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"You struggle together, you cry together." What it's really like living in public housing.

The wait list for public housing in Australia can be up to 10 years, a long time to wait for anybody, but particular for Australia’s most vulnerable.

People living in public housing are most likely to be over 65 and/or living with a disability, and a high proportion of residents have had experiences with domestic violence or homelessness.

Public housing is accommodation that’s owned and managed by a state or territory government and rented to low-income families at rates cheaper than the private market.

This week’s episode of ABC’s You Can’t Ask That introduced us to a group of Australians who, for a range of reasons, live in public housing.

There’s William and Catie, a father and daughter who lived in their own home, but were forced to move after William’s businesses failed and his mental health deteriorated.

There’s Molly, who lost her home after a car crash, and an autoimmune disease that attacked her injuries, left her in a wheelchair and unable to work. She’d lived in her children’s one bedroom flat for a bit afterwards, but she was unable to use a normal bathroom and would need to get a taxi to a pub down the road to use its accessible toilet. The health and safety issues meant her application for public housing was given priority.

“At the time [of being given her home] it was like winning Lotto,” she said. “It was just fantastic.”

And for many of them, like mother-of-three Kea, and Nickolas, who grew up in public housing after his mother fled a relationship, there was family violence and other issues that contributed.

The questions asked, as often is the case with You Can’t Ask That, showed the stigma attached to public housing and judgements society have about the people who need it.

The truth is, most of us are all just an unfortunate event or two away from needing this kind of support.

It’s not laziness.

“Truth is, there’s a lot of people in housing that have had a pretty hard life, or a fairly good life that turned sour for all various reasons,” explained Pierre, a Sydney-sider and pensioner whose chronic illness stopped him from working decades ago.

While some are hindered by illness, others, like mothers Becz and Marryanne work full time.

The stereotype that public housing residents spend all day drinking and using drugs is, in the words of Nickolas, “a crock of shit”, but each had harrowing experiences to share.

Pierre recalled finding ice users in his backyard, and when he told them to leave they said because it was public housing and not his private property, he could not ask them to move along.

“If anything, it does give you a sense of compassion because you’ve seen how hard it is for people,” he said.

you can't ask that public housing
Kea. Image: ABC.
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"The worst thing I think I've seen was a young couple fighting, and the male was beating the living shit out of her and nobody [did anything]. Not a thing," said Kea, a single mother-of-three.

Community.

Watching the episode, you sense a tremendous amount of empathy among the guests.

William said his "dominant experience" with neighbours was not drug dealers, ex-cons, prostitutes, or 'crazy people', as a question suggested.

"My dominant experience is actually 'normal people' who have lost basically everything and are really traumatised from the experience. They've got to live somewhere."

Molly echoed that sentiment: "They're just people. Everybody's got a story. They're just ordinary people renting, they're just renting from a government body, that's all."

Pierre said most of the people around him were "almost living separate to society".

"Most of the people are sort of going back into their own shells, if you know what I mean. Almost living separate from society, almost becoming like spectators or voyeurs to everyday life."

"We live in an economy anyway, not a society anymore," Molly said. "We don't live in a community, we live in an economy."

Which may explain the real sense of camaraderie among public housing residents.

"That's your 'low-income family', you know what I mean? You struggle together, you talk shit about the struggle together, you laugh, you cry together, it's a family," Nickolas said.

Marryanne explained just when you think you're "down and out", somebody will come out of nowhere to help.

If someone can't afford food, or is short on their rent that week, the community will rally to support them.

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"I'd be dead."

Public housing and other government supports are crucial.

Asked where they would be living if not for their government home, the guests offered a range of devastating alternatives ranging from on the street to dead.

you can't ask that public housing
Catie and William. Image: ABC.

"I'd be dead. I'd be ground to nothing, there was no way I could keep living without somewhere. You become invisible if you don't have a home," William said.

Marryanne said there would be nothing she wouldn't do to keep a roof over her children's heads: "[I'd] busk, if I had to, or sell myself, if I had to, to provide for my kids."

Money.

"I'd like more opportunities that money can provide," Molly responded when asked if she would like more cash. "But I'm pretty happy."

She stated that poverty was a hindrance not just to buying food or providing for yourself, but to getting out of that situation - because opportunities and solutions cost money, and when you're forced to decide between dinner and something that may help you further down the line, your rumbling stomach forces your hand.

There's no doubt money is tight, but more money wouldn't automatically equal happiness (although, dreaming of winning the Lotto is free).

University student Catie would like to "just feel stable enough and not stressed about money, to maybe have a place to have kids or travel more".

"I don't feel like the life that I want is too far off now," she said.

You Can’t Ask That airs at 9pm Wednesday nights on ABC and is available to stream on ABC iView.

Feature image: ABC.

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