Learning to Express Negativity and a Bad Relationship

Knowing what to say and whether it’s worth saying at all it is a challenge I don’t think I’ll ever be done with. It seems a good place to start with on this post, as the things I navigate in life often give me a sense of external pressure to not speak up about them from my own perspective, especially in recent times. I’ve been out of a bad relationship for about three months now, and though it felt like I was done with it from the day after it was over, I still find myself with a lot to say about it, and not sure who I want to say it to. Continue reading

The Invisible Discrimination in Sharehousing

Sharehousing is my life. Not by way of real choice; it’s all I can afford, ever since it was no longer viable to live at home. I love my family but it’s not an option for me, the same as it isn’t for many, many others. Increasingly through the last few years I’ve seen that necessity extend past the stereotype of student living. A growing number of people embrace it as a lifestyle choice, curating families away from family or to afford higher quality accommodation; while for others whose welfare or income no longer covers typical rent costs and who can’t find accommodation through the public housing system, it is the only way to afford a roof over one’s head.

This necessity in the face of a housing crisis, along with the normalisation of sharehousing as a “lifestyle choice”,  puts pressure on a system that has seemingly grown without regulation, and that pressure is exposing its flaws. It’s common for sharehouses to look for new tenants and subtenants through social media and specialised websites such as Flatmate Finders, and the same rules preventing real estate agents from discrimination (which already appear loosely regulated, if gentrification in Melbourne is any indication) don’t really apply here, as people seek to find someone with the right ‘culture fit’.

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Facebook screenshot of a housemate search. Reasonable-sounding on the surface, while the subtext reads to those wary of it: no one with social disabilities or depression, no one too different.

And while that is necessary and good for the sake of building a safe and trustworthy home in which all occupants feel they belong, something which everyone has a right to, it does beg some amount of scrutiny and questioning; because when you make a choice about who or what kind of person you invite into a sharehouse, you are also making choices and rules about who is excluded, and why. That is unavoidably a choice which affects the people left stranded without alternative, options, people who end up on the streets, something which is notably skewed against people with varying disabilities or mental illnesses.

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Subtext: no one depressed or socially anxious or with mobility issues, no poor people who struggle to fit into capitalism and ‘productivity’

This isn’t a matter of expecting anyone to drop their own considerations for the sake of combating an unfair system. One cannot make oneself vulnerable or in danger in the intimate environment of one’s own home merely for the sake of politics. But it is worth challenging one’s assumptions. There are many things I can only speculate at, as there have not been many studies done on the structures and effects of sharehousing, but gender-based assumptions come up as one example that may colour housing availability with a surprising amount of regularity and acceptability; I’ve seen houses prioritise women as residents under the assumption that women are cleaner or more socially considerate, and given that men are slightly more likely to be homeless and much more so to be sleeping rough, one has to wonder where that interacts with the sharehousing system. That is nothing more than conjecture as it stands, but I would be remiss in my role as a feminist if I didn’t identify that idea as a troubling one.

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If you struggle to cook food or have interesting artisinal edible hobbies due to being too poor to afford to learn it, too mentally ill or have other disabilities or time demands that make cooking or gardening difficult, congrats! You now qualify as an undesirable “ghost”

Cleanliness is highly prioritised as a requirement of housemates, and as someone who is picky about cleanliness in the kitchen, I can definitely sympathise. But there is a difference between forming active processes for good quality living regardless of ability, and simply not considering when ableism is colouring your expectations.

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“No depression or disabilities that interfere with cleanliness”

I’ve only spoken to one woman who changed the way she advertised for housemates to reflect this; she also had quite regular expectations of contributing to a household, but she opened herself up to more diverse applications by making it known that they had come to past arrangements with dividing labour according to what people were actually capable of doing. Some people would sweep and mop more often in exchange for passing on their dishes to another housemate, as an example. That simple change in expectations can shift the household dynamic from one of rigidity and in-built ableism to a warm and welcoming one. The division of domestic labour in a sharehouse is often not a static or straightforwards thing anyway, changing according to differing skills and comfort levels and unique house demands, so it can be beneficial to treat those expectations like an ongoing dialogue, a project to work on together, rather than a box that gets ticked on an application.

