Homelessness has reached crisis levels in Melbourne and Sydney
It’s a cold, wet Monday night in Melbourne, but the confluence of Flinders Lane, Degraves Street and Centre Place – the centre of “the world’s most liveable city” – is swirling with activity. In the shadows, just beyond the clip of foot traffic, Peter slumps in his brown woollen poncho on a thick square of cardboard. In front of him is a small wicker basket speckled with silver coins, and a cardboard sign on which is handwritten a tale of personal tragedy and an appeal for charity. In the darkened doorway behind him stands a shopping trolley filled with his life’s possessions: two sleeping bags, a swag, a coat, bundles of clothes and, for bartering purposes, four cans of Canadian Club whisky and two bottles of wine that he found on his night-time wanderings.
A sudden burst of rain creates a curtain of noisy static down Flinders Lane, so Peter rouses himself to ensure the contents of his “mobile home” aren’t getting wet. “It doesn’t get much worse when all your bedding is drenched,” he says, before returning to his cardboard cushion, where he sips a takeaway coffee fortified with six sugars.
Peter, 48, has been sleeping rough for the best part of three years, and he relates this with no notable self-pity. A stocky man with round, stubbled cheeks, bloodshot eyes and meaty hands that look the match of any stubborn jar lid, he first slept rough in the spring of 2013, in his home town of Ballarat. “It was strange. The noises. Sounds were amplified. And my world was made of concrete,” he says, fingering a small pipe in his lap. But as time passed, Peter got used to it, and any sense of vulnerability he felt sleeping in the open was mitigated by hiding away in the back blocks, in parks, behind churches and near the railway station. He was also confident that his physique, like that of a tuna fisherman, would give an attacker second thoughts.
But that changed a few months ago, when a man he knew from the streets assaulted him with a block of timber. The attack left Peter with broken arms and busted ribs. He whips off a black beanie to show still-pink divots, like axe wounds in a chopping block, cut into his scalp beneath the closely cropped salt-and-pepper hair. Peter moved to Melbourne after that. It offered greater anonymity, and he figured (like so many do) that being homeless in the city would be safer and easier, with more people and welfare services around. Not that he was looking for company on the streets. “I’m an island,” he says.
As the rain continues, Peter takes me to where he spent his first night in Melbourne, a small alcove cut into Flinders Street railway station. Amid the stench of dried urine, Peter mounts a few steps inside the gloomy space and kicks aside cigarette butts, the remains of fast food and three small liquor bottles standing snugly inside brown paper bags. He gestures with a foot to a wide bluestone step, blackened by the grime of the city. “I lay right here in the foetal position and stared out at the lights and the traffic. I didn’t sleep at all.”
If you walk the streets of Melbourne and Sydney today, you’ll notice what seems to be an inordinate number of rough sleepers and beggars. Negotiating their crumpled forms can be as hard as negotiating the questions, and feelings, that such a scene provokes. Nor are appearances deceiving. A City of Melbourne survey, taken on the morning of 7 June this year, counted 247 people (195 men, 35 women, 17 unidentified) sleeping rough in the CBD. In 2014 on the same date, the count was 142, at that time the highest result in the survey’s then six-year history. A similar street count by the City of Sydney, which conducts the survey twice a year, found 394 rough sleepers in August – down on the 486 counted in February but higher than at any other time since the summer of 2010.
As rough sleeping is the visible manifestation of a wider problem, it is not surprising that homelessness is also rising. The term “homelessness” encompasses rough sleeping but also unsafe and/or insecure accommodation, such as boarding houses, refuges, motels, caravan parks, and family and friends’ spare rooms or couches. In the time between the national censuses of 2006 and 2011, the rate of homelessness increased nationally by 8%, from 89,728 to 105,237. Victoria saw a 20.7% rise in homelessness, NSW 20.4%, while the ACT and Tasmania saw even bigger jumps, at 70.6% and 32.9% respectively. A number of major welfare organisations told the Monthly that they expect the numbers to be higher again when the 2016 census figures are released next year. The Salvation Army’s Major Brendan Nottle says that homelessness in Melbourne, for one, is at “crisis” levels, and the worst he’s seen in his 13 years in the field. As a result, frustration is high at the Salvation Army. “It can make us feel like we’re an ambulance waiting at the bottom of a cliff,” he tells me. “Worse, in the lead-up to [this year’s federal] election, not one political party focused on homelessness as an issue.”
