Moving on the homeless

24 June 2017
Overnight Sydney City Council officers removed the 24/7 Street Kitchen Safe Space homeless camp which had been operating for six months in Martin Place, the financial and civic heart of the city. The camp was started last December as a place for rough sleepers to find food, help and solidarity, particularly vital after assaults and sexual assaults of rough sleepers in the previous few months, with homeless women particularly vulnerable.

Part of the reasoning the Council gave for removing the camp - alongside the inevitable redevelopment of the site - was that it was interfering with "reasonable comfort and convenience of other uses of Martin Place".

Because if you want to interfere with the comfort and convenience of users of Martin  Place, you have to pay. And once you've shelled out the tens of thousands of dollars for necessary permits, you can interfere to your heart's content, sending squads of English backpackers to hassle people on their lunch breaks into signing up for dubious charity donation programs, or setting up a garish marquee spruiking the latest sport betting app, so hypnotised gamblers can be parted from their hard earned without even having to log on to their computers.*

But the homeless camp, and the food, safety and company it offered, was unsightly and inconvenient. It had to go. 

This of course, just days after the much maligned CEO Sleepout, where company executives do their tiny little bit by sleeping outside for a night, with being a bit cold and uncomfortable for the night somehow giving them an insight into the fear, grief, uncertainty, shame, loss and stigma of homelessness. Most of them at least do admit the experience can't possibly equate to the actual experience of homelessness, but the whole thing is still a slap in the face to actual homeless people, and those who have been homeless in the past (you never forget).  

So those whose life trajectories have taken them from an upper middle class childhood to university college to maybe a bit of backpacking around Europe and then a junior executive role at Macquarie bank to start off their career get a taste of sleeping rough. Now what?

Because it's wrong to say the CEOs and executives involved all mean well, and aren't responsible for homelessness themselves. CEOs don't get to work in the morning, sit at their CEO workstations with all the other CEOS doing what the Big Boss tells them, then log off at 5pm and go home for the night. We are talking here about very powerful people. 

People (mostly white, mostly men), who control large amounts of money and influence, and as much as we might like to think in an Australian democracy that every citizen is worth no more nor less than their individual vote, it's the CEOs who shape policy and get privileges through their donations and demands for tax breaks and cuts. And through their support for neoliberal government policies in general, and the Liberal party in particular, and their pathological aversion to paying company tax, they have helped create the society which sees the disadvantaged as a burden, poverty as a moral failing, and the government as a tool to keep poverty in check instead of doing anything to alleviate it.

It's been death by a thousand little cuts over recent decades; not the more outrageous punish the poor policies like drug testing welfare recipients; but the stuff you never notice. Cuts to funding for local legal services, so the unfair dismissal claim can't go ahead. Cuts to the community organisation helping people experiencing domestic violence, so a woman with young children ends up fleeing in the night and sleeping in the car instead of getting assistance with housing to make a planned escape. Penalties for missing Centrelink appointments, so someone already couch surfing with friends misses the letter about their upcoming appointment and loses their payment for 13 weeks (and gets kicked out because they can't help with the rent or food any more). Payments that are so far below the poverty line that their is almost no chance of securing even the most modest of rental properties in any major city. Emergency housing waiting lists that are over two years long, with the waiting list for the general public twenty years. Onerous requirements for the disability support pension, so those who have almost no chance of finding work are put onto Newstart (and risk losing their payments through failure to meet "mutual obligation" requirements. Cuts to mental health services. 

Austerity all around, trampling the disadvantaged to death. And most people don't realise how perilously close they are, maybe one or two mortgage or rent payments, from finding themselves in this situation. Rough sleepers are the most visible group of homeless people, but only a small percentage; there are those couch surfing, staying with friends and family, sleeping in their cars. But in any case homelessness is not a problem that can be solved with more beds in shelters, or one off donations or publicity stunts. What each of us can do to go some way towards addressing the issue happens every time we vote; by refusing to support parties who demonise the poor, who sell off public housing, who cut local services, who create the conditions that lead to poverty and disadvantage in the first place. 

As far as the homeless camps set up, in Martin Place and Belmore Park and Wentworth Park - there are reasons for them, too. Homeless shelters can be scary, isolating and dehumanising places, and in NSW, shelter residents are required to present at a Housing Office every three days to prove their continued eligibility; they are often moved on at this point.

Homeless shelters, understandably, also do not permit alcohol and drug use on the premises; but substance abuse often accompanies homelessness, and whilst it is very simple to take the moral stance that the homeless should be getting their lives back together not using alcohol and drugs, the fact is that sudden cessation, or unsupervised detox, of alcohol and some drugs can be fatal, and the waiting lists for public detox and rehab beds can be many months long, and the trauma and anguish of homelessness is something a lot of us may well wish to numb.

It's not simple. There's no simple answers for any of this stuff. But for rough sleepers, offering access to showers and meals and a place to get their mail and help accessing services - housing, counselling, help with employment, help with substance issues - has got to be better than simply "moving them on" to god knows where or what. 

And for homeless people, and those at risk of becoming homeless, well of course I don't have all the answers, but these lefty do gooder bleeding heart sorts of ideas that want to try and prevent people becoming homeless in the first place will be cheaper in the end. Homelessness is expensive, and it is always better to try and prevent it. You can't punish people out of poverty; a society that tries to help people when they're down will have fewer homeless people than one which tries to punish the weak and lazy poor away. 

* And is problem gambling a factor in homelessness? Of course it is. 


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