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“no one with depression or social/food-related anxiety”

It might seem like a really small and normal request to seek someone who can fit in with a house’s culture, and that’s actually really important, but I do have to wonder when people are putting out requests for housemates—how many people realise that what they are saying is not just, ‘we want someone reasonably easy to live with’, but, ‘we want someone who isn’t mentally ill’? Given the context of Australia’s issues combating mental health problems, the home needs to be a space in which harmful attitudes cannot be ignored.

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The pinned rules on a public Housemate search group on Facebook. The intent when it comes to caveats like gender and orientation usually come from an attempt to protect vulnerable minorities looking for people with whom they’ll be safe, but the idea that these rule sets devoid of anti-discriminatory regulation won’t cause an “impact” is worth examining.

Sharehousing is a big social minefield. Everyone’s ideas of responsibility and respectability are loaded with their own histories, privileges and shortcomings. I’ve heard more horror stories from sharehouses than I have from any other type of accommodation, tales of mental and emotional abuse, even physical threats, stealing and stalking. Ultimately, sharing your personal space with others is a pretty big risk. It makes sense to try to reduce that risk in any way possible. But we try to reduce this risk on such an individualistic basis that it seems to shut down any community-wide discussions on how we can actually tackle those risks and create a system that actually looks out for us. Despite all advertising for housemates being centralised to particular websites and forum spaces, little of that social space is used to talk about any of these horror stories and bad housemates. Instead we continue trying to vet everyone one by one, with only the loosest recommendation systems, empty of police checks or pro-social, anti-discriminatory rules.

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An application to a house owned by a single mother with a child. “That’s fine” being uttered next to enquiring about levels of queer acceptance may seem rather accommodating towards homophobia, but it is sometimes a useful defence mechanism against moving into a home only to discover hidden and potentially dangerous levels of homophobia later.

It is the responsibility of our government to tackle the housing crisis, on problems of regulating real estate agencies’ discrimination and artificial price hikes, on ‘investment properties’, on the gap between public and private housing availability, and so on. That is out of our control. But the sharehousing sphere is ours. It is an odd, rapidly-growing community without a real sense of community, a broad social demographic and force to be reckoned with that seemingly lacks any internal dialogue. As time goes on, the need for change in that system will only grow. Typically, when self-regulation fails, that’s when the law needs to expand to fill that space. It seems honestly unlikely any time soon that the government will begin enforcing higher standards on the sharehousing system, since there is so much else that politicians are refusing to tackle right now. But without regulation, the number of vulnerable people for whom sharehousing becomes less and less of a viable method of living will only grow.

So, we need to ask the kinds of questions that must be asked to form a functioning and ethical society; if sharehousing is the most accessible form of housing for most people, one of the only things keeping thousands of people off the streets, how do we deal with the conflicting needs of access to a home for everybody, and control over one’s home space?

This is not a question that needs to come at the cost of our quality of living, that asks you to compromise on who you invite into your home. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of changing advertising methods so that equally capable and viable potential housemates aren’t put off applying, as companies do when they want to hire more diverse candidates. Perhaps many people are already doing what they can, in which case asking these questions can be a positive self-affirmation process for those who are, and a potentially rewarding way for others to challenge themselves and broaden their social horizons. Perhaps there is no real solution that can come from the sharehousing space, but as a community we can be aware of where we sit in the face of a housing crisis, so that we know where resources to fix it must be pointed. This is not about being a charity case, but about being thoughtful, questioning potentially harmful biases, and opening a dialogue. At the end of the day, we can’t solve problems that we don’t talk about.

Why the Xena Reboot Should be Queer, not Just Gay

As an avid, lifelong Xena fan, news of the reboot fills me with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Casting choices and possible Hollywood industry problems with ageing female actors aside, there’s a lot to look forwards to. Xena is camp, fun, dark at times but a love story that always comes to back to its core: that of one of the most beautiful, enduring relationships to ever grace the small screen. Xena and Gabrielle’s love is bright as day, despite the censorship they had to fight past and the wacky plot lines necessary to provide enough plausible deniability for on-screen kisses to get through that. Seriously, how anyone interpreted those longing looks, romantic affirmations of love and kisses as heterosexual is beyond me; but even if it was obvious to me it’s still exciting to consider a reboot where even that flimsy shyness could be discarded, where Gabrielle and Xena could show affection/flirt outrageously more openly and even outright, explicitly tell characters that this is my girlfriend and we’re in love. Gabrielle and Xena are already enough of a hallmark in the history of on-screen gay pride. Getting to admit what everyone already knows while bringing that relationship into this century would be an absolute dream.

