VULNERABLE: Ben Law spent 10 days living homeless, forced to scavenge for food, for the TV series Filthy Rich & Homeless and says it opened his eyes to the crisis.
VULNERABLE: Ben Law spent 10 days living homeless, forced to scavenge for food, for the TV series Filthy Rich & Homeless and says it opened his eyes to the crisis. Mark Rogers

Ben's homeless reality no TV stunt

GROWING up as one of five children in Nambour, on the Sunshine Coast, Ben Law's childhood was busy, chaotic and full of love.

He shared a room with his older brother and didn't always get a lot of privacy. There were the usual growing pains, plus he was a double minority as the gay son of Chinese immigrants. But at least he always had a roof over his head and food on the table.

The author and journalist, best known for the TV series The Family Law based on his memoir of the same name, now fully appreciates the privilege of his middle-class upbringing thanks to an immersive and confronting TV experience.

The 36-year-old volunteered to be homeless for 10 days for SBS's documentary series Filthy Rich & Homeless.

Alli Simpson, Benjamin Law, Cameron Daddo, Alex Greenwich and Skye Leckie will star in season two of the TV series Filthy Rich & Homeless. Supplied by SBS-TV.
Alli Simpson, Benjamin Law, Cameron Daddo, Alex Greenwich and Skye Leckie will star in season two of the TV series Filthy Rich & Homeless. Supplied by SBS-TV. MARK ROGERS

"For me as a writer the question wasn't why would I do this but why not? I live in the centre of Sydney, when I walk out the door every day there are obvious manifestations of homelessness I encounter every day," Ben says.

"As much as I am happy to give people money or whatever, I wanted to know if there's a more meaningful way of helping.

"There's such an aversion in Australia of talking about money and class. If you want to get real, I haven't had to worry about money for quite a few years in my life. It's rare people in my profession are able to say that, so yeah I'm absolutely privileged. I'm nowhere near the experiences of these people."

Now in its second season, the series asks prominent Australians to surrender their belongings - phones, ID, money and even their underwear - and hit the streets of Sydney to discover what life is like for the nation's homeless.

The participants prepare to hit the street in second-hand clothes and little more than a sleeping bag.
The participants prepare to hit the street in second-hand clothes and little more than a sleeping bag. SBS-TV

Ben says the series is not stunt TV. Rather, it shines a spotlight on what is a growing problem. The latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show 116,000 people have no place to call home.

"One of my main reservations about the concept of the show is if this technically a form of trauma tourism," he says. "And then you watch the show and you see how genuine those connections are.

"I've always had running water, a door to close and a bed to sleep on, and I've always had food in my stomach. You quickly realise how tenuous all of our grasps on those essentials are. As much as I want to say I'm very far from falling through the cracks, part of the educational experience of this is how quickly you can fall through those cracks."

For the first two nights, Ben was left on his own to rifle through rubbish bins for food and roam the streets in search of a safe place to sleep. Surprisingly, sleeping on a park bench wasn't the toughest part of Ben's experience on the show.

Ben Law goes 'dumpster diving' on Filthy Rich & Homeless.
Ben Law goes 'dumpster diving' on Filthy Rich & Homeless. SBS-TV

"Later in the series when we got to a boarding house and the all-male environment was intimidating being a gay guy," he says. "I did have reservations about going into them, but then I realised a lot of those men living that experience are feeling that vulnerability times 10 or 100.

"I went into this project quite cockily in retrospect. I thought 'I can do this'. I was treating it like a reality TV show. It really weighs you down quickly and we're only doing it 10 days. I've always had slightly low blood pressure my whole life. A nurse monitored us (during the experiment) and I had high blood pressure the entire shoot. My body was completely rejecting the experience, that constant stress of what's happening next."

The show forced Ben to identify and confront his own preconceptions about homelessness.

"I was coming in with what I assumed was a level of empathy about childhood abuse or family violence or disability or injury and how that can quickly change your fate or fortune, but what I was really shocked by was the men I encountered in crisis accommodation," he says.

"One man was a really well-off dad in Mosman (an affluent harbourside suburbup until recently, but through disability and injury, as well as other things, that was enough to see him on the streets for over a week before someone asked him if he was OK. He was so ill-equipped to navigate that situation. I assumed as an outsider that people sleeping rough are equipped for that situation."

He says there are many ways we can all make a difference to the homelessness crisis.

"On an every day level, you can volunteer your time or money; most of us have one of those things," he says.

"I've started donating a lot more money to organisations I know help. On a personal level, how we engage with homeless people can help. Then on another level is the conversation we need to be having on how governments are involved and where responsibilities are, and how we need to apply pressure to change."

Filthy Rich & Homeless airs Tuesday through Thursday at 8.30pm on SBS-TV.


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