How can fashion help people out of homelessness? What is the intersection between fashion, confidence and opportunity? I sat down with Christine from Blessing Bags (over Zoom) to discuss these issues. For more information, links are available at the end of the interview.
(Left to right) Christine, Blessing Bags Policy and Research Coordinator and Hayley, Blessing Bags Director
Fashion can often feel a bit ‘other’ to the average person, myself included. It’s exclusive, it’s runways, it’s glossy magazines. But at the end of the day, fashion is everywhere. It is one of the essential things we need to survive along with food and shelter. It’s the jacket that gets you through winter, it’s the uniform you wear to work, it’s the way you present yourself to the world. Even if you claim to be disinterested in fashion and situate yourself outside of it, you made a choice when you bought your last t-shirt. You spent your money on a design (or lack thereof). You funded designers, retailers, manufacturers, farmers, couriers, advertisers and models, and you wear that decision each time you decide to put the t-shirt on. The same goes for the working world. Your clothing indicates your profession and wealth. When you see someone walking down the street in a tailored suit, you already know that they’re probably not in the business of manual labour. Just as fluorescent vests and steel-cap boots imply the opposite. Whether you want to be or not, you’re part of the industry, and the clothes you wear say something about you. It’s no wonder people fret over what to wear to first dates or job interviews. But what about those people who don’t have a wardrobe full of different clothing for different occasions? What if their circumstances limit their ability to dress confidently for an interview? What if they don’t have any clothes appropriate for an interview in the first place?
There are more the 22,500 homeless people in Victoria alone according to the Melbourne-based NGO Blessing Bags. Blessing Bags is a volunteer-run organisation that provide bags of everyday essentials to those in need. I sat down with my dear friend Christine (Blessing Bags Policy and Research Coordinator) over Zoom to discuss these issues.
Kate: First of all, for those who don't have the privilege of knowing you like I do, tell me a bit about yourself.
Christine: I am a public policy professional and I have quite a bit of experience in the NGO sector. I’ve worked with a range of organisations since completing my Bachelor Degree in International Development Studies from ACU [Australian Catholic University] in 2017. I thought there was a real opportunity to solve a lot of public issues through public policy, so I completed my Masters in Public Policy and Management at Melbourne [University] in 2019. I currently work for an NGO which empowers Indigenous girls and young women who live in remote Australia, and I also work in a volunteer capacity as the Policy and Research Coordinator for Blessing Bags Melbourne.
K: Can you give us an overview of what homelessness looks like where we’re from in Melbourne?
C: It’s quite complex, but I guess the main thing is that the biggest forms of homelessness are quite invisible. When most people talk about homelessness, they normally picture people who sleep rough, but those people actually only make up 5 per cent of the homeless population in Melbourne, and Australia-wide it’s 7 per cent, so that’s actually not a lot of people at all. The most common form of homelessness in Melbourne, and in Australia, is overcrowding in dwellings. So if you’re living in a family of four, and you’re living in a one bedroom apartment, that’s an overcrowded dwelling for obvious reasons; you can’t fully relax and ‘dwell’ in a one bedroom apartment with four people. That [form of housing] makes up 36 per cent of the population of people who experience homelessness. And I would also argue that the statistic could be bigger when you add in family violence and domestic violence; especially because it’s quite underreported.
Moving onto causes, I think there is a big misconception. A lot of people say it’s drug and alcohol abuse, and mental health issues that cause homelessness. I’d argue that these are pre-existing conditions which are exacerbated by people who experience homelessness and financial hardship. The most common cause is actually housing affordability. There’s a growing number of people who are in housing or rental stress – that’s when you’re putting more than 30 per cent of your income just towards your mortgage or rent. Another side of ‘not enough housing’ is actual housing stock. There’s just not enough social housing (which is an umbrella term for public housing and community housing). So public housing is where [the house] is completely run, owned and operated by the state; and then community housing is run and operated either by the state or an NGO, or completely by an NGO or a mix. [It also includes] affordable housing which is where your rent is subsidised so you can actually afford to meet your rent. So there’s actually not enough housing stock in Melbourne. Currently we have about 100,000 people who are on the public housing waiting list in Victoria, and that’s grown from roughly 80,000 people in 2018, so it’s getting worse.
K: Do you think that COVID-19 will exacerbate that?
