Model and influencer Ellie Gonsalves lives a pretty glamorous life.
From the age of thirteen, the Brisbane local has worked with some of the world’s most famous fashion brands and while her lavish life has seen her go on many adventures, her most recent project, “sleeping rough” on SBS docuseries Filthy Rich and Homeless, was more life-changing than she could ever imagine.
The series follows five high-profile Australians who swap their privileged lives to discover what life is like for the nation’s 116,000 homeless people.
“I think we all realised, those who have taken part in the series, that we are just an avenue to get the message out to the masses,” Gonsalves said in an interview with TheLatch—. “It is not about us.
“It is not about our story so much. It is about everybody else’s story who are living in this dark, kind of void.”
For Gonsalves, this conversation surrounding the series has felt “urgent”.
“If people want to see me sleeping on a bed covered in cockroaches than that’s what I do because it’s a really important message. Being a woman raised in Australia, I was conditioned to always avoid dangerous situations with dangerous people but this isn’t the case for our homeless community.”
Here, she talks to TheLatch— about sleeping rough, meeting inspirational people who live on the streets and educating herself on a not-so often spoken about nation-wide crisis.
Anita Lyons: Hi Ellie, you handled your experience on Filthy Rich and Homeless brilliantly. As viewers will see, you were dropped 100 km south of Sydney in the rain and with little knowledge of where you were. What was going through your mind?
Ellie Gonsalves: I didn’t know Sydney very well, either, so when I was driving like an hour out I thought, “Where are they taking me? Like this is insane”.
I was dropped out at a harbour and I was literally just thinking, “Okay. So, now I need to find somewhere I can eat and somewhere I can set up for the night”, and just get aware of my surroundings.
I had no idea what I was doing and I had to admit I was scared. What would the next two days be like? But you know what? That is a reality for a lot of people.
Sometimes, people have only minutes to grab a few things because they’re running away from a certain situation at home or whatever it is. A lot of people are put in a position where they have not really been given time to think about what the next step is.
I got really lucky because I felt comfortable enough to ask for help from people because of the privileged situation that I have come from. I am not already at my breaking point. I am not down and out. I was just facing a bit of a change and I am trying to deal with it the best way that is possible.
A lot of people who are in that situation do not feel like they can ask, and they do not feel like they are going to be given anything.
“I had no idea what I was doing and I have to admit I was scared.”
AL: How did you find sleeping at night?
EG: Ut was really scary. I mean, the first couple of nights, I don’t think I really slept because of every sound — and apart from the fact that it was freezing cold — every single sound I was thinking, “Is it the police telling me to move? Or is it someone who is coming to harm me? Or someone trying to come and steal my things?”.
I was in an unfamiliar place. I did not know what was going to happen to me.
Christian, the manager of the Goodwill store, who gave me my tent told me a statistic that about 99.5% of women who are sleeping rough get sexually assaulted, and that was going through my head when I am trying to go to sleep.
AL: What did you do during the day and how did people treat you on the street?
EG: I tried to keep myself busy. But as much as I did that, I still found myself sitting alone and not really knowing what to do. It is just very confronting because I didn’t know this was such a huge problem with Australia.
It was a really big wakeup call to me and then there was the fact that people treated me like I was less than because of how I was dressed and the big bags that I carried. People would genuinely believe me because they saw me coming with this big bag. They either thought that I was dangerous or they just didn’t want want to face me. I would ask them for something and they would avert their eyes, they did not have to ignore me.
I mean, it really was just very confronting to have that transformation going from who I am in everyday life and being in front of a camera and having all these people around me, always feeling safe to just being on the street, in the rain, in the cold, with a sleeping bag and one pair of clothes and that is pretty much it.
AL: You did come face-to-face with some generous people, like the woman who gave you a toothbrush.
EG: There were a lot of people who actually were kind enough to help me out with a blanket, a toothbrush and toothpaste and others who would simply give me some money.
A lot of women got really emotional at the fact that I was temporarily sleeping rough and they just could not understand why.