But those conservative studio limitations, while they attempted to obscure true love in their fear, did unintentionally do something even more progressive than many other queer shows do today; they showed a successful, long-term queer and polyamorous couple. The characters of Hercules and Iolaus, amongst others, weave in and out of Gabrielle’s and Xena’s love lives with little to no interruption to their own relationship. One of the best examples of this is in Gabrielle’s marriage to Perdicus in Return of Callisto.

Her ex-betrothed from the village she left at the start of the series rocks up at Troy, makes moon eyes at her before she runs off with Xena again, and a while later resurfaces to ask her to marry him. Admittedly, tragedy can be seen a mile away, as the show has an established pattern of introducing love interests only to have them be killed or otherwise removed from the story so that they don’t get in-between Xena and Gabrielle. Still, the most interesting part about these events before Perdicus’ part in it ends are the ways in which Gabrielle navigates a marriage with him while remaining loyal to Xena.

When he initially proposes to Gabrielle, you see her hesitate very clearly, and it’s not her feelings for him that are the problem. She plans on rejecting him, but Xena, seeing how clearly happy Gabrielle is with him, tells her:

“Look, Gabrielle—if it’s me you’re worried about, let me set your mind at rest. Seeing you happy will make me happy. And if that means settling down with Perdicus, then… you have my blessing.”

Not too long afterwards, Gabrielle decides to accept, and Xena stands right by her side as she’s wed to Perdicus. There’s a flicker of seriousness on her face as she watches them; perhaps she’s less certain than before, worried things with Gabrielle will change too much or that she might lose her, but still, she’s there to support her all the way, and once the ceremony is complete they take a moment aside to reaffirm their own bond before Gabrielle leaves for her honeymoon.

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Of course, this includes a very non-platonic kiss whilst Perdicus waits patiently only metres away from them.

This entire journey is a really important, excellent example of compersion, a common part of the polyamorous experience. Seeing you happy will make me happy. Though this theme is never again explored as explicitly as it is in this episode, it is one that runs on throughout the series as both ladies find closeness and intimacy with others. Things are not always perfect, metamours are sometimes villains or pose threats, but Gabrielle and Xena support each other throughout it all and work on their problems and signs of jealousy as adults and as a team, no matter how hard it gets. As Xena once advised to Joxer as he sought advice from her on how to seek Gabrielle’s affection: love unwavering and unconditional, “no strings attached”.

Why is Polyamory Important?

In an article on Polyamory and Queer Anarchism, Susan Song wrote:

Queer theory resists heteronormativity and recognizes the limits of identity politics. The term “queer” implies resistance to the “normal,” where “normal” is what seems natural and intrinsic. Heteronormativity is a term describing a set of norms based on the assumption that everyone is heterosexual, gendered as male/female and monogamous, along with the assumed and implied permanency and stability of these identities. Queer theory also critiques homonormativity, in which non-heterosexual relationships are expected to resemble heteronormative ones, for instance in being gender-normative, monogamous, and rooted in possession of a partner.

Xena and Gabrielle are not heterosexual or monogamous, or even homosexual. They are both bisexual women (Although despite constant uses of anachronistic languages, never use this word despite definitionally falling under that umbrella). They are unerringly loyal and committed to each other, but they do not possess each other. Xena does have a certain amount of seniority in the relationship based on having roughly ten years of experience in relationships and adventuring over Gabrielle, but she defers to Gabrielle’s wisdom more and more as the series goes on and they reach an even par with each other. This creates a relationship based off equality which defies the usual attempts to fit same-sex relationships into boxes of traditional gender roles of who ‘wears the pants in the relationship’ (regardless of how many ‘butch’ jokes are tossed Xena’s way, she still also engages with traditional femininity on a regular enough basis to undermine that stereotype). Though they are both portrayed as cisgender, in many other ways they are radically queer, something which is astonishing to see from a show as old as it is. In our modern context, there is so much opportunity for that queerness to be embraced even further, for there to further rejections of gender-normative expectations and ideas of what relationships are ‘meant’ to look like underneath the current hetero-normative paradigm.

That visibility of counter-culture queer relationships is incredibly important, especially around the topic of same-sex marriage. As our culture moves closer to that becoming a reality, pressure builds up from both queer and straight communities to understand what gay marriage means for society and make it seem as non-threatening as possible. People seek to make gay marriage look just the same as straight marriages, to make it seem more and more ridiculous that it could be denied as a right.

