Schools Tackling the big issues in the classroom

Phil*, a Big Issue vendor. (Photo: supplied)

A digital outreach program run by The Big Issue magazine connects school students to people with a lived experience of homelessness.

When Phil* was homeless and sleeping on park benches – and, at one point, even a traffic island – he’d never have guessed that one day he’d be sharing his insights with students across the state.

An incredible resource run by The Big Issue magazine – a fortnightly publication sold on the streets by homeless and disadvantaged people – The Big Issue Classroom does exactly that. It connects people with a lived experience of homelessness to school kids of all ages, helping them to understand the causes and effects through hour-long workshops.

While the COVID crisis put a temporary hold on the face-to-face iteration, state government funding ensured every public school in Victoria could access the digital version, eClassroom, for free in Terms 2 and 3. While it’s always been useful for reaching rural and remote schools, demand has surged these past few months.

While Phil now has his own place – after years of experiencing the instability of rough sleeping, temporary rooming houses and emergency accommodation – the extra income from his paid speaking gigs helps, but he says it offers him something much more valuable. “I enjoy it more for the fun. Personally, I don’t class it as work, I class it as a hobby.”

“It’s all about helping people to help themselves. The ‘Classroom’ teaches the students what homelessness is all about.”

The oldest in his family, Phil says he was a “ratbag kid” with a bad temper who often ran away from home. “I got in so much trouble with police and all that, causing problems here, there and everywhere.”

Ending up in foster care, he says his behavioural problems increased as he got older. “You know what teenagers are like – they can be painful sometimes, and I was painful.”

Falling through the cracks, he didn’t have access to Centrelink, but a six-year stay in a rooming house in Hawthorn helped him get back on track. “That was the best, because it was run by a charity that provided two meals a day, free wi-fi, community computers, tea and coffee, and I only shared a bathroom with one other person. The whole place was clean.”

Connecting with The Big Issue was another lifeline. “It’s all about helping people to help themselves,” he says. “The ‘Classroom’ teaches the students what homelessness is all about.”

Classroom values

On any given night, some 1,100 people sleep rough across Victoria. Many more live in tenuous circumstances. The Big Issue Classroom and eClassroom put a human face to the crisis. The resource is tailored to every grade and mapped to the Victorian curriculum.

AEU member Carlene Williams says her school, Northcote High, integrated it into their Year 9 City School program. “It’s one of the highlights of the program, with students actively engaging, particularly with the stories from The Big Issue sellers,” she says. “There have been tears – and not just from the teachers. We’re sometimes surprised by which students are moved.”

When the COVID pandemic hit, eClassroom was ideal, Carlene says. “As teachers who’ve been coping with remote learning, we were impressed at how the chat function and quizzes were used to help our students participate.”

It’s the personal stories, like Phil’s, that speak the loudest. “Our students meet some fantastic people who are so generous in sharing their lives,” Carlene says. “Teachers appreciate it, students appreciate it, and we also always get great parent feedback that their children are being taught those basic values of justice and fairness.”

The bigger picture

Sally Hines, The Big Issue’s former chief operating officer, is a passionate advocate for its Classroom and eClassroom, believing it’s more important now than ever.

“We anticipate that because of COVID we will see an increase in the number of people who are experiencing homelessness,” she says. “People who were previously employed, but maybe living paycheque to paycheque, are going to be in a really vulnerable position.”

Guest speakers cut through the abstract numbers to give a real insight into the lives of homeless people. “So, when you do see someone sleeping rough, or begging, you understand more about what might have led them to that,” Hines says.

Those pathways are complex, with Hines pointing to the recent broadcast of SBS show Filthy Rich and Homeless as another useful resource. “Journeys to homelessness often start in high school, which is the age at which a lot of students visit The Big Issue Classroom. People might start experimenting with drugs or alcohol or hanging out with the wrong people. There might be a family breakdown or domestic violence.”

‘We see the eClassroom as a way of building empathy, but also as an early intervention.’

Mental ill-health can be another trigger, Hines says. “Providing a roof over someone’s head can provide them with the opportunity to make all kinds of positive changes in their lives. There is heaps of research out there that once someone is housed, they are more likely to attend to their mental health challenges. They’re less likely to interact with the justice system.”

The Big Issue also champions Homes for Homes, which asks that 0.1% of any property sale be donated towards building social and affordable housing, a key plank in eradicating homelessness. While homelessness is more visible in cities like Melbourne, it exists everywhere, which is why eClassroom proves useful for rural schools.

“In country towns, homelessness is sometimes more hidden,” Hines says. “It might be people sleeping in cars, in camping grounds or down at the waterfront.”

The face-to-face time with guest speakers is invaluable, digital or not. “It’s a safe space to ask questions and really consider the issues. No subject is taboo,” Hines says.

The Victorian government’s boost to the program has been welcome. “We see the eClassroom as a way of building empathy, but also as an early intervention. By educating young people about what leads to becoming homeless, we hope that they make different decisions, or consider how they might support one another. If they see a friend who’s having a hard time, that they reach out to them rather than ignore them or pretend it’s not happening.”

The feedback from teachers is that it works. “The program increases students’ help-seeking behaviour, and their willingness to help others,” Hines says. “I guess that’s the ‘money can’t buy’ aspect. Anyone of us can get up and talk about statistics – but having someone who’s experienced homelessness talk to you and your students makes the message really clear. By working together, we can make our communities a better place.”

As Phil sees it, this is essential. “It gives me enjoyment seeing the expression on students’ faces, because it’s also teaching them they are lucky at the moment, but things could change at any time.”

* Name changed to protect privacy.

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