Causes of homelessness are varied and often interwoven. They include domestic violence and family breakdown, physical and mental ill health, drug and alcohol abuse, physical and sexual abuse, gambling, financial hardship, childhood trauma, and a lack of affordable housing. And just as these causes can precipitate homelessness, they can also ensure it endures.
For Melbourne CBD rough sleeper Maryann, her prolonged homelessness – 18 months of living on the streets – has its roots in addiction and domestic violence. “My mother gave me my first shot of heroin when I was 12 … but I’ve been clean and on methadone for four years now,” she says, sitting cross-legged and barefooted on a thin mattress, meticulously adding a blush to a flower within the pages of a mindfulness colouring book. Maryann, 30, from country Victoria, married at 18 and had a boy and a girl (now aged nine and seven) to a man who was terrifyingly violent. Lifting her chin to show a pink 3-centimetre scar below her left ear, she says he once stabbed her in the neck. Later he became involved in methamphetamines and was jailed, and Maryann’s children were taken into care. She now only sees them twice a month.
Maryann fell for another man “who was everything I ever wanted”. But he started using meth and soon became violent too, once breaking Maryann’s jaw. When she finally left him in 2014, she had nowhere to go. By this time her parents were dead and her friends were long gone. She went on the public housing waiting list, which was, and still is, measured in years. In June, the list in Victoria was 32,250 names long. Maryann has had brief periods in crisis accommodation, and “life-saving” support from the Salvos (she’s a diabetic). But she cannot find somewhere permanent to live on a Newstart Allowance income, which at its maximum for a single person with no dependents is $528.70 a fortnight. According to Anglicare Victoria, this amount is about half of what is considered a poverty-level income for single people, and is about 40% of the current minimum wage. Newstart recipients, who might need to pay up to 90% of their allowance on rent, are becoming increasingly impoverished; as Maryann says, “There’s not much left over for food and bills after paying the rent, is there?” Being on methadone and on the streets have made getting work impossible for Maryann, despite her applying for hospitality jobs. “I want to give up sometimes, but if I do that I’ll never get my kids back.”
Others face similar problems with finding affordable, or suitable, accommodation. On a recent Friday morning, during a busy breakfast at Melbourne’s Salvation Army headquarters in Bourke Street, Mark, 39, explains that after years of living in his car and sleeping on the streets, he secured a place in a boarding house located north of the city. But the former security guard says he soon discovered it was impossible to live with his housemates, who were all struggling with mental health issues and substance addiction, and he had to leave. And this was a legal boarding house, not one of Victoria’s thousand-plus illegal ones in which rooms, or mere spaces in rooms, are rented out for up to around $190 a week. Such arrangements can be both unsanitary and hazardous, but an increasing number of “tenants” have no choice if they want a roof over their head. “Sometimes being on the streets can be a better option than many residences,” says Mark, whose initial homelessness followed the death of his mother, the suicide of his father, the loss of the family home, and a descent into depression that has led him to multiple suicide attempts. He has since found more suitable accommodation.
Welfare agents often tell us not to make assumptions about those they help, and Peter is an example why. He’s charismatic and seems too clever by half to be sleeping on the streets. He is darkly amusing, too, like when he reflects on his plans for the future: “I’ll roll over my super for a start and get another property. Negative gear the shit out of it, of course,” he says, and we share a laugh.
With the buzz of cafe bonhomie around us, Peter says his main survival tactic is to think as little as he can about where he is, and why, and what came before. His habitual smoking of synthetic marijuana helps in that regard. But of course he has a prior life, and it’s unsurprising to hear that it was, in many respects, a rich one. Educated at a private Catholic school, Peter was most recently a high school teacher, and before that a baker. He also spent years overseas, teaching English in Japan and Europe. “Always a spender, never a saver, travel was always a passion,” he says. He pulls at his poncho. “Peru. Llama wool. In winter, I never take it off.”
The answer to the obvious question about how he ended up sleeping and begging on the street is scrawled on his sign. “I lost my wife and [eight-year-old] daughter in a car accident [in 2011], and my life fell apart after that,” he says, explaining that the pair was driving to ski fields in the Dolomites, Italy, and he was en route to join them. “I didn’t care about anything after that. So I stuffed the job, I stuffed everybody.” He is suddenly overcome by a cough that sounds like a heavy box being dragged along a footpath. “I haven’t had a cold for four years but I might have lung cancer,” he says once his breath returns. “Got to get that checked out, right?”