Unfortunately, that goal often means throwing polyamorous queer relationships under the bus. Polyamory is hardly as common as monogamy, and many people in polyamorous relationships aren’t interested in marriage as an institution at all, but the process of alienating polyamory from gay communities, saying that gay marriage is not a “slippery slope” that will lead to multiple people in a marriage, is one of demonization, creating new borders of sexual diversity so that homonormative gays are now part of the acceptable “in-group” and everyone else is in the unacceptable “out-group”, quite literally dividing the LGBTQIA community.

This tends to be a fairly harmful process. The bottom line of this mindset is that, no matter how positive and consensual and harmless your orientation and expression thereof may be, so long as it’s not performed according to other people’s rigid expectations of normality, you deserve to have your rights as a human being taken away, to be shunned and treated with revulsion. If we as a society can only accept “gays” but not “queers”, we have not evolved past sexuality-based discrimination, or even shown much of an understanding as a society on why that was wrong in the first place. We’ve simply continued to assimilate without changing society for the better.

It follows a similar line of slut-shaming that gets applied on a daily basis to people with multisexual orientations: that if you are “greedy” or “promiscuous” you deserve to be treated badly and abused, a dark undercurrent of thought that already leads to higher rates of domestic abuse against bi women, amongst other issues. Bi and pansexual people are often directly challenged in their identities through expectations of monogamy; if you’re monogamous, your sexuality is frequently erased by way of defining it by your partner’s gender, while you are forced to choose between communities, excluded and have your unique experiences of discrimination silenced; if you’re polyamorous, you are rejected by society, reinforcing “bad” stereotypes of greedy/disloyal bisexuality, hypersexualised, forced to keep multiple relationships in the closet for fear of being shunned by loved ones, and so forth. Either way, it’s a paradigm in which multisexual people are forever being questioned and judged for their choices. And perhaps it’s that constant pressure which makes it easier for people who aren’t monosexual or cis or otherwise not part of the growing LG ‘mainstream’ to question the real necessity of monogamy and whether or not it actually suits them, and conduct the relationships regardless of external approval. Asexuality adds even more dimensions to the queer polyamory experience, defying the lie that polyamory is only ever about sex. The queer side to polyamory is undeniable.

So, in making Xena and Gabrielle have ongoing relationships with men and other women in the context of the show, even though that move grew from lesbophobia/homophobia, it was one that ultimately created an incredibly progressive, even queerer relationship than they meant to, an expression of queerness that people still struggle to accept in the mainstream today. Their polyamory and their bisexuality build upon each other to defy stereotypes in a beautiful celebration of women loving on their own terms.

Who Cares About Losing That When We Stand To Gain Something, Anyway?

This is the most common response that mainstream gays have to queerer parts of the community when we point out our rights being left behind in the Same Sex Marriage debate. And it shows just how far we really have to go before attitudes, even left wing ones, have to progress.

If Xena and Gabrielle continue to have histories with men but do not openly identify with queer or multisexual labels, then their bisexuality risks being erased altogether, allowing the lesbian community to once again co-opt bi stories and experiences into their narratives while simultaneously rejecting bi women and leaving them out. And even if they manage to get past the stigma in media against the B word, we still risk selling other aspects of their queerness down the river.

It is incredibly likely that their relationship will be recreated as a monogamous one. I have little hope to the contrary. But Gabrielle and Xena have always been a non-monogamous bisexual couple. If that’s changed, we aren’t just making them what they were ‘always meant to be’. We’re taking away what they are. This means we are making a value judgement on facets of their love and identities and what they should be. Do we really want to redefine Xena by legitimisation through assimilation? Or do we want Xena to be defined by accepting people and loving relationships for what they turned out to be even when that isn’t what we want them to be?

The queer and polyamorous community may very well have to say goodbye to one of the few instances of positive representation that they have access to in western media, with barely a nod of acknowledgement from the parts of the community which stand to benefit from this instance of exclusion. And you know what? I’m ready to deal with that. I’m ready to love the reboot and see the best in it. In many ways, those mainstream voices are right: the state of queer representation is so poor that I will take what I can get and still love it ten times more than most heteronormative media. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t care, or that we dont all stand to lose something precious along the way. The old show gave us all something bright and beautiful. The reboot will either carry that over, and be true to Xena, or it will be a show of the same franchise that tries to be but is not Xena. I will not stop loving the old series and what it gave me. I just hope that the new one will show love to me and mine, and the parts of us reflected in the original.

