Over the last few months, I have been walking regularly at night down Swanston Street in the City. What is noticeable is the great number of people, invariably male, with blankets and bags sleeping rough in doorways and on the pavement.
My initial reaction was, what a miserable place to doss for the night. Swanston Street is cold, the winter winds fierce and freezing, it’s over-lit, too bright, noisy, and the concrete unforgivingly uncomfortable. Additionally, it’s probably unsafe; rough sleepers are viewed as an ugly nuisance to shopkeeper and pedestrian alike. Predictably, the Herald Sun has publicly convicted them as being aggressive druggo hoboes, panhandlers, and a pedestrian peril.
This raises the question, why so many now? Is the economy really in recession, and why are these rough sleepers in our public face? Are they making some kind of street protest? After all, poverty and homelessness are supposed to be hidden, off the streets, right?
My second reaction was about what can or should be done for the homeless? Nothing? Shift them along? Help them? Or rehouse them? We have just finished Homelessness Awareness Week, accompanied by the Lord Mayor’s claim that City resources can no longer cope with the demand being made on them by the recent ‘surge’ in homeless numbers.
Who are the homeless?
Some facts. On any given night in Australia, some 105,000 people are homeless. Homelessness is roughly defined as in uncertain accommodation, ranging from couch surfing, casual tenure in a refuge, hostel, or boarding house, or sleeping rough. Of that huge number, however, it is reported that nearly 300 people are sleeping rough each night in the Melbourne CBD. On numbers alone, the rough-sleeping problem would seem solvable for these the most obvious and marginal of the homeless.
But the real causes of homelessness are less manageable. They include rising rents, property redevelopment particularly of old inner city boarding houses, job loss, relationship breakdown, domestic violence, psychiatric illness, and drug dependency.
Most of these problems do not originate in the CBD, but in the suburbs and the country, where help is either non-existent, slight, or stretched. If you become homeless in the suburbs, you inevitably gravitate to the City, where help is available, including food and emergency shelter, and, importantly, companionship.
Homelessness affects a wide spectrum of people. Think about it; there’s not really a great divide between being housed and becoming unhoused.
What is being observed among the homeless, though, is an increasing number of women with children fleeing domestic violence, and older women who have lost their long-term inexpensive accommodation.
What could be done: some suggestions
What can be done now? Limited emergency crisis accommodation should be for those most at risk: women and children, the sick, unaccompanied juveniles, and the vulnerable elderly. For the otherwise fit and able, or nearly so, an open space enclosure such as a former railway or disused cargo shed adjacent to the CBD, or even a disused office building might just provide a ready-made communal place for dossing down.
Sure, it’s not ideal, but it has the immediate advantage of being safe, if properly supervised. Supervision is absolutely essential. Hostel accommodation is preferable, of course, but it is scarce. It is also expensive to build and maintain, and governments seem reluctant to fund it. Additionally, there are mountains of obstacles to be overcome, ranging from planning issues and objecting neighbours, to occupational health and safety and building codes. Anyway, there just isn’t the time, even if there was the inclination and the money.
Traditional cheap boarding house accommodation is in decline, not just because it is being sold off for development, but because it is old, inferior, and invariably contravenes current occupational health and building code requirements. And boarding houses are notoriously unsafe for their occupants. Too often, unsupervised boarding houses are violent and lethal places. Not surprisingly, many rough sleepers will tell you they prefer a park to a boarding house.
In the proposed communal ‘open space’ areas, there could be lockable storage areas where the homeless can safely keep their possessions during the day. If you leave your gear under a bridge, then the likelihood is that, upon your return, you will find it either stolen or tossed in the river. Being homeless, you need a lot of basic survival skills, which many, because of illness or drug dependency, just do not have.
A supervised communal open space would allow for better sit-down meals than those grabbed snacks from a roadside van, as well as access to social and counselling services. It would provide a postal address for all that confounding correspondence from government welfare agencies, which – if you ignore it or complete it incorrectly – will cost your welfare benefits.
Initially, I had thought a secure ‘tent city’ or ‘porta building’ facility could be established on some open space area or parkland in the City. But forget it; pubic opposition would be swift and ugly from park lovers to aesthetes and others who would view it as a shameful eyesore. But that is what is done by ‘enlightened’ cities in the USA. And, I agree, it still amounts to sweeping the homeless off our public streets.
Having the homeless ‘accommodated’ in one or two communal open-space locations could enhance efficiency in provision of services by those who help them, such as the Salvos and Vinnies. Presently, these agencies seem to be doing their own thing in their own spots, without obvious overall coordination or strategic plan. They could take turns to help run an open shelter. Call it a practical exercise in ecumenism or cooperation, whether religious or secular (there are other non-religious helpers).
It is necessary to assist people before they become homeless. This may mean suburban councils and others providing financial counselling, drug and alcohol programs, continuing education about what to do if you are being subjected to domestic violence, improved regulation of boarding houses, as well as encouraging property investors to build them (at $150-$200 per week per room, they can be profitable), and providing they are supervised and safe.
Then, for those made homeless, safe supervised communal open-space shelter may be the temporary answer. Existing but overwhelmed emergency shelters need to remain available for the most vulnerable.
If you think this heartless, neo-liberal, or whatever, then consider making available to a homeless person that spare bedroom you have at home.
If we were to open our doors and accommodate a single homeless person, homelessness would disappear overnight. Literally.
Tony French is a Melbourne lawyer, and a member of the Board of Social Policy Connections.