[Hpn] Our untouchables -- from down under
Mon, 18 Dec 2000 16:22 +1000
There's been a LOT in the papers here about "cleaning up the streets".
The Herald Sun has run quite a campaign; it seems The Age is now
getting in on the act...
In the last couple of years, the number of beggers in the Melbourne
city centre has increased significantly. So has the number of people
visibly sleeping out.
People don't like it.
They're "scared to walk down Swanston Street" (one of the main streets
of Melbourne)-- or so the papers report.
Attitudes towards homeless people are negative here, as they are just
There is a real shortage of affordable housing-- as in most big
cities. This is rarely recognised.
People blame homelessness on drugs, or mental illness, or gambling--
anything but inadequate income and insufficient affordable housing.
The Australian government is currently reforming the welfare system.
They plan to extend "mutual obligation" to more welfare recipients,
including single parents and people with disabilities. This will
further increase homelessness, no doubt. People who lose their
benefits as a result of "mutual obligation" breaches already make up
half of those in crisis accomodation.
>By CHRIS MIDDENDORP
>Sunday 17 December 2000
>"I WANT YOU TO GET RID OF THEM! THEY'RE FILTHY AND THEY TAKE DRUGS!"
>The man shouting this at me is breathless with anger, his face is
>won't tell you who he is, but I can tell you what he does. The man,
>call him Cedric, is the property manager of a large building in the
>The problem, as Cedric sees it, is clear-cut. Sarah and Tim, both 18,
>been sleeping in one of the building's doorways a disused service
>They have ³lived² there for two weeks without incident, but Cedric is
>convinced that, since they are heroin users, they are dangerous
>and must go. ³I don't care where they end up as long as they're not a
>I meet Sarah and Tim and talk with them about housing options. They
>they'll sleep in the doorway until the cops make them leave. ³We
>afford to pay rent until we get into detox and get off this junk,²
>whispers, pointing at a stash of fresh syringes next to her.
>Melbourne today is a very different place to the Melbourne of 10
>when I met my first homeless people. Inner-urban redevelopment has
>transmogrified our former sleepy town into a hyperactive megalopolis.
>are ³on the streets², there are fewer places where you can sleep
>The southern side of the Yarra, where so many used to camp in
>sheds and in the industrial wasteland, has become the developers'
>In the inner west, CityLink and Colonial Stadium have cut a swath
>many squats and outdoor camps. All over town, cashed-up citizens are
>in swanky New York-style apartments well over 5000 people live in the
>alone. Alleyways where people used to slumber unnoticed now lead to
>foyers of homes. There's movement at all hours, as urbanites walk
>jogging, put out the rubbish or stroll to the 7-Eleven. If you're
>it's difficult not to draw attention to yourself.
>Someone has spray-painted the mawkish words of an '80s pop song above
>grimy alcove where Jim and Alf have been living. I want to know what
>is. I want you to show me! Those words, in vivid green, are imbued
>striking profundity when you stop to consider Jim and Alf's rather
>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
>Nothing, unfortunately, can protect the duo from the winds of change,
>seem to blow harder on the homeless than anyone else. A nearby trader
>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
>everything they own has gone. Their sleeping space has been
>an ugly steel grille now bars access to the alcove. What used to be
>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
>50, he's been sleeping rough since he was Jim's age. Both men are
>addicted to heroin. They've kicked around together for a year and in
>time have lived in derelict buildings, tram stops, even a toilet
>is the third time in three months they've been evicted from an
>³I know they don't want junkies around,² Jim says, ³but why did they
>everything we own? I've lost me rucksack, me clothes, me address
>Alf just nods and grunts. He's so used to being shafted, he's not
>to bother complaining. Alf has lost his watch, a pair of jeans, his
>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
>sleep, they just settle somewhere else where they aren't welcome.
>increasingly, city alcoves, doorways, laneways, stairwells and
>being sealed off by metal grilles and gates. Not only that, bushes
>shrubs where people are known to sleep are cut down or radically
>I've even found that tram stop seats have been removed where men and
>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
>doorway or in that tram stop or under a particular shrub, it creates
>illusion that the problem has been solved.
>And there are other changes. Throughout town, security companies now
>lanes, arcades, walkways and shops. Many homeless people tell me
>guards regularly force them to leave shopping arcades, plazas,
>stores and food outlets. They are exiles in their own city, pariahs
>Council staff tell me complaints about homeless people, drug taking
>begging are increasing. I've been impressed, however, by the
>sensitivity to the needs of disadvantaged people. Council workers
>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
>increasingly sophisticated view of social issues. The homeless, he
>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
>says will provide more low-cost housing. This is required largely
>³market forces fail when it comes to affordable housing for
>He has a good point. It sometimes looks like this green and pleasant
>trying to eliminate poverty by making it impossible for the poor to
>here. The Office of Housing recently identified that people on low
>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
>poor can get by.
>As any decent sociologist will tell you, homelessness is essentially
>byproduct of failures in the housing and employment markets, family
>and increasingly our drug laws. It's largely a structural problem.
>of us, grappling with the issue on the street, whether we are welfare
>workers or the police, are like the proverbial ambulance parked at
>bottom of a cliff.
>It needs to be said that there are compassionate city workers,
>traders with progressive social outlooks. I've been heartened by
>concern and their kind donations of clothes, blankets, food and
>hope is that such compassion can be nurtured, that it won't die out.
>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
>on how social policy in Melbourne should evolve. Commerce often has
>loudest voice and it's not hard to foster a perception that the
>troublesome riffraff, that their presence lowers property values and
>Cedric, the building manager, unapologetically holds this view. He is
>organising to have Sarah and Tim's belongings carted away. ³I won't
>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
>settled in the doorway of a derelict building. There are reports that
>have been begging. From the physical descriptions, it sounds like Jim
>Alf. Perhaps I can get them into a low-cost hotel. Either way, they
>last long in their new camp. Cedric manages the property next door.
>Chris Middendorp is an outreach worker with the homeless.
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