Review: Child of Light

I’m about two years late to the Child of Light party, but now that I’m here, I do want to talk about it. I had multiple recommendations to play it, due to my dabbling interests in poetry and it being one of the few games I know of that employs the use of poetry in any relatively meaningful way. I was really ready to like it, and I did, but I left the game with an odd mixture of admiration and disappointment.

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Spirit of Punk – Evening Reflection

On Thursday night I went to a spoken word event for the Emerging Writer’s Festival 2016 about the “Spirit of Punk”. I expected it to be full of activists, queers, old punks and maybe the token posers who think that punk is about music genre purity. The night was advertised as a place to bring or write something about what punk is and read it out to everyone else, to encourage people to really write from the heart.

To begin with, it felt a little disconnected and less genuine than I thought it would be, much more focused around the Writer’s Festival scene than anything else. The guy running the night clearly had elements of old guard punk and nostalgia driving him to run it, but it seemed weirdly mixed in with class privilege in a way that seemed a little oblivious. He waxed lyrical about his aimless desire to rebel in the face of a father who seemed to love him unconditionally and encourage his taste in punk music, and it was heartwarming, but did kind of clash later with his message when he sneered at the memory of young punk guys trying to scare him on the train, repeating what he said then; “Is that all you’ve got?” I was really tempted to stand up and ask him if that was all he had. To ask why he thought he was any different, any tougher than the young men he was disdainful of. If “rebel without a cause” and “punk is dead” were the prevailing attitudes of the night, I wouldn’t have been satisfied. But to be fair, this guy made that night for other words and perspectives to be voiced alongside his own. Still, I was not ready to see that what I expected as a fringe element of the evening feel a little more like the main course.

There were a succession of writers who weren’t there quite as much for the punk as they were there for the spoken word, and while their work wasn’t bad, it did feel off-key. And it was strange to go to an event expecting to share an understanding of  disenfranchisement and anger, to look for an inter-generational community who understood that feeling, only to have a lot of smiles and gentle laughter and flowery prose. There were poems about sex and intimacy and jealousy, and one in which I couldn’t hear the words but I could hear the deliberate musicality of them. It was an open stage, and while I’m glad that different types of stories and levels of experience with spoken word were welcome, I was still waiting to see the energy I felt in my chest reflected on the stage, still waiting to be swept up in the passion for the theme of the night. I paid a little more attention to one guy who got halfway to punk by saying that it wasn’t about aesthetic as much as a political attitude, only to disengage again when he lost the path I hoped he’d go down and started talking about how buying a CD from a store wasn’t the same as exchanging zines and secret mailing lists. I get the more advanced concepts of not selling out or buying into consumerism, but when punk speakers dwell on those concepts in isolation from class issues, they feel like rather privileged discussions.

Maybe he said something more that didn’t have elitist, gate-keeping overtones when I was tuned out but I wasn’t holding my breath or ready to give the benefit of the doubt. I had anticipated that there would be some element of rosy-tinted uses of punk as a vehicle for excluding people who weren’t cool enough or educated enough about who the “classics” of the music genre were or how appreciation for it was meant to be performed. That petty purism and exclusionary condescension towards other disenfranchised youths is honestly why, IMHO, the punk scene stopped being what the old guard remember it as. It’s why the ‘spirit of punk’ has been maintained elsewhere, particularly in the queer + activist counterculture scenes I started exploring in university. I don’t think punk was ever meant to be curated like a piece of art in a rich old museum. It was never meant to turn a cold shoulder to poor kids who were too disliked or isolated to be shown the ropes or crack the secret codes. And god forbid anyone ever draw comparisons between punk and emo subcultures, the latter of which contained the same disenfranchisement and counterculture sense of challenging authority, and was a direct musical descendent. I wondered if any of the adults in the room were the kind who’d complained about the emo scene when it happened. The generational gaps seemed to hang in the air at that point in the night, an emptiness I had forgotten to account for. That drove me to write and perform my piece basically then and there.

honestly not my best or nuanced but it felt as good as I could get in half an hour

After I performed I was followed up by Snow – who’d basically had a lot of the same thoughts and sentiments that I did. We were both quite emotional and angry and ready to flip off everyone in that audience for not saying what we wanted them to say. I think I was simultaneously surprised and not at all to find that the crowd seemed to respond to that energy with enthusiasm.