C: Yes. I think so. I think as well, there a lot of people who don’t know that they’re in housing stress or rental stress and [they] could be tipped off the edge with the implications of COVID. The lethal combination is that we’re getting rid of social housing in Victoria as well, so there’s this thing called the public housing renewal program, which is essentially a privatisation program. The Victorian Government are selling off public housing stock to private developers under the guise of ‘renewal’. Tenants are being evicted during a global pandemic, and we’ll never get that public housing stock back. So while the demand for public housing is growing, there’s less of it now.
And then, the last point I’ll make is that the fastest growing population of people experiencing homelessness in Melbourne and Australia are older women. It’s really spiked and it’s [due to] a combination of things, but it coincides with reduced home ownership and people going into retirement in the private rental market, while also experiencing financial hardship. So say you’re renting, and all of a sudden you have to go to hospital. That’s already a big chunk of money out, and all of a sudden you can’t pay your rent anymore and you get evicted. The other side of that is the gendered [superannuation] gap. It’s around 47 per cent.
So that’s what it looks like. We’re in a homelessness crisis at the moment, but that’s because of the housing crisis that we’re in. And it’s very scary to think what that will look like post-COVID with more people losing their jobs.
K: That’s true. Yeah that’s scary. I guess what I am getting at with fashion is one the big things it can do, which is boost people’s confidence. For things like making a first impression and going to a job interview and that kind of thing, presenting well is part of the process. So for somebody who doesn’t have the ability to go shopping and pick whatever they want for their interview, how can things like Blessing Bags or other charities help people overcome that barrier? It seems really trivial and materialistic but it is really important.
C: Well it is really important. I think it definitely has a role to play. And it’s not even just shopping, it’s also the luxury of being able to wash and store your clothes so they don’t get damaged.
K: There’s a pop-up laundry isn’t there, that’s run out of a van?
C: Yeah they’re called Orange Sky. The founders [Lucas Patchett and Nic Marchesi] received the Young Australian of the Year Award. They’ve done great stuff. They’re a mobile laundry service for people who experience homelessness.
But I think fashion plays a really interesting role because it’s about making a first impression as you said, but also, we either consciously or subconsciously judge people (and I know I’m guilty of it) by how they look. [Someone’s] appearance and what they’re wearing are quite important for how we perceive them. Say you’re going to a job interview or meeting new people, what you wear is quite imperative for what people first think of you, and if they’re going to give you any attention.
K: Yeah even going to a bank and asking for a loan and that kind of thing too.
C: Exactly. It’s quite important. But it’s also plays into this bigger idea, which is that having a home, not just any home but a place where you can be safe and free to relax and dwell, is a springboard for everything else in your life. So when you’re applying for a job for example, having a shower and being able to rest properly…
K: And I suppose a lot of applications are done online now too so if you don’t have power and internet access…
C: Yeah access to the internet and all these things. Even like you said, not even being able to shop for clothes that are presentable for a job interview. There is a charity called Dress for Success and some others that basically hire out clothes to people going to a job interview. You can go to services that will connect you to an employer or hiring agency, but even if you’re a little bit smelly, people will be like ‘I don’t want this person’. Also… away from the superficial level, being able to dress properly for winter, especially for people [sleeping rough], a cold winter night without a woollen jacket or a proper jumper or anything…
K: Even a beanie and socks, they’re so important.
C: Yeah, it’s detrimental to your health. Especially now we’re moving into winter in a global pandemic. It’s very easy to catch the flu or other health conditions.
K: Not to mention mental health.
C: Mental health. Everything. It’s really important. I think fashion has a complex but important role – and [I mean] fashion in the sense of adequate clothing, not necessarily style – can play a role in lifting people out of homelessness.
I want to emphasise that fashion is important for health reasons, and hygiene. And I think as well, because they overlap, a lot of things overlap when you’re talking about homelessness as an issue. We [Blessing Bags] actually published an article about this; about the cycle between criminalisation and homelessness and how it’s really hard to break [it]. And a lot of that is it do with stigma, which again, can come from something as simple as appearance and what people are wearing. It’s very interconnected a lot of the time.
K: Can you send me a link for that?
K: So let’s go back to Blessing Bags. Do you want to tell me about them and what they do? And what you do for them as well.
