I first met K not long after I began working at the Red Cross. She was 18 and a participant at a crisis support service for young people living on the streets. K ran away from home in her early teens to escape the worst things that can happen to a child at the hands of their parents.
When you first hit the streets, young people tell me, you spend your first nights terrified. The terror and the sadness and the hurt over the things that drove you there in the first place never really go away. Everyone on the streets is hurting, that's what one young man tells me.
I find that people who live on the streets long for the same things I long for. Someone to love, something they can do well and take pride in, something that says they are unique and valued and have a place in the world. No matter how trampled they feel, no matter how desperate or brutal life on the streets can be, nothing seems able to extinguish those elemental human desires.
Today I received some good news. I hadn't heard of K for some time. Today I hear she has not only moved off the streets, but she has got a job and bought a house. I marvel at what she has already crammed into her life at just 22. She has guts and resilience I fear I will never have. Doing my sort of job you occasionally see the worst there is to see in life. But you also get to see the best. Today's news is the best. It keeps you going.
M's story is similar but different. A loving home, a quiet suburban childhood, but things went awry in her teenage years. Wild partying turned into drug dependence. Mental health problems set in and things unravelled. A few years on the streets and a few years climbing back see M with her own landscaping business. I'm talking to her about her newly acquired bobcat driving skills. More news in the "best" category.
J's story is perhaps most compelling of all. She wound up on the streets at 15 and spent three decades of her life there. Now, approaching 50, she wants something different. From somewhere deep she dredges up the motivation to give a different path a go. Somehow she finds enough strength to break from her peer group of long-term streeties and risks going it alone. After 30 years sleeping rough she has lost her family and knows no other life. She places her trust in a group of my colleagues and they help her get some money together and find her a small flat. It's a high wire act. One slip and she'll fall again. But against the odds she makes it work. She sticks at it. She's a reliable tenant and she starts to make plans for a better life. It is a heart-stopping triumph.
These stories are everywhere. But our community has the knowledge and the resources to end homelessness in this country. Collectively we know what to do. We know that access to secure accommodation – bundled with the right kinds of support and sustained for a reasonable period of time — gets results. People with even the most challenging life histories can be housed and develop a productive focus for their life.
We simply need to scale up our efforts to eliminate homelessness in Australia. We need to focus on the task and do the things we know work. With the right planning and persistence, children being born today will inherit a country free from homelessness.
Unrealistic? In the year of my grandmother's birth, 1908, it wasn't uncommon for men to die before they reached 60 and only a handful of children attended high school. High-schooling for girls was seen as a wild fantasy. Today we are closing in on universal completion of Year 12 and life spans have increased about a third to more than 80. These are the staggering achievements of the 20th century. These are the impossible dreams of my grandmother's generation.
They are dreams that didn't come cheap. They required a massive mobilisation of resources and the development of vast systems to support better education and health. But we saw the value and were happy to spend more than half of all state expenditure on those aims.
It costs far more to allow homelessness to persist than to end it. Homeless people are super-users of government services. The bill for their interactions with hospital emergency wards, psychiatric services, ambulance, police, courts, prison, child safety and the like has been calculated variously at between $60,000 and $260,000 a year. If there was a government frequent flyer program, they'd be double-platinum members.
It costs on average one-10th of those figures per head to provide the support to lift people out of homelessness for good. The national saving would be between $5 billion and $10 billion a year.
What to do next: build on the valuable work of the federal government's white paper on homelessness and map out a 20-year plan to end homelessness in Australia. Firm up the economic case for ending homelessness, so the value for money question is conclusively answered. Then roll out resourcing for the support services required in three-year cycles to build capacity steadily, learning from each success. Persist until the mission is accomplished.
We are perhaps the first generation of Australians to have the knowledge and the opportunity to end homelessness in our country. Let's shoulder that load and give the gift of a country free from homelessness to our children.
Matthew Cox is Red Cross Queensland community services group manager. National Homeless Person Week starts today.