It was a little confusing when we found afterwards that enthusiasm manifesting in people approaching us – and particularly Snow – telling us how brave we were. I want to say that the encouragement was lovely, but have to admit that those words sounded disconnected from what we had both tried to say. I don’t think anyone who’s felt that kind of anger is ever expressing it to be happily congratulated for it. I feel like usually, by the time you hear those kinds of words in your life, you’ve already made yourself into the kind of person who doesn’t need them. I think maybe we wanted to see, if not an echo of ourselves, then an echo of our own righteous anger against society in the hearts of the people around us.

We got to see the kind of act we had really been waiting for when an older woman wearing the classic punk outfit of a wrinkled white shirt and blood red tie brought her chair up to the front of the room. She identified herself as an old member of the spoken word scene, as a woman who’d had barbed wire wrapped around her naked body during a piece about pain, and had to spend four hours afterwards agonisingly removing it. She spoke directly, had wiry arms that moved her seat and microphone around with a strong grip, with a battle-ready edge to her body. She was the most hardcore person I’d ever witnessed in my memory.

She spoke of all the old punks that she knew – “dead, to a man ” – and of squatting in a house with 12 people and no heating or electricity or anybody who cared for them, using stolen musical equipment to give themselves an emotional outlet, and it was a heart aching story, one that I think continues to resonate in the increasing class divides and rising living costs we deal with today. I felt that the tone of her words were different from a lot of other people there that night. Punk didn’t sound like an elite club of rockers when she sat on the stage. It was a refuge for the disenfranchised. Her set dealt with drugs and death, not about those earlier days as a time when things were better, or some kind of golden age, but as a time when things were worse, when music and culture was the only escape for people who were made to feel that their lives didn’t matter. It was no lighthearted tribute. You couldn’t deny that this was a person who had lived through it; that regardless of what the surface of disenfranchisement looked like, she knew what it felt like.

She finished her set, and there was some more poetry before the night wrapped up, and I went home with my head buzzing.

I know that the movement was art, and fashion, and politics, and it wasn’t just one thing. It was diverse. People empathised with different parts of it to varying strengths. If it wasn’t so malleable and welcoming and resonant, it wouldn’t have been the amazing, big thing in our culture that it was. It’s fitting that a Spirit of Punk night was an open mic, chaotic and sometimes at odds with itself.

I’m glad that I was challenged and inspired to challenge others, and it was right to take even a small moment out that night to dwell on the sense of mourning and loss, of the punks who might have grown up and contributed to the night, but are now only echoed in art and history and our memories. Especially considering the crossovers between punk and queer subcultures; between the losses the queer community faced during the AIDS crisis, and in the days prior to the spoken word event. All of that noise and anger and yearning for freedom and recognition had been intermingling in my head, and I think that night helped me process even just a small part of that.

Home is Where the Upper Class are

For a short time recently I was classified as homeless. It was a safer experience of it than the stereotypical kind, in that I wasn’t on the streets. My living situation was ‘unstable’. I couch-surfed between the homes of people who love me, shared rooms, and though none of the places open to me could give me the space to actually live my life and be a fully realised and autonomous individual, it was still breathing room which I was lucky to have. But it’s a position which comes with a lot of introspection, self-doubt, and a lot of hard questions. One of the key underlying factors to my situation was mental illness, in which I am not alone, but the point which is most relevant to why I spent three months and 22 lease applications to end up without a home is the fact that I am unemployed and survive on Newstart.

I could talk a lot about the whys and the hows of that, but that’s getting beyond the discussion. It was a hard time, though, and I keenly felt all of the rejections I got and it felt a lot like being kicked when I was down. And while searching for solutions, and for sympathetic voices in the media, there seemed to be a distinct lack of conversations about what the reality of housing is like for people on income support. Most tips I found (and advice from well-meaning family) included some variation of the advice, “have more money“. I could find article after article about housing from business perspectives, from the perspectives of people with salaries allowing for mortgages, discussions dominated by people who can be classified as nothing other than middle or upper class. People whose only advice seemed to be along the lines of ‘pick yourself up by the bootstraps and get on with it’. Society seems happy to tell individuals that the problem is theirs to solve alone. But the problems facing individuals in these circumstances go beyond any one person’s capacity to solve, and beyond any individual’s temporary situations. There are no bootstraps to pull, no savings to pull on or financial cuts to make that would make overpriced rentals any less unreachable. Eventually, I got out of that situation and returned to sharehouse living, but it remains a vividly alienating experience, and one that I know other Australians are still caught in right now.

