I’m homeless, but I drive a Prius

The stereotypes of homelessness are changing in modern Australia (Image Source: Isaac Freeman)

By Jemah Finn

Picture this: You’re homeless, but only at night. You’re sleeping in your car, but your mode of transport is a well-functioning Toyota Prius. You walk into class every day with an instant coffee in your KeepCup that you made in the student kitchen. No one knows it’s not one of the five-dollar ones from the cafe.

Well, I don’t need to picture it. I lived it.

My name is Jemah Finn and I’m a 22-year-old full-time university student, who never expected to end up homeless, but was suddenly thrust into that world. Between February and April last year, this was my life. No, I’m not a drug addict, nor a struggling gambler. I completely shatter the stereotype of what it means to be homeless, and I want to shed light on this growing epidemic.

It looks something like this…

You decide you want a tertiary education, to you know, “make something of yourself”. So you pack up your belongings and move to the big smoke—a three-hour drive from your hometown. You are loving your studies, and doing pretty well, until you’ve lost your job because you had to keep dropping shifts due to the onslaught of university work (which has to be top priority if you want that dream job, right?) Your Centrelink payments don’t even begin to cover your rent and your parents are going through a bad season on the farm, so they can’t help you out. Before you know it, your lease ends and isn’t renewed, and your parents drop the bomb that they’re moving ten hours away, so you can’t even crash with them between rentals. The next semester is fast approaching, but you’re having no luck finding a new place. “We don’t really rent out to university students”, you hear repeatedly. It doesn’t matter that you work hard and have a flawless rental history. You ring Centrelink (again) and explain your situation and beg for some financial help, but they say “actually, if you’re not paying rent, we need to cut your payment”. With no family in the state to stay with and a bank account that’s suffering a severe drought, you have no choice but to crash in your car and pray something changes soon. Meanwhile, you continue to attend your nine to five classes like you haven’t just had two hours sleep in the backseat of your car, using dry shampoo and wet wipes instead of showering.

I’m not alone.

The last Census revealed nearly one in ten homeless people are university students, and as many as 27,600 people aged 12 to 24 are without a home. But even these figures are an underestimation. The Australian Bureau of Statistics said those who are couch surfing generally report a “usual” residence, and therefore the numbers are likely to be much higher.

In April last year, several students were asked to leave a Charles Sturt University library, when staff discovered they’d been sleeping there. The students said they felt the building was the safest option for them—and who can blame them? Most universities have 24/7 areas, kettles, couches, showers and electricity. If you hide between beanbags, you might be able to get away with “studying”. Probably not though, as you’ll eventually be seen on the cameras that are everywhere and, just like these Charles Sturt students, be asked to leave by security staff who don’t care where you go.

A guy I know, Brody* is another student who faced homelessness while studying. He struggled to survive on Centrelink Rent Assistance payments of just $89.87 a fortnight for a single person sharing a house. Fortunately, Brody could move back in with his dad, but he says it hasn’t been easy.

“I have a single dad who shares his tiny two-bedroom unit with me and my sister. Having three of us there means he now sleeps on a fold-out couch in the lounge room so my sister and I have space to study and be 20-year-olds. It’s heartbreaking to think about.” Brody said.

“At 18, it’s legal to vote, drink and drive. The government pushes you into adulthood then, when it suits them…but when it comes to moving out to study, they say you’re still dependent on a parent.”

Until you’re 22, you’re not deemed independent, even if you’ve lived out of home for years. When I rang Centrelink and told them I was facing eviction, I was told to ask my parents for a loan because “it’s their responsibility”. My family doesn’t work like that…once you move out, you’re on your own.

As I chat to Brody in their unit, I hear his dad murmur in the background “uni is only for the rich to get richer, the little people don’t matter”.

That seems to be the sad truth. Unless your parents can afford to house you near your campus, something will be sacrificed in place of whatever work you do to pay the bills. Often, it’s your studies.

Why am I eligible for more Centrelink money as an unemployed person than a full-time student? Why are we considered adults at 18-years-old, but not independent until 22? Why do so many of us, who want an education and a career, need to sleep in our cars or on couches just to make that possible?

I’ve contacted many government officials in search of answers, and I’m yet to receive a reply.

Young people are the future of Australia, but we’re not even worthy of a response.

—This article is an adaptation of a piece that originally appeared in Edition 28 of Verse Magazine on June 4, 2019. 

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