Words are not enough

Alison Xamon

In this week’s Speaker’s Corner, Greens upper house MP Alison Xamon reminds us the homelessness problem’s not solved just because a few announcements have been made.

AS families rushed around the shops in the Perth CBD in the days before Christmas, and spent evenings touring the city’s festive light displays, residents of Tent City near the Lord Street Bridge in Northbridge had a humbler Christmas wish – they just wanted their make-shift camp made safe.

Some of the most disadvantaged people in our community have gathered there to try to stay safe, or at least to feel marginally safer, and for some basic shelter against the elements. Advocates say that there have been up to 40 people sleeping beneath the bridge at nights, since the tents began to go up in the midst of the pandemic.

I joined a group of volunteers who had answered the call of the Tent City residents, asking for help to dispose of rubbish, tidy the place up a bit, and ultimately achieve a level of basic dignity that every human deserves. 

Pass the buck

Residents have so far been deprived of a bin or skip, despite repeated requests, as governments at all levels pass the buck and fail to act quickly enough.

It is confronting to witness firsthand the way people have been left living.

The residents of Tent City are physically and mentally exhausted. 

And despite the confidence (public health officials say complacency) about whether the pandemic will hit our shores, If a Covid outbreak comes, things will get much worse.

They are trapped with nowhere else to go. 

They need help, they have asked for it – but despite announcements it is not coming anytime soon.

Many of the residents are already on the priority wait list for public housing – but with almost 15,000 applications representing 25,000 people currently on the wait list for public housing, the wait for the people of Tent City is likely to be long.

The McGowan government has said, as part of its 10-Year Strategy for Homelessness released in August, it will initially target rough sleeping. 

On December 1, the Department of Communities said it was acting to provide “immediate” short-term assistance to people sleeping rough. Three weeks later, just days before Christmas when I visited Tent City, around two dozen residents remained. And they are still there now.

The McGowan Government has announced plans to build 500 new homes, but it is nowhere near enough and it is important to remember it doesn’t even replace the 1100 fewer social houses we now have since the McGowan government took office in 2017. 

And data released during Homelessness Week showed WA would soon experience a housing shortfall of 38,500 properties. 

The government has committed to building one of two ‘Common Ground’ facilities not far from Tent City. But with only a loose commitment to a starting timeframe of sometime in 2021-22, it’s not soon enough. 

And it is simply not good enough. Demand is expected to continue to grow, as the full effects of the pandemic and economic downturn, and the once again reduced rate of welfare payments on offer from January 1, become clear.

We have already seen over the festive period; a new tent city emerge at Pioneer Park in Fremantle. So far, the people who have set up tents there say it is much better – for at least it has a portaloo and somewhere to dispose of rubbish.

Surely all Western Australians should be able to expect more. 

As I helped to fill bag after bag of rubbish, and spoke to residents who desperately need not only a roof over their heads, but intensive support (including disability support), the general feeling is that they have been forgotten, gazed upon and discussed but with still no clear solutions in sight. 

And in the meantime 9,100 Western Australians continue to experience homelessness every night.  

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