The reality is that there are some rather big problems within Australian culture and our understanding of the right to a home throughout periods of unemployment. There are two important elements laying down the baseline values and expectations of our society, on which my own expectations are built:

  1. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission“Every person has the right to an adequate standard of living, which includes the right to adequate housing.” Adequate housing is defined as more than just shelter from the elements. It’s not just about survival, but dignity. This statement is also supported by Article 25 of the Declaration of Human Rights, set by the United Nations General Assembly, of which Australia is a part.
  2. The Australian Government National Commission Audit states that; “The primary purpose of income support to the unemployed is to provide a minimum adequate standard of living to people who are temporarily out of work and unable to support themselves through their savings or other means.” 

So, we have a welfare system that is specifically designed to provide housing, laws regarding housing as a right rather than a privilege. So, by nature we have demand, and laws requiring that supply meet the demand in quality as well as quantity. But what do we rely on for supply?

For most people seeking adequate housing, supply comes from the private market, a system based off profit and competitive sales and investments in which there are winners and losers. The housing industry is inflated, the cost of living rising every year above the low income markers. For many people stuck in the rental system who are being pushed around from suburb to suburb and further out from job opportunities by rising prices, home ownership is, according to a 2011 report on Gentrification and Displacement, “a borderline fantasy which has logical appeal but is nevertheless outside the bounds of their real or imagine resources.” This isn’t a system which can be boycotted and still have your rights met, like whether or not you buy bottled water. Public housing is only available to people the government decides are vulnerable enough, demographics which have been artificially tightened to allow the government to present prettier statistics without any real improvement. And the demand on public housing well outstrips supply, with tens of thousands of people Australia-wide stuck on waiting lists.

So, if our government can’t enforce our rights to adequate housing, what do the attitudes of the private sector look like, when it comes to understanding their part in providing an essential service for every Australian?

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In response to this particular forum post, there were dozens of cries of illegal discrimination, but there were also a fair few agreeing with it to varying extents. And it’s tempting to respond to this screenshot with thinking that it’s just ‘a random on the internet’, an inconsequential outlier, and that a single voice does nothing in the face of our own anti-discrimination laws; but when you look at the wider trends of gentrification within Melbourne, it’s clear to see that these kinds of attitudes are having a very real effect on the situation. We may not be able to pinpoint and prosecute every case of discrimination, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist; the wider spectrum points to very real and common discrimination practice.

And I’m sure it’s tempting for many people approaching it from the business side to explain these practices away as ‘just common sense’. Unfortunately, what might make sense for a business is rather senseless when it comes to matters of human rights. Demand outstripping supply is, for luxury goods, an extremely beneficial thing. It allows business owners to raise prices, put more value on their resources and employees and expand on profits. But for an essential service with little to no alternatives, this is one of the worst things that could happen.

Besides the risk of homelessness, many people are faced with constantly having to move house to find affordable rent. This has a very real health cost to add to the pressures of low-income earners. Moving house is counted as one of the top five most stressful events in life, ranking above divorce. This article claims that “the average Briton will move five times during their lifetime” and the stress of that event will last more than three months. But for people in the rental market the number of moves is likely much higher, as the majority of Australian renters are on a fixed-term residency for under 12 months. 40% of renters also have children, adding to the stresses to deal with in moving; besides possible job relocation, lowered job opportunities and/or added commuting times, school relocation becomes another factor. All of these have massive impacts on the emotional stability of a child’s growth, with far-reaching consequences well into adulthood. The dark footnote of the Residential Mobility, Well-Being, and Mortality study linked above is that there may even be an increased mortality rate for people who move frequently as children, an impact that could be seen within the decade of the study. That is a link which requires further research to corroborate, may be correlated rather than causal, but is beyond grim to contemplate even as a possibility.

But even for people without dependants, the prospects of having to move once every year for an undetermined amount of time still has negative impacts. Stress is incredibly well-known as a factor in lowered life expectancy through ways such as increasing the risk of heart disease, which is known as one of Australia’s largest health problems and a big burden on our economy. Not to mention the high rates of depression, anxiety and suicide attempts in young people facing homelessness. Bad quality housing also has noted effects on health and life expectancy that disproportionately affects people on low incomes, people who can’t afford to refuse bad housing in favour of something on par with basic standards.

