Three decades of rough sleeping

Chris Middendorp, Manager Sacred Heart Central
Chris Middendorp Manager Sacred Heart Central
8 October 2019
Chris Middendorp, Manager Sacred Heart Central

It is almost 30 years since I started working with people sleeping rough in Melbourne.

Over that time there have been some important service system improvements in Victoria which should not be forgotten. We have better trained and better educated staff who work with a closer adherence to professional boundaries. There are better quality crisis accommodation services (I will never forget those bleak and haunting night shelter dormitories that lasted well into the 1990s).

There is an improved focus on training and strength-based practice, with more innovation and flexibility in case management approaches. These days clients are more likely to be heard, appropriately assessed and humanely worked with.

But the losses over the past 30 years have been catastrophic. Private rooming houses and hotels have closed by the score, with hundreds of beds disappearing forever. We have seen the waiting period for a humble public housing flat go from a few months to several years. Private rental is now notoriously expensive and discriminatory. Anglicare’s Rental Affordability Snapshot for 2018 found that of 67,365 properties listed for rent in Australia, only three properties were affordable for a single person on Newstart.

This is a housing 'black hole'

We are not living in a housing crisis — a crisis implies an appreciable resolution. This is a housing ‘black hole’ and if we do not implement practical strategies for increasing affordable housing stock, many more people will be dragged into its vortex.

In the 1990s I remember there were many squats in the central business district (CBD) we used to visit as part of Hanover Welfare Service’s outreach work — one of the first teams in Melbourne to pioneer this approach of making contact with rough sleepers. I remember in the space of three or four city blocks visiting perhaps a hundred people, all living precariously in various vacant government-owned buildings.

The old, abandoned ABC radio building, ‘Broadcast House’ on Lonsdale Street, had at least 50 people living in it. Around the corner there were 40 to 50 people between two old red brick buildings that to this day remain vacant. The eeriest squat location I ever visited was the old Peter MacCallum Cancer Hospital that was left abandoned for years and, over six floors, with the power still running, was a home for people too numerous to count. I remember visiting the place in 1998 and finding 20 people camping in the derelict Social Work department. Was that a statement? The shortage of squats in town has impacted on the visibility of homelessness.

Few places left to hide

There are so few discreet places left to hide in town today. Lanes and alleys are gated and patrolled. The CBD is now a lifestyle precinct — whatever that means. If you are homeless you are more likely to be visible and more at risk of abuse and assault.

Before Postcode 3000, a Victorian Government planning program to bring middle-class residents into a transmogrified and shining metropolis, the Melbourne CBD was home primarily to low-income single people who resided in private hotels. That was true until the early 1990s. Private hotels like the pre-renovated Markillies, Hotham, Great Southern and Waterside Worker rented out rooms and housed hundreds of people.

All gone, as are the casual jobs that these residents used to pick up at the nearby North Melbourne casual labour hire office. People sleeping rough or living in marginal housing used to obtain casual work frequently at truck depots, on the railways, the docks, in small manufacturing companies dotted all about inner Melbourne. This work offered enough income to pay rent and, in winter, to keep a heater running. Some people even found ways to enter private rental with minimal help from welfare agencies.

Life for people experiencing poverty is harder than ever

Life for people in poverty has never been easy but years of neo-liberalism and a world fixated on tax cuts, house prices and consumerism have abraded the few opportunities there were and made it very difficult for disadvantaged people to find a place in mainstream life.

Some influential people in the CBD and our local media frequently talk about the visible ‘homeless problem’ as though it were a form of pestilence: a scourge or blight jeopardising our ‘most liveable city’ status. We know that people sleep rough for reasons that have much to do with structural factors and a social system that energetically produces entrenched disadvantage, just as it makes others wealthy.

A dearth of pathways out of poverty

The few safeguards and sources of support for people living in the margins seem to be gone or abraded. We are in exceptional need of public housing because private enterprise will not solve the affordable housing problem. Inadequate social security incomes will exclude thousands from the private rental market. The lack of jobs in manufacturing and concomitant shortage of work opportunities for unskilled people have been deadly. The job shortage equals a dearth of pathways out of poverty.

The effects of our punitive war on drugs turn a health issue into a crime. People with addictions too often end up excluded and homeless. The meagreness of resources for child protection and underfunded state schools plays out in adult trauma and results in people with significant educational, cognitive and behavioural challenges for the rest of their lives.

When cities begin to manifest rough sleeping, it is a sign that a culture is fatigued and that notions of a shared humanity are in abeyance. It is also a sign that the solutions — which are widely understood — are not being prioritised.

Let's get serious about tackling homelessness

But if we are serious about tackling rough sleeping, we need to do more than generate housing and support options. We need to jettison the Social Darwinist cult of individualism, restore the idea of community and animate a broader sense of social justice.

Homelessness cannot be solved by support agencies alone. This wicked problem needs the efforts and backing of our entire culture if we are going to address it properly, once and for all.

This article was first published in Parity, Australia’s national homelessness publication.