The premise for director Sue Thomson’s most recent documentary, Under Cover, initially seemed impossible to her. “I saw a show on TV featuring three women who were kind of like myself – women in their 50s, who’d had incredible jobs, raised families, now had grown-up kids – and two of them were living in their cars. I was so blown away by that and I thought, ‘Hang on, that can't be happening in Australia.’”
It is, as Thomson’s research quickly showed: over 400,000 women in Australia are currently at risk of homelessness and women over the age of 50 are the fastest growing group in this country to be experiencing homelessness. Thus began Thomson’s journey to making Under Cover, a riveting documentary narrated by Margot Robbie and proudly supported by Quest Apartment Hotels, a major impact partner on the film. This October 26th, Quest is hosting a screening of Under Cover in Melbourne, featuring a panel of experts discussing the burgeoning crisis.
“These women are known as the ‘hidden homeless’, because they don’t identify as homeless,” says Thomson. “They’re resilient and proud. Many don’t tell their children, but they can’t afford to pay their rent or they’ve sold houses due to marriage breakdowns and they’re suffering quietly. They’ve tended to work in jobs like hospitality, teaching, nursing, childcare; it’s been intermittent work, allowing them to come in and out and have babies. And now they're 60, 70, 80 and many are living below the poverty line. When I started researching this, I realised it was a massive problem in this country.”
To make the documentary, Thomson filmed across NSW, Queensland, Victoria and the Northern Territory, and interviewed 17 women experiencing homelessness. Many were living in their vehicles and had never imagined finding themselves in this situation. When Thomson asked each of the women why they would be prepared to share their stories with the world, they all gave the same answer: "Because I don't want this to happen to any other woman."
“I really needed to do it to help get the message out there,” says Margaret, one of the women featured in the film. The documentary follows Margaret, who was living in her van while filming and described herself as “houseless, not homeless”, as she moves around the country. “There are so many women [experiencing this] and it's just not fair. How did I end up like I did when I did all the right things?,” she asks.
Housing All Australians, a partner of Quest’s, is just one organisation addressing the issue. A not-for-profit, HAA is committed to engaging the private sector to help address Australia’s housing crisis. “We believe this is our problem as a community, and the only way we're going to solve this is to collaborate together,” says founder Robert Pradolin, who will speak on the panel at Quest’s October 26 Under Cover screening. “Our ultimate aim is to create respectful unrest by sharing our knowledge with the community. Undercover is one element of showing the public what is truly happening on the ground, and the public will then make a decision on whether they like that or not.”
Since HAA was founded, it has worked to establish seven pop-up shelters across Victoria and WA – these shelters repurpose privately-owned properties that are vacant, often due to development delays, and fits them out so that they can be used for crisis accommodation; Quest donates furnishings for these fit-outs. But, says Pradolin, “the pop-up shelters are not a solution. They are a short-term response by the private sector to a crisis. And there are
thousands of buildings sitting empty that we can have as short-term shelters while we build the housing our country needs.”
“At first, I didn't know where to get help,” says Melbourne-based Susan, who also appears in the film. “I'd always had very well-paying jobs, been very successful. And then that all collapsed. I had no idea that I was even entitled to any resources, let alone what those resources would be. I had never imagined that I would be in a position where I would need help. This film challenges the perception of people who are homeless or who need these kinds of resources — it’s not who you think.”
“The message of this documentary, and the work of organisations such as Housing All Australians, are vital to our communities,” says David Mansfield, Managing Director of The Ascott Limited Australia (of which Quest Apartment Hotels is a member). “Looking after our communities is fundamental to Quest and our support of these initiatives is just one example of our commitment.”
“We need to get the message out there, to get people to take notice that this is a serious situation,” says Margaret.
“Homelessness can happen to anyone,” says Susan. “It doesn't matter how many degrees you have or what level of success you have. A few kinks in the road, and it could be you.”
To register for Quest’s October 26, 2023, Melbourne screening of Under Cover, click here.