I know that some of this is the kind of thing people might respond to as being off-topic or picking at irrelevant or less important details, but when it comes to analysing the links between experience and consequence on a systematic scale, this stuff is important. Overcoming nuanced problems means understanding the nuances. These kinds of consequences are why we have philosophies such as human rights, and Maslow’s hierarchy. If we ever want to create a society in which each individual has the opportunity to reach our fullest potential, we must create a society in which our needs and rights can be met. Otherwise, we should acknowledge the fact that we do not, in fact, live in a merit-based society, however popular that idea is when it comes to job applications and problems of discrimination. If you are willing to deny someone the right to a home based off employment status, willing to drive out your tenants with price hikes while knowing that you are contributing to a trend of gentrification, you are actively promoting homelessness and poverty and class divides. Real estate agents and landlords making decisions on rising rental prices are an active, driving force putting pressure on the income support system. Considering the outcry the government makes on the way the welfare system contributes to the “Budget Crisis”, one would think that holding property investors responsible for rising housing costs would be a major priority.

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There are too many things I wanted to say at this article. Allowing access to human rights to be defined by how “desirable” one can be to someone with money is dystopian to the extreme.

We are facing a genuine cultural problem. This is something we should be talking about–in mainstream media, not just on specialised/niche websites and organisations–and actually addressing on all the levels on which it affects us. Gentrification tears apart communities, and undermines family systems. It damages and impedes our attempts to create an equal society. I haven’t even gotten around to talking about the uneven spread of consequences in regards to oppressed minorities; LGBTQ+ youth often leave home and enter the rental system years earlier than their straight/cisgendered peers, and attitudes against leasing to young people quite likely contributes to the higher rates of homelessness for LGBTQ+ demographics–an estimated 1 in 4 homeless people in NSW are LGBTQ+, which is shockingly disproportionate. If homelessness affected the population evenly, that number would be closer to 1 in 10.

It’s an LGBTQ+ issue. It’s ableism, as disability is so often a reason for unemployment and lower incomes. It’s relatable to racial and cultural issues within Australia, since something as simple as a name on an application can affect housing accessibility, since gentrification can remove people who require language assistance from the communities and areas which share their language and ethnic backgrounds, and create social isolation through distance. It’s a women’s issue, relating to the struggle to reduce violence against women–families fleeing domestic violence are at big risk when looking at that gap between public and private housing accessibility, especially in a rental market which discriminates against leasing to people with kids. I could go on, but the fact is, it’s incredible that something which affects so many different demographics unfairly can continue without much outcry, or even for it to be actively encouraged by governmental policy.

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By this logic, my Newstart payments would need to be doubled in order to afford the sharehouse I’m living in now.

This is a problem that our government should be concerned with, if it is in any way committed to Australia’s long-term future, to eradicating racism and class divides and lifting our own citizens out of poverty. If the government is really concerned with taking the pressure off the national budget in regards to the income support system, they shouldn’t be shunting vulnerable people onto the streets by removing support: they should be concerned with housing prices.  They should be extremely concerned with a housing market which prioritises profit over rights, and with the large gap of available housing between low-income earners, job-seekers and the perpetually unemployed. So long as disabilities exist, decreasing unemployment and homelessness by creating jobs is only ever going to be a measure of limited effectiveness. If the government doesn’t want to raise income support to actually meet the price of living costs in Australia, then they must initiate restrictions on the private housing market, or else increase the emergency and long-term public housing systems. 

Everyone has the right to a home. Our society needs to acknowledge the human rights that aren’t being met and have more conversations about how to change that, instead of just giving everyone the unrealistic and hopelessly ineffectual and ableist advice to climb the class ladder and get over it. Those attitudes are ones which–amongst everything else–tolerate homelessness as a punishment for being low-class, homelessness as punishment for being queer (or disabled, or otherwise othered by society). If we are to realistically battle these problems in Australian culture, we must battle homelessness, too.

The displacement from homes that gentrification causes is an active sign that our anti-discrimination laws aren’t being enforced, and aren’t effective. And the gap between public and private housing availabilities to people on low incomes is a gaping wound in our social system.

If we care about a fair Australia and a bright future for everyone, if we care about eradicating class inequality, these are problems which we need to solve.