Friends, he continues, did attempt to help. “But I couldn’t tolerate it, because when they left I was still the one sleeping in the house alone. They didn’t know what to say, I wanted distance, and soon they didn’t want to see me either. They had young families, a different lifestyle. I understood.”
His family? Peter’s father died when he was 21, he says, adding that his father and grandfather used to beat him regularly as a child. He’s estranged from his mother, who, he says, has been judgemental of his life and relationships. (He says he has had four children to three different women: “I’m a terrible womaniser.”) It’s like walking past an open oven door when he speaks of her. “She’s a warped, wizened old tree who leaches the earth of its goodness,” he spits.
According to those who work in the homelessness sector, the transition from living with a roof over one’s head to sleeping under the stars can happen quicker than you might expect. For Peter, that car accident was a hand between his shoulder blades, pushing him off a precipice that he didn’t know was there. And once he started freefalling, he couldn’t stop. Nor did he want to. “I was kind of hoping I’d just die.”
Jenny Smith is CEO of the Council to Homeless Persons, a peak body for the sector in Victoria. She says she’s never seen such levels of rough sleeping and homelessness. But she is not surprised. “We have taxation settings contributing to an inflated housing market – capital gains tax and negative gearing – [but no] government policy to ensure that there’s a supply of housing that is affordable to people on the lowest incomes. So how could it not be getting worse?”
Smith, the Salvation Army’s Brendan Nottle, and Sydney-based Mission Australia CEO Catherine Yeomans agree that rising accommodation costs are causing increased homelessness and “housing distress” for many Australians. This includes people on average wages, such as young singles, couples priced out of the mortgage market, and renters in their 50s and 60s, particularly women.
“Average people are poor because of the price of putting a roof over their head,” says Smith. “For example, if a working woman on an average wage [$882 a week: ABS 2016] can only afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment in one out of every four suburbs in Melbourne today without being in housing stress – that’s paying more than 30% of your income on rent – well, imagine what it’s like for those doing it tougher than the average. The average renter is now taking properties that used to be taken up by those on low incomes.”
Echoing the 2011 census data, which showed a 19% increase over five years in the number of homeless older Australians (aged 55–74), Smith says welfare agencies are reporting an increasing number of women in their 50s and 60s threatened by homelessness. These women, renting or still paying off mortgages after raising children, have been left exposed by job loss, retirement, a lack of superannuation and relationship breakdown. “The pension and many social supports were designed as a safety net on the assumption people owned their own home at the point of retirement,” Smith says, pointing out that the balance of renters to home owners is approaching parity for the first time in Australian history. “The pension has also been eroded in value, an erosion amplified by the decline in home ownership … Many women over 55 are a retrenchment, health condition, retirement away from being so vulnerable in the inflated market.”
According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, a federal government research body, between 1946 and 2011 the percentage of one-person households in Australia increased from 8% to 24%. Yet today’s public housing stock doesn’t cater for this demographic. According to a 2012 Victorian auditor-general’s report, there were about 20,000 tenanted single-occupancy public housing units in Victoria – and 20,000 people on the waiting list for these properties. By comparison, there were about 26,000 three-bedroom properties with just 6000 on the waiting list. Set beside this, tax reform advocates Prosper Australia estimated that in 2014 more than 82,700 residential properties – or 4.8% of Melbourne’s housing stock – sat empty. A sceptical Real Estate Institute of Victoria estimated the figure was closer to 3.1%.
In July, the Victorian government announced that, as part of its Rapid Housing Assistance, 124 properties will be leased and 184 homes purchased throughout the state. The homes will be owned or managed by 16 community-housing organisations, and operational by 30 June next year. Last month, Infrastructure Victoria, an independent statutory authority, recommended 30,000 new homes be built to tackle the lack of affordable and social housing. Measures like this notwithstanding, Smith says Australia hasn’t seen a significant investment in social housing since the Rudd government’s stimulus funding, which was in response to the 2008 global financial crisis. “So with increasing population growth and property maintenance being a challenge for governments around the country, we’re seeing a slow attrition of social housing rather than growth.”
