People sleeping rough on the street made up just 6 per cent of homeless people in the region, a Wollongong forum on poverty was told yesterday.
Southern Youth and Family Services policy adviser Helen Backhouse said the broader community must stop thinking of people living in poverty as different from themselves.
Ms Backhouse said unfortunately, the person in poverty was often blamed for their situation.
"Poverty is tolerated [here]," she said.
"Quite unlike how we perceive poverty in Third World countries, there is a lot of blame put on the individual rather than the circumstances that have caused their poverty.
"[It] is real, it exists and it should not exist in Australia."
Ms Backhouse was speaking at an Anti-Poverty Week forum hosted by Wollongong Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery on the realities of poverty in the Illawarra.
Discussion from the forum panelists portrayed poverty as a downward spiral from which it could be difficult to escape.
Ms Backhouse said a lack of monetary support for people who were struggling also meant a lack of transport, job opportunities and health services available to them.
This in turn severely limited opportunities for such people to earn the money to raise themselves out of that very same poverty.
"You don't build people up by putting them down," she said. "We are keeping people in poverty for longer and longer."
The panel highlighted the need to give people living in such situations better access to services, resources and social stability.
The importance of providing education and skills, as well as support organisations partnering with job networks and the business community, were identified as critical in supporting those struggling in the "poverty trap".
Illawarra Business Chamber CEO Mike Leask recently took part in June's Wollongong CEO Sleepout. He was overcome with emotion when talking about the impact of the experience and said it was a privilege to see what others had to go through.
Pictured: Anti-poverty forum panel members (from left) Wollongong Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery, Warrawong Community Centre worker Maxyne Graham, Southern Youth and Family Services policy adviser Helen Backhouse and Illiwawarra Business Chamber CEO Mike Leask.Picture: KIRK GILMOUR