask the question: “What can I do about this?”

Ultimately that desire to broaden the conversation on homelessness was why we took part in Filthy Rich and Homeless, a three-part SBS documentary which airs this week and follows five wealthy Australians who swap their life of privilege for homelessness.

It is our hope that this series will allow the wider public to get a glimpse of the reality that these women, men, young people and children face every day. We hope it will increase people’s understanding that homelessness isn’t just rough sleeping, and that sadly, many of those impacted in Australia today are families.

Selvi, a mother of three young children who appears in the third episode, is currently living in Mission Australia’s Fairfax House, which is transitional housing in Western Sydney. She told us she decided to take part because she wanted her story to be heard and to show that if she can end up homeless, then anyone can. Selvi’s story, which I am sure viewers will find unsettling, so vividly highlights the very simple truth; that there is not enough social and affordable housing to fulfil the need.

Sadly, organisations like Mission Australia work with people like Selvi day-in, day-out. It is a difficult task to find suitable accommodation in a housing market that is spiralling out of control.

Yet, the situation is not unsolvable. Many of us working in the sector believe we have the answers to at least improving the situation for families and individuals who are experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness. But it will require national leadership from the Federal Government and a consistent commitment from State, Territory and local government as well as the private and not-for-profit sectors.

You can read more about the solutions to tackling homelessness here.

Ultimately, I wish we didn’t have to make programs like Filthy Rich and Homeless. That we didn’t need celebrities to help shine a light on this problem. But between 2011 and 2016, the numbers of people who were homeless across Australia increased by 14%, in Sydney they increased by 48%. In many areas of the country we measure waiting lists for social housing not in weeks or months but years. In the Penrith local government area where Selvi lives, the waiting list is well over 10 years.

So we absolutely must take every opportunity to shine a light on the issues explored in this program, because unless we galvanise politicians into taking action they are not going away anytime soon.

Photo of James Toomey, CEO of Mission Australia


James Toomey
CEO Mission Australia

Filthy Rich and Homeless airs on SBS over three nights from Tuesday 14 August to Thursday 16 August at 8:30pm. It will also be available on SBS On Demand.

Read more: Homelessness can affect anyone – Selvi’s story

Read more: Trying to find a safe, secure place to call home – Interview with Mission Australia case manager Editha

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