Taking up Brendan Nottle’s metaphor about welfare services operating at the base of a cliff, Smith says that most investment “is at the bottom of the cliff” and even that investment is at risk. “About a third of the funding that goes into the ‘bottom of the cliff’ homelessness support is in a fund called the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness [which funds around 180 programs and services]. And that runs out at the end of June. The federal government has not yet committed to continue that funding.”
Mission Australia’s Catherine Yeomans believes that homelessness is a problem with a solution: “If we just increase crisis accommodation, increase interventions, then we’re not striking at the underlying cause and we’re not able to move people away from homelessness in the longer term.”
Smith agrees, saying that the Council to Homeless Persons advocates getting the homeless into a home immediately, whether they’re a rough sleeper or someone with “multiple complexities” such as health or substance abuse issues. “An old-school approach would have been to try to first fix this person’s problems – get them off drugs and alcohol, for instance – before they are considered ready to hold down a tenancy.”
The “housing first” idea, Smith says, flips this thinking on its head: what a person needs first is a safe home – not a bed in crisis accommodation. “From there they need tailored support … which will help them retain their tenancy,” she says, pointing out that the homes in which people are placed are not free, but the rents are means tested. Victoria’s “over-subscribed” Street to Home pilot program – a partnership between HomeGround Services, the Royal District Nursing Service and the Salvation Army – is based on this “housing first” principle.
“There is no evidence internationally that trying to help people with a mental health problem, an addiction, an acquired brain injury, outside of a stable supported home works,” Smith says. “But there is quite a body of evidence that shows that the sooner you get someone into a place they can call home, they will be better positioned to start to manage their health condition, their illness, and accept support to keep them safe in the longer term.”
The night before we met, Peter slept somewhere on the southern edge of the CBD, “lapping up million-dollar views”. On a good night he’ll sleep for about four hours. Most often, however, he reserves sleeping, or something resembling it, for the daylight hours when it’s safer. He says that he receives contemptuous looks from some passers-by, but it means nothing to him. “Shame and pride are the first things you lose. They go the minute you pick up your first cigarette butt or half-eaten bun, or go through a dumpster.”
For Peter, begging during the morning commute is routine, as is accessing public toilets or those at fast food restaurants. “You’ve got to know when and where you’ll take a shit.” Every few days he’ll visit a welfare agency to wash and dry his clothes, and to take a shower. “There was a time I simply couldn’t imagine facing the day without showering first.” In his poncho, black tracksuit pants and sneakers, Peter doesn’t look fashionable but nor does he look destitute.
Another daily routine involves packing his gear into his trolley, which he does methodically. “I’ve learned to slow down each moment of each day to draw it out.” Does he have any prized possessions? After another coughing fit, he says the only item he has from his past life is the poncho. “It would be foolish for me to prize anything. Everything you have will be stolen. It’s designed to be stolen.” Proving his own point he recalls that, days earlier, someone pinched his transistor radio, which he usually had tuned to Triple M. It was his main source of distraction and pleasure, outside of the paperbacks he reads at night: things by John Grisham, Dean Koontz or “black-humoured autobiographies of death” such as the oeuvre of Chopper Read.
His other pleasure is synthetic cannabis, a psychoactive chemical-and-herb concoction made to mimic the real thing. It’s considered more dangerous than cannabis due to the nature of the chemicals in the product, which manufacturers regularly change in order to stay ahead of the law. Side effects and withdrawal symptoms are said to include psychosis, paranoia, panic attacks, anxiety and insomnia. Peter knows all this but he says he’s addicted, and it’s costing him $75 or more every day – most of what he earns begging. He knows that unless he can get clean his chance of getting off the streets, let alone into a home or a job (“even a car would be good”), is diminished. Although he says he’s hopeful, he doesn’t sound convincing. “My will has been kicked out of me, but I’m slowly getting it back.”
Later, Peter pushes his trolley deeper into the shadows, leaving his cardboard sign and basket of coins where they are, and walks a couple of blocks. Weaving through pedestrians, he finds the steps he’s looking for and descends into the permanent gloaming of an adult cinema. From a bearded man behind a ticket window, Peter buys a 1-gram sachet of synthetic cannabis called “The Wall”. Once he has emerged back into the traffic noise and the rain, Peter packs his pipe, lights it and inhales. And, as a smoky haze engulfs his face, his eyes take on a faraway look. The kind that helps him endure a life on the streets, just as it might condemn him to continue it.