what living on the streets taught me about human connection

what living on the streets taught me about human connection

Social media influencer, actress and model Ellie Gonsalves lived on the streets for 10 days to experience homelessness as a part of SBS’ Filthy Rich & Homeless television project. The lessons she learnt are powerful ones for us all.

Ellie Gonsalves is a super-glam model and social-media influencer. Her Instagram profile is chock-full of glossy pics of her wearing amazing outfits in bucketlist locations. Many of those pics are of her in a bikini, because she is the best advert for her The Body by Ellie body-transformation program. Her Insta feed is what many of her 1.3 million followers aspire to…

But as we are well aware, there’s a whole lot more to people than a carefully curated social media profile. And Ellie is no different, because behind the ‘body’ is years of hard work and behind the smile is a person who has suffered tragedy that has taken a lot of strength to move beyond.

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Still, Ellie is aware of her privilege and wants to share more than just perfect pictures and health and fitness tips with her near five million social-media fans. Which is why she signed up to SBS’ Filthy Rich & Homeless project, where she and four other high-profile Aussies (including Healthy-ish podcast host Dr Andrew Rochford) swapped their lavish lifestyles for 10 days on the streets.

The most recent census put Australia’s homeless population at more than 116,000. It’s too soon to know what impact the coronavirus crisis will have on these numbers, but there’s no doubt it will be significant as unemployment numbers climb and people’s mental health is impacted. So this message has never been more important.

Ellie spoke to body+soul about her eye-opening and life-changing experience…

What would you say to those who question that your being homeless for just 10 days gave you the ‘full’ impact of what it’s like to be homeless?

I’m really glad you asked that question as some sceptics have already pointed out that the five of us are just visitors in a real and horrific reality, given we are only living through this for 10 days then get to return to our privileged lives and real homeless people don’t. But it isn’t about our own short story of homelessness – it’s about people who are genuinely sleeping rough, their stories and how inadequate our current solutions are to this issue in the hopes of bringing some positive change towards it.

Of course, we’re not going to have the full impact of homelessness on our shoulders after only going through it for 10 days, but we do connect with those that do and share their stories. Everyone who has taken part in this series realises that they are an avenue to get the message out to the masses and that’s part of the reasoning behind wanting to be involved. If it starts an urgent conversation and shines a spotlight on something so widespread, I’m here for it. This is an important message and conversation we as a community need to have.

What was your mental state like going into the experiment, and how did it evolve throughout and after?

My mental state going in was strong and healthy. I’ve worked very hard over the years to overcome many challenges. Coming out, I felt broken and so impacted by all of the stories I heard, I had to look within myself through the experience and ask myself some really honest questions that I feel I’ve ignored when it comes to a problem like this.

I didn’t actually have much time to prepare for this experience, I spoke to a councillor a few times but that was really all I did. There’s not much I felt I could do to prepare for something like this. I also just wanted it to be a genuine shock for me because that is the reality for many faced with this problem; they don’t get the luxury of preparing for homelessness so I thought, why should I?

You could have all the survival training in the world, but that does not change the fact that when you’re in that situation you’re ignored every single day, you’re alone, go without money, shelter, food, support, communication and, as I found out, even things as simple as eye contact and a smile. Basic human contact is something we all need.

To my surprise, mentally, getting back into day-to-day life after the show was difficult. I found it extremely hard to sleep and general interaction was hard after being isolated for 10 days. I just felt completely beaten down and flat mentally. Hearing people’s struggles and their stories, all the while only being able to observe, was difficult for me, too.

It took me about a week or two to fully adjust back. I spoke to a counsellor and it really helped me process my emotions – it made me see just how hard if not impossible it would be for people who are homeless, even just for a short time, to recover from something like this.

What did you discover about the mental health challenges that homeless people face?

I had to become very vigilant and be smart about my safety more so than ever. I had to find somewhere safe to sleep that was also close enough to somewhere I could find food and use a bathroom (that didn’t always work out as I had hoped). I tried to have a routine while I was on the street and collect as many supplies as I could, but I just wanted to keep moving, because I knew if I stopped and dwelled I would struggle mentally.

I think I hit my real breaking point when I was put in a boarding house with nine men. My outhouse bathroom windows were smashed, my toilet door did not lock or close, and then I had cockroaches crawling on me in my sleep. As a woman, being put in those situations was incredibly confronting and scary. There are not nearly enough solutions in place to help people get back on their feet or even give them somewhere safe to live, especially if they’re running from domestic or sexual violence.

You were already a mental health advocate. Did the show change or affect this?

The goal has always been the same for me in that mental health is discussed and normalised so there’s no longer a stigma attached. Poor mental health is a problem that’s so widespread, especially for men, which may lead to many committing suicide or becoming homeless.

This experience has definitely educated me that much more when it comes to others who are going through similar or completely different things. It’s important to me to be able to see that other side so I can better advocate for others.

It must’ve had quite an impact on you physically, too…?

The experiment starts by having your belongings (phone, ID, money and clothes) taken away. You’re then given some second-hand clothes to wear, a sleeping bag and put on the streets. It was one of the hardest experiences I have ever done in my life. I was covered in bruises from sleeping on the ground and I barely showered.

Unluckily, I also started my period on the first day of filming (I was devastated, because I deal with the worst cramps at times and would obviously be needing sanitary items, and so on), but my period stopped after a day because of how nervous I was and the stress I was under. The doctors explained that my body went into survival mode and so shut down all unnecessary functions.

Your Body by Ellie program is a big part of your life. Did the experiment change how you viewed exercise and healthy food?

I tried to stay active during the experience because that’s what I know makes me feel better, I felt it helped keep up morale for that short amount of time, but it definitely wasn’t sustainable.

I was walking a lot, but it was still incredibly difficult because I wasn’t eating enough and lacked energy. People who are in these situations don’t get to factor in fitness and eating healthy, because they’re just doing what they can to survive.

You have a big social-media following – what do you want your followers to learn from your experience?

I came in to this experience as someone who was uneducated and misled in regards to homelessness, I left with so much more empathy and understanding towards rough sleepers and have definitely been inspired to do my part when and where I can.

I wish everyone could have the experience I did. I just want people to have an insight into how easy it is for anyone to find themselves in this position. Homelessness is the hardest thing anyone can go through and the causes of it are many and varied.

I’ve never met people like [my assigned ‘homeless buddy’] Eden and the women at the domestic-violence shelter. Their stories of strength and courage were so shocking and inspirational at the same time. I have so much respect and admiration for them.

It’s easy to judge from a privileged position, but I encourage others to attempt to see it from a different perspective.

And don’t take the tiny things for granted such as having a safe place to sleep, access to a toilet and running water, privacy and a bed to sleep on.

There are many ways you can help with this crisis: respect the homeless as individuals, give them the same courtesy and respect you would your friends and family, donate money, clothing or groceries, volunteer with a homeless organisation in your area, or advocate for homeless people by helping groups in your community whose policy and initiatives support the goal of ending homelessness.

You can watch Filthy Rich & Homeless on SBS at 8.30pm.

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