I think it is a very hidden problem in Australia, homelessness. I think I represented that person in the situation of people just thinking that I was a tourist, or I am backpacking or whatever and so it was very emotionally hard-hitting for a lot of people who I asked for help.
AL: How important is it for our country to have places like the Goodwill Café so that homeless people can be given food and comfort?
EG: Well, I ended up getting there and they were closed and a guy came out and he was like: “You hungry?” and I said, “Yes, I am.” He ended up letting me in even though they were closed and I was able to sit down with him and talk to him about homelessness in the community and different organisations.
It gave me a little bit more faith in people. I think that it just goes to show that there are a lot more people out there who are willing to help.
AL: During the course of the series, you go into a crisis centre. How did experiencing it for yourself change your perspective?
EG: I have never been a victim of domestic violence myself, so I went in not knowing how I could relate to these women or talk about what they were going through.
I came out realising that I was a lot more affected by it through my family than what I had initially thought of going in. I always thought domestic violence was just physical but it’s mental, too. I don’t think a lot of people realise this and I was definitely better educated after.
Being in those places and understanding other people’s situations and what put them there and how they are waiting for housing, it was just so mind-boggling to me. Some of them are waiting 10 to 20 months until they have permanent housing.
I do not see how that is right. I do not see how that is something that people are waiting for in our country. We have such a beautiful country, and this is such a hidden problem that nobody knows about and until you are in that situation, you can’t understand it.
AL: You were paired up with a buddy throughout the experiment, how did she change your life?
EG: We got along so well. We connected from the moment that we met and that was just such a life-changing experience for me to see her in a day-to-day situation. I couldn’t believe how much she had been abused and assaulted in everyday life — she gets grabbed by people who are walking past her, and we actually got that on camera.
These are behaviours from everyday working-class people.
AL: When it comes to mental health, the show brought up the fact that “mental disorders are often caused by homelessness”. From your experience, why do you think this is?
EG: 90 per cent of people who have become homeless have already gone through a very traumatic experience. I mean, you are lucky if you are going into homelessness without mental health issues already.
I found just from the way that I was living, the way that I was just constantly ignored by people and made to feel invisible, day-to-day, it just made me so completely beaten down and flattened mentally.
Think about how much interaction you have with people in your everyday life. You have access to social media, you have the bed that you are sleeping, you have security and safety and a toilet that you have access to. Just imagine having those little things taken away that a lot of us take for granted every day — and I am including myself in that.
AL: What was it like going back into “normal” life?
EG: Just going back into my normal everyday life, it was a shock — and that was only after 10 days.
I had panic attacks when I was at my gym that I go to. I had to go and sit down because it was so overwhelming for me. I got home and could not even sleep the first night that I got into my bed. I was just waking up to every single sound. My body still thought it was in survival mode. It took me a good two weeks to really feel like I was back feeling myself.
AL: What other key things did you learn about homelessness in Australia and which issues need to be addressed?
EG: I think, at the end of the day, the solution to this is more housing.
We had such a housing crisis in Australia. And it is more prevalent now than ever because of COVID as well. The last census showed that 150,000 people were out of work. So you can imagine after the implications of COVID what affects that had in our country. A lot more people are going to be experiencing homelessness.
We need more mental health facilities available to people who are sleeping rough. We need more domestic violence crisis centres and accommodation available to women and I think day-to-day, what we can all do as individuals do not ignore people who are in these situations.
It’s all just about becoming a little bit more educated about it and understanding the contributing factor towards homelessness.
There are a lot of circumstances that put people in this situation, whether it is domestic violence, sexual violence, people who are unaccepted in the LGBTQI+ community — there is a lot of trans-people who are running away from their families who do not support them.
AL: My final question is about you. What did you learn about yourself during this program?
EG: I learned that I could do a lot more, that I can be more educated. I know that I definitely went into this as somebody who was uneducated in regards to homelessness in our country, but I left with so much more empathy and understanding of this situation.
I have definitely been inspired to do my part towards shining a light on these situations and doing what I can, where I can.
It is something that just really, truly touched me.
Filthy Rich & Homeless premieres June 9 – 11 at 8:30 pm on SBS.