“It’s a shitty day,” says Michael, standing in the rain. “I’ve got to bury Mum.”
Problem is, Michael doesn’t have any shoes to wear to her funeral. After years of vicious bullying at school – and trouble with his family – he fell into addiction and homelessness. Now, he’s in “transitional housing”: a flat in the Melbourne suburb of Seddon. He can’t afford light bulbs for each room, so he carries one with him, screwing it in as needed.
“It’s humiliating,” Michael says, pointing to his ratty outfit. When he lived on the streets, he buried his only suit in the ground to protect it. He was dismayed to find tree roots had punctured the plastic wrapping and shredded the fabric.
On days like this, exclusion from family cuts deep. In light of the text messages his relatives sent him, he doesn’t feel welcome at his own mother’s wake. “They’re right about me being dirty,” he says, “and about Mum being ashamed of me.”
A bus is his only means of getting to the funeral – but it never arrives. Under the glass shelter, he starts sobbing.
Michael’s story is one of several in the second season of Struggle Street, exclusively screened in full to Fairfax Media. This six-part SBS documentary series is nothing short of a masterpiece, truly deserving of the “essential viewing” tag. An unflinching look at poverty in , it will – it should – leave you angry.
The program has been a long time in the works, not least because local councils tried (and failed) to stop producers filming on their streets. Have we not learned anything since its debut in 2015?
Back then, a wave of pre-emptive outrage threatened to sink Struggle Street before it began. Never mind that those demanding its cancellation, or calling it “poverty porn”, hadn’t actually seen it. The real problem, according to a prematurely vexed commentariat, was the risk of “stigma”. Infuriated by its focus on Mt Druitt – a Sydney suburb with high unemployment and low average income – the mayor dispatched garbage trucks to wreak havoc outside SBS.
Since that time, we’ve seen countless “awareness raising” attempts to reduce “stigma” towards vulnerable people. We’ve also seen a new report from the n Council of Social Services. It shows that almost 3 million people live below the poverty line in this country – up from 2.5 million a few years ago.
Whatever we’re doing isn’t working. Despite our well-meaning attempts at eliminating prejudice, the ranks of our poor have swollen. By half a million. Why aren’t we marching in the streets about this?
Interestingly, the people in Struggle Street do not appear to be silenced by “stigma”. Consider Allan, who has no qualms in revealing his diagnosis of schizophrenia, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder. He’s not asking for tolerance. He’s just wants some medicine.
In a heartbreaking scene, Allan tries to collect his pills from a pharmacy. An assistant tells him his subsidy has been cut and he must pay full-price. He can’t afford this, so he leaves empty-handed.
It seems the government slashed his healthcare benefits after approving a $5,000 small business loan. Yet Allan is hardly rolling in cash. He already spent the money on some tools and an ancient ute, intending to start a landscaping business. Of course, he can’t work if he gets sick. And if he doesn’t repay his debt, the sherriff will seize his car.
Seriously. Our authorities may confiscate the very thing he needs to support himself, while also cutting off his schizophrenia medication. Well done, .
I wonder how Allan feels when he sees federal politicians complain of bureaucratic brutality – but only when affects them?
As Struggle Street proves, Allan’s predicament has nothing to do with poor morals or a lack of self-belief. No doubt he’d appreciate people being nicer, but “stigma” isn’t holding him back, either. Like everyone else in this series, he’s a victim of failed social and economic policy.
When we watch programs like The Briefcase – and thankfully, few did – we see producers intervene to rescue telegenic families in crisis. This creates a satisfying emotional conclusion, and a false sense of progress. “If we could all just be kinder,” we think, “the world would be a better place.” In reality, only a small number of people were helped. Millions more continue to languish in poverty and ill health.
There is no single cause of Allan’s woes; he is buffeted by a series of growing problems. Unaffordable housing and expensive rents, for instance. Insecure work (his wife has a factory job, but her shifts are irregular). Mental illness (he can’t afford medication, let alone a reduced number of subsidised therapy sessions). Predatory lending (in desperation, he used high-interest “payday loans”, causing his debt to hit $35,000.)
“We’re told that if we work hard and live within our means, we’ll get on,” the narrator tells us. “But that doesn’t apply to everyone.”
If you think these problems aren’t your problems, you might be in for a shock. The people in Struggle Street are angry. Few blame themselves; many see growing inequality as the root cause of their hardship. “The rich are getting rich and the poor are getting poorer,” says one woman. She’s standing in a queue, waiting to vote in the 2016 federal election.
Until recently, she had little interest in politics. Now, she’s determined to have her say.
WHAT: Struggle Street WHEN: Starts Tuesday November 28, 8.30pm on SBS
Twitter: @Michael_Lallo Email: [email protected]老域名购买.au