Having a home one of the most basic human needs. We talk about housing or shelter as a human right – as we should. But that is not what we want. Not just the bricks and mortar but the sense of place and belonging. It’s why homeless people gather. Sure there’s safety in numbers when sleeping rough but we need each other and want to be together with others.
Yet these days we – and our governments – are increasingly failing each other. More people than ever sleep rough, in train station tunnels, in parks and cars, on beaches if they can. Australians are doing this right now, this week, in our cities and regions. Over 120,000 Australians – the population of Darwin are in this needless hell. In our outer suburbs and country towns. Homelessness used to be rare but now we are close to it being a new normal. A very wrong kind of normal.
I’ve lived most of my life in Sydney. I’m used to seeing sleepers under the Eastern Suburbs railway as it cuts through Woolloomooloo. The Matthew Talbot hostel nearby has never managed to satisfy the demand and things are particularly crook these days as the numbers of homeless in the area is rising. A few blokes used to sleep at the back of Bondi Pavilion but the other week there seemed to be a new, bigger community down there. At St. James station you never saw homeless folk but the tunnel leading up to the NSW Supreme Court has had a makeshift village of doonas and blankets for the last 3 years.
These days I run Barefoot Law, a community legal clinic in Mullumbimby near Byron Bay, a town that now has the most expensive real estate in the country now with a median house price of $987,500. In the dress circle of Wategos Beach or Montecollum you find some of the more magnificent and expensive pads in Australia with extraordinary views over the Pacific. Yet down the road, we have a serious problem with housing affordability, rental stress and homelessness. For me homelessness is not abstract, I see it every week with our clients, many of whom have mental health challenges, little or no work, in lives torn about by on-going domestic violence. So many of them have no home.
There’s a chronic need for emergency housing for women escaping domestic violence. Jodie, (not her real name) was in a violent relationship so she would sleep in the scrub behind Brunswick Heads beach when her boyfriend beat her. She would go back to him – because he had a home and she loved him, so she said. They took turns to put AVOs on each other. One night, both drunk, Jodie had a go at her bloke then he broke her wrist. The cops were called and they charged Jodie – arguing she’d breached her AVO by being drunk in the presence of her man! Not having a home or ready access to a refuge put Jodie in a violent and dangerous situation. We managed to minimise the impact of the law on her but Jodie’s search for a home continues.
Another client Bill sleeps in his van in a car park on an isolated road. He has bipolar disorder and struggles to keep a job or a spot in a share house going. He often smokes pot to manage his anxiety but ends up getting into minor scrapes around town. Nothing major but enough to see Bill in the local court and having regular run-ins with the cops. We got him back to the mental health team at the hospital who delivered proper treatment, and we helped keep him out of jail. But the fundamental problem that Bill still didn’t have anywhere stable to live. In a competitive market for emergency accommodation, blokes can be a long way down the list. Bill still struggles and not having a home aggravates his condition.
Another client, Jenny, had a partner who burned their house down. Jenny went to jail for a bit and her partner eventually lost control over himself, leading to deep tragedy – a good family man who went bad. With three kids Jenny had to couch surf for months she was, relatively, one of the luckier ones. She had great friends and supporters to help her keep things together despite the tragedies in her life. But what kind of situation is that for Jenny’s kids to grow up in? What many of us don’t see is how quickly lives can unravel. Seeing these shattered lives up close has made me conscious of how close many of us are to the risks that can lead to homelessness. Jenny got a home but it took months even though hers was an extreme case of immediate need.
Homelessness is mainly about poverty but not always. We have thousands of traumatised veterans who come home to no home and there, reports are that a few thousand still lack a home. This one sliver of homelessness is, in itself, a national scandal that we should take far more seriously, especially if we can find tens of millions of dollars to redevelop our National War Memorial.
Homelessness should not be a new normal, just part of somebody else’s life. The solution is not more CEO sleepouts to raise awareness. It is the government taking an active role to build social and community housing. Our governments have sold off housing commission properties en masse and not replaced them. We have half-baked under funded band-aids for the homeless when need major surgery in the form of a sustainable commitment to more public housing is needed.
Over the last generation, well-known developers have grown rich from property as have so many regular Australian homeowners due to the housing boom. Yet all the while the ranks of the homeless in our streets and towns have swelled. There is something very wrong with this picture. It is a growing blight on our nation. Whoever is elected as the new government and must begin dealing this with urgency with assurances we will be lead us back to the old normal, when homelessness was rare and not the inevitable result of policy neglect, bad decision making that has and the poor use of our shared assets and resources.
Mark Swivel is a lawyer and author. He operates community-based legal clinic Barefoot Law in Mullumbimby. He is standing for the NSW Senate with The Together Party.