C: Sure, so Blessing Bags is a volunteer-run organisation and we help people who experience homelessness through two arms. We have the program delivery arm, and the policy/advocacy/research arm. Program delivery is the main part of our organization. We provide bags of essentials to people who experience homelessness. The bags contain a toothbrush and toothpaste, shampoo and conditioner, we add in socks in winter, and sunscreen in summer, a razor and sanitary products for women, a muesli bar and an uplifting note which is always personalised and sometimes done by high school students or primary school students, and other volunteers. We have bagging days where volunteers from the local community come together and make the bags, and then we have distribution days where we go either to the CBD or other parts of inner Melbourne and predominantly give bags to people who are sleeping rough. That part of our organisation has changed quite a lot in recent years though because there’s been an increase [in] police moving on people [who are] on the streets in Melbourne. It used to be a really nice thing where we’d do distribution days every three months, and we’d see the same people and we’d be able to build that connection and be able to have really nice conversations with [them]. But we just don’t have that anymore, which is quite sad.
K: Is that [police action] for the sake of appearances?
C: Yeah. The biggest controversy was a couple of years ago for the Australian Open when they did it. It was around 2017; there was a really big push by police to basically just tell homeless people to go to other areas, which doesn’t really do anything.
K: Yeah where would you like them to go exactly?
C: Exactly. So we have [the distribution days] and then we also deliver bags indirectly through our community partners who are mainly service providers or crisis accommodation centres. So that’s the program delivery part.
The policy/advocacy part is led by me. We focus on finding evidence-based policy solutions to tackle the root causes of homelessness, and [educating] our supporters and volunteers about these causes [and] issues, and what the solutions are based on, through rigorous evidence and research. We do this through regular blog updates on our website, I also write the monthly newsletter and we send those out to our key supporters, and we also write submissions to government inquiries. There’s just been the Victorian Inquiry into homelessness which we submitted our first submission to. In the future we’re hoping to publish more of our in-depth research and policy briefs as well. It’s all about education and being vocal about the solutions we think are best to tackle homelessness.
K: Are there ways people can get involved or donate?
C: Yes definitely. We’ve got a GoFundMe page which people can donate money to if they like, if people want to donate any of the items I mentioned which go into the bags, we’ve got drop-off points mainly towards the peninsula side of Melbourne, but we’ve got a few closer to the CBD too. Or we will come and pick them up. But if you’ve got anything you want to donate, message us on Facebook, or you can send us an email at email@example.com. If you want to stay updated I’ll give a link to the newsletter as well. And we are also a finalist in the Victorian Young Achiever of the Year Awards, which is quite exciting. So that would be great because we would be able to get a small but significant grant, we’re also in the running for the People’s Choice Award.
K: Is Blessing Bags run mostly by young people? C: Yeah, we’re all under 30. Most of us are around 23-25 years old, and it’s all in a volunteer capacity. I have my full time day job, one of our social media managers is a nurse, so she’s quite busy at the moment. Our director is a lawyer. We’ve got lots of different skillsets in our organisation which really nice.
But the Peoples’ Choice Award is quite cool because it’s a really weird prize, it’s two nights accommodation, but we’re going to be raffling it off for our supporters if we get it. We’d love to be able to give back, so follow the link and you can vote. And you can vote once a day – which I’ve been doing!
[Links for voting on the award are at the bottom of the page]
K: Any final words?
C: Yeah I guess I just wanted tap into the current climate we’re in and say that the safest place to be right now is in your home. There are lots of people who don’t have a home, and there are lots of people who do have a home, but it’s not safe. It may be overcrowded, or it may be a place where they’re experiencing domestic violence or abuse. So I think while there’s a lot of people who are under financial hardship, and there a lot of people who are coming out on the other side of this who may be facing homelessness for the first time, or [be] under financial stress, to be able to give in any capacity you can – whether that’s sharing a link of Facebook, or donating $5 somewhere, or picking up an extra toothbrush on your shop and sending it our way – it really does go a long way. And thanks for having me!
K: You are most welcome, thank you!
 Industry Super, 2020 ‘Closing the Gender Superannuation Gap: Women are retiring with nearly 47% less super than men’, viewed 15 May 2020, retrieved from: https://www.industrysuper.com/campaigns/closing-the-gender-superannuation-gap/
Blessing Bags website: https://www.blessingbagsmelbourne.com
Peoples’ Choice Award: https://awardsaustralia.app.do/vicyaa20
GoFundMe Page: https://www.gofundme.com/f/blessing-bagsxx
Orange Sky: https://orangesky.org.au
Dress for Success: https://dressforsuccess.org
CONTACT BLESSING BAGS
Blessing Bags Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/BlessingBagsxx/