[Hpn] Our untouchables -- from down under

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Sun, 17 Dec 2000 16:06:58 -0700


Our untouchables
Sunday 17 December 2000


The man shouting this at me is breathless with anger, his face is flushed. I
won't tell you who he is, but I can tell you what he does. The man, I'll
call him Cedric, is the property manager of a large building in the CBD.

The problem, as Cedric sees it, is clear-cut. Sarah and Tim, both 18, have
been sleeping in one of the building's doorways a disused service entrance.
They have ³lived² there for two weeks without incident, but Cedric is
convinced that, since they are heroin users, they are dangerous undesirables
and must go. ³I don't care where they end up as long as they're not a
problem here.²

I meet Sarah and Tim and talk with them about housing options. They tell me
they'll sleep in the doorway until the cops make them leave. ³We can't
afford to pay rent until we get into detox and get off this junk,² Sarah
whispers, pointing at a stash of fresh syringes next to her.

Melbourne today is a very different place to the Melbourne of 10 years ago,
when I met my first homeless people. Inner-urban redevelopment has
transmogrified our former sleepy town into a hyperactive megalopolis. If you
are ³on the streets², there are fewer places where you can sleep unnoticed.

The southern side of the Yarra, where so many used to camp in derelict boat
sheds and in the industrial wasteland, has become the developers' plaything.
In the inner west, CityLink and Colonial Stadium have cut a swath through
many squats and outdoor camps. All over town, cashed-up citizens are living
in swanky New York-style apartments well over 5000 people live in the CBD
alone. Alleyways where people used to slumber unnoticed now lead to the
foyers of homes. There's movement at all hours, as urbanites walk dogs, go
jogging, put out the rubbish or stroll to the 7-Eleven. If you're homeless,
it's difficult not to draw attention to yourself.

Someone has spray-painted the mawkish words of an '80s pop song above the
grimy alcove where Jim and Alf have been living. I want to know what love
is. I want you to show me! Those words, in vivid green, are imbued with a
striking profundity when you stop to consider Jim and Alf's rather loveless

For the past four weeks they've been living in a two-metre-wide,
three-metre-long recess in a concrete wall, at the end of a dingy
cobblestone lane. Some crushed boxes stand in for a mattress and an
improbably cheery doona is all that protects them from the bitter cold.

Nothing, unfortunately, can protect the duo from the winds of change, which
seem to blow harder on the homeless than anyone else. A nearby trader has
become fed up with their presence and drastic action has been taken.

Jim and Alf are in shock. They have returned to their camp to discover
everything they own has gone. Their sleeping space has been ³cleansed² and
an ugly steel grille now bars access to the alcove. What used to be their
open-air bedroom now looks like the world's smallest prison cell.

Jim is 30, he's been living on the streets for five years. Alf is close to
50, he's been sleeping rough since he was Jim's age. Both men are hopelessly
addicted to heroin. They've kicked around together for a year and in that
time have lived in derelict buildings, tram stops, even a toilet block. This
is the third time in three months they've been evicted from an inner-city

³I know they don't want junkies around,² Jim says, ³but why did they take
everything we own? I've lost me rucksack, me clothes, me address book.²

Alf just nods and grunts. He's so used to being shafted, he's not even going
to bother complaining. Alf has lost his watch, a pair of jeans, his only
coat and his trannie.

The two men set off to find a new place to sleep. ³When you're on the
streets, you feel like you're always on the run,² Jim grumbles.

In my experience, when homeless people are shooed away from where they
sleep, they just settle somewhere else where they aren't welcome. Yet,
increasingly, city alcoves, doorways, laneways, stairwells and arcades are
being sealed off by metal grilles and gates. Not only that, bushes and
shrubs where people are known to sleep are cut down or radically trimmed.
I've even found that tram stop seats have been removed where men and women
regularly bunk down, to be replaced once they move on. It's a shallow
cosmetic exercise. If homeless people are no longer able to sleep in this
doorway or in that tram stop or under a particular shrub, it creates an
illusion that the problem has been solved.

And there are other changes. Throughout town, security companies now patrol
lanes, arcades, walkways and shops. Many homeless people tell me security
guards regularly force them to leave shopping arcades, plazas, department
stores and food outlets. They are exiles in their own city, pariahs in our
shining metropolis.

Council staff tell me complaints about homeless people, drug taking and
begging are increasing. I've been impressed, however, by the council's
sensitivity to the needs of disadvantaged people. Council workers regularly
offer me support in helping men and women who have been living on the

Councillor David Risstrom, chairman of Melbourne City's environment,
community and cultural development committee, believes the council has an
increasingly sophisticated view of social issues. The homeless, he says,
like the rest of us, deserve respect. ³We recognise that there are
disadvantaged people in Melbourne and the city should be a place for

A key development is the Inner City Social Housing Trust, which Risstrom
says will provide more low-cost housing. This is required largely because
³market forces fail when it comes to affordable housing for low-income

He has a good point. It sometimes looks like this green and pleasant city is
trying to eliminate poverty by making it impossible for the poor to live
here. The Office of Housing recently identified that people on low incomes
can afford fewer than 2per cent of new residential leases in inner
Melbourne. Sleeping rough in a doorway is just about the only way the city's
poor can get by.

As any decent sociologist will tell you, homelessness is essentially a
byproduct of failures in the housing and employment markets, family violence
and increasingly our drug laws. It's largely a structural problem. The rest
of us, grappling with the issue on the street, whether we are welfare
workers or the police, are like the proverbial ambulance parked at the
bottom of a cliff.

It needs to be said that there are compassionate city workers, residents and
traders with progressive social outlooks. I've been heartened by their
concern and their kind donations of clothes, blankets, food and money. The
hope is that such compassion can be nurtured, that it won't die out. This
city's heart mustn't turn to stone.

Of course, any city is a militant medley of competing ideologies and
appetites. In this town there are also residents' groups, traders'
associations and community committees powerful lobbyists with strong views
on how social policy in Melbourne should evolve. Commerce often has the
loudest voice and it's not hard to foster a perception that the homeless are
troublesome riffraff, that their presence lowers property values and profit

Cedric, the building manager, unapologetically holds this view. He is
organising to have Sarah and Tim's belongings carted away. ³I won't let the
junkies hold us to ransom. This city needs to be cleaned up.²

I've just received a call from a council officer. A couple of men have
settled in the doorway of a derelict building. There are reports that they
have been begging. From the physical descriptions, it sounds like Jim and
Alf. Perhaps I can get them into a low-cost hotel. Either way, they won't
last long in their new camp. Cedric manages the property next door.

Chris Middendorp is an outreach worker with the homeless.

This story was found at:


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