Is SBS’s new show turning homelessness into reality tv?

cast of new sbs show

SBS premieres its new program Filthy Rich and Homeless, but will it make the same mistake it did with Struggle Street?

Australia is in the midst of what could easily be called a homelessness crisis. On any given night, 1 in 200 Australians are homeless – that’s 105,237 people, or roughly 0.5 per cent of the national population. This issue is a hugely complex and often misunderstood one, and representations of homelessness in the media regularly fail to properly discuss the wide range of systemic social issues that drive its proliferation.

SBS’s latest show doesn’t look like it’s about to change that.

Filthy Rich and Homeless is a three-part series that follows five wealthy Australians over the course of ten days and nights as they swap their privileged lifestyles for the streets of Melbourne. These volunteers – a self-made millionaire, the daughter of a boxing champion, a beauty entrepreneur, a pub baron and a model/socialite – will spend some time living the way that Australia’s homeless do, with no money, no food and nowhere to go.

I must admit, I am incredibly sceptical about this show. Its trailer is not one that promises an in-depth exploration of the issue of homelessness and its causes, but rather a reality show that uses a serious and devastating problem as the premise for entertainment. Conversations with actual homeless people do not appear until the last moments of the trailer, and only after we have seen our fair share of sobbing celebrities calling their parents and struggling to cope after less than twenty-four hours on the streets. Several times, they even threaten to drop out when confronted with the harsh realities of living rough. This is really where the show’s premise all falls apart.

How can a program accurately represent “what it’s really like to be homeless” when its volunteers can go home whenever they want? If those living on our streets were afforded the same option, we wouldn’t have a problem.

Yes, it doesn’t seem that this show is so much about Australia’s homelessness crisis as it is about this privileged group of people looking for some screen time and a way to feel a bit better about themselves.

Filthy Rich and Homeless, the trailer tells us, aims to show homelessness “through the eyes of people brave enough to confront their privilege and prejudice.” As well as the fact that I think we’re throwing the word “brave” around pretty easily here, the idea that anyone would be able to fully understand the hardships of living as a homeless person after ten days and nights is ridiculous, and undermines the immense complexity of the issue. You only need to listen to the interviews with these five noble Australian heroes to get a glimpse into this kind of simplistic rhetoric.

“I would think to some of the homeless people it’s become a way of life, and sometimes when things become a way of life, it’s hard to change,” says third-generation pub baron Stu Laundy to camera, in a shot directly following the one of him sailing his yacht on Sydney Harbour.

“If I was homeless, every piece of money I made, I’d try and find a job, buy some nice clothes and do something to get myself off there,” says Kayla Fenech.

Yes, of course, once one gets used to the comfort of extreme hunger and sleeping on concrete in the freezing cold every night, it’s very difficult to give that kind of thing up. Homeless people just need to decide to make a change. Never mind that an overwhelming majority of homelessness cases are a direct result of being the victim of domestic violence, severe mental illness or psychological distress, intergenerational poverty or economic and social exclusion. Never mind that 17 per cent of homeless people in Australia are under the age of 12. These people really just need to try a bit harder.

SBS has been here before, too. In 2015, Struggle Street, a three-part documentary following the lives of nine residents of Mount Druitt in Sydney’s West, was slammed by Blacktown Mayor Stephen Bali and other critics as “public-funded poverty porn.” They argued the show misrepresented members of the community and fed extremely negative stereotypes surrounding the Mount Druitt area.

I am desperately hoping we’re not looking at another Struggle Street. I hope this trailer is simply designed to look like some sort of twisted version of Survivor in order to get some viewers on board with the show, and the series itself will take these misconceptions and break them down with accurate representation and a real and in-depth discussion of this extremely complex social problem.

I’m not confident, but I guess we’ll see.

Filthy Rich and Homeless is on SBS at tonight 8.30pm.

Feature Image: Cast of Filthy Rich & Homeless. Image: Screen Australia

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