Where can they go?

Maria Williams thought outside HBF Stadium she’d be safe during the Covid pandemic, but was moved on – to where?

JESSE NOAKES is an advocate for homeless people who helps those who’ve reached the end of the road elsewhere. In this week’s SPEAKER’S CORNER he says Perth’s homeless people were let down during the Covid pandemic – and they won’t forget it.

AS the pubs and gyms open up and the freeway returns to its natural state every rush hour, it’s easy to feel that WA is back to business as usual.

Relative to the vertiginous atmosphere the weekend the pubs closed, we’ve emerged remarkably untouched. 

Last Saturday, the streets of the city were full once more in an outpouring of grief and solidarity. The Perth Black Lives Matter protest was huge in both scale and significance, as many thousands came together to listen to Aboriginal people speak about their experience with authorities.

But it wasn’t the first crowd I’d seen gathering in spite of health advice. In fact, day after day throughout the pandemic, outside our advocacy centre in Perth, dozens of people huddled together with nowhere else to go.

People like Maria. In late March the Prime Minister directed Aboriginal people over 50 to stay safe at home as part of an edict banning gatherings of more than two people in public. At that stage Maria, who turned 50 last year, was camping with a dozen others outside HBF stadium in Northbridge.

Three months later and she’s still out there. She’s one of 1000 people sleeping on the streets in WA at the last census, a number that’s likely increased post-lockdown. Last month, the tents she and her family had sheltered in were cleared by police and they were told to move on. Where are they supposed to go?

Sicker

Homeless people are already much sicker than the general population, and perhaps half in Perth are Aboriginal. When the rest of us retreated to the safety of our homes as the pandemic accelerated, our most vulnerable were left to fend for themselves on our empty streets.

While New South Wales and Victoria sheltered thousands, and Boris got almost everyone off the streets of London in 

a week, a one-month trial putting 20 people in hotel quarantine was the best the WA government could muster. Even that wrapped up as the first storms rolled in last month.

First and foremost, everyone needs a home, now. It is the foundation for everything else. There are still 14,000 people on the public housing waitlist in WA. Private places are still prohibitive, especially for Aboriginal people. Where are they supposed to go? 

Building social housing is an economic stimulus and a social imperative. Examples from around Australia and overseas show that it is possible to house people in an immediate crisis and take the opportunity to secure sustainable, long-term solutions. The answer is available if the government chooses to prioritise it.

In the interim, while they wait, better people have somewhere safe and supported to stay instead of the stress and insecurity of constant move-ons and interference. It’ll be easier, cheaper and more manageable than the current free-for-all. 

Tragic irony

The tragic irony is that many of our clients have lives defined since childhood by government intervention. Maria was taken away from her family as a little girl and grew up in some of WA’s worst institutions. She’s been homeless as an adult since being evicted from public housing more than a decade ago. During that time her own children were removed, after being made homeless with her.The cycle continues. These families are on the streets because we put them there. But when people really needed their help, the government was nowhere to be seen. 

We abandoned highly vulnerable people on the frontline of a global pandemic. They will not forget it, and nor should we. For Maria it’s pretty simple. “It’s a repeat cycle. It’s a failure of duty of care.”

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