By Ross Womersley, CEO of the South Australian Council of Social Service
People who are homeless and sleeping rough have always gravitated to our inner cities and regional centres, often because that’s where services are that can help them. For safety some people will choose to sleep on well-lit footpaths and where there is a lot of foot traffic while others will seek the anonymity of a park or hide in a nook or cranny. Some will have swags and others may piece together strangely elaborate bedding arrangements. Not surprisingly after a day or two most of these people can start to look grubby and dishevelled. Some people will exhibit signs of poor mental health, may in fact be very sick, or be struggling with alcohol and drug dependency, which like some of the psychotropics used to treat mental health issues, can have major impacts on their behaviour. In the absence of other forms of income, some of these people may beg to try to get by from day to day.
Sometimes our brief interactions can be very scary: think of someone apparently hallucinating, or who walks toward you acting irrationally, or who even a little aggressively, demands you give them money to get by. And at other times, it’s just unpleasant: think of someone who doesn’t have access to a toilet nearby and who leaves faecal matter, litter and used belongings behind.
No one likes to see this. In part because it’s confronting, messy, and uncomfortable. In part though, it’s confounding because we also don’t really know what to do in response.
Now to be honest, those of us living in the suburbs won’t usually encounter these situations. It’s often only the residents in our regional centres and inner city precincts, people seeking out restaurants and nightlife, as well as tourists, city workers and business owners who most often have to live with the untidy, sometimes uncomfortable and very occasionally, more frightening aspects of such encounters.
But every now and then conflict emerges in our community about what to do about these issues. It might be driven by an increase in homelessness (up 14% since the last census) and thus higher numbers of people who are sleeping rough, it might be through community concern arising from a specific incident reportedly involving someone homeless, or it might also result from development interests.
Across the world there are countless examples of where renewal of our city centres and gentrification of neighbourhoods has led to an increased push to move the “unattractive but vulnerable” on. Not sure where, but as long as it’s just ‘somewhere else’. And as long as it all becomes someone else’s problem.
Developers and investors will be particularly likely to see the regular presence of homeless people as a threat to neighbourhood felicity, which of course might undermine their potential future returns.
There are even some instances where, despite wanting the right to develop in our city centres in areas with longstanding footprint of support services for homeless people, developers will argue that “homelessness” is an issue for which they have no responsibility. Thus those services and the smelly, unattractive, poorly behaved people they assist should all simply be moved somewhere else.
They sometimes mount very public campaigns against the “scourge” of homeless people and in some instances these campaigns can get very ugly, with homeless people being blamed for any and every incident and all that is wrong with a neighbourhood.
It is well to remember this national and international experience when we look at local issues. For example, when we hear that crime is rising because of homeless people – when in fact crime rates are not rising. Or when we hear that it is the presence of homeless people and the services that support them are causing businesses to close – especially when local services for homeless people have successfully operated in the area for decades with good relations with most community members.
Interestingly, after months now of negative publicity in the southern corner of Adelaide, at least some traders whose businesses have generally been doing well and who have always worked with the local services in support of homeless people, are getting pretty fed up with the way public confidence in their trading strip is constantly being talked down. But still the press and airwaves are full of alarm at the situation, new CCT cameras are being installed despite the fact that recent statistics show that the rate of crime in the area is not increasing and now there is growing pressure on services for homeless people to be re-located.
Of course it also pays to remember how easy for those of us at a distance, to just assume that this might be true, no matter what the real evidence says given the deeply unconscious and negative stereotypes we often tend to carry about homeless people.
At its base, homelessness arises when someone is unable to find housing that is safe, secure, and affordable, and that suits their needs. As much as anything we have an affordable housing crisis with one expression of this being the number of people sleeping rough on our streets.
In fact, it’s very important to remember that the people who find themselves living rough on our streets, in our parks and are still a minority of the homeless population. They attract the most attention because they are the most obvious and an uncomfortable reminder to us all about what is going on.
And in that context we do need a proper response. We need assertive outreach services that can connect with people on our streets, identify their needs, link them to appropriate supports and help them get into safe, secure, affordable housing just as soon as possible. If people are acting illegally we need our police to be available to respond and for those with mental health, drug and alcohol dependency or chronic health related issues, we need appropriate services available to them in a timely manner.
And homelessness won’t ever go away. The reasons people become homeless are multiple and for every person we help move out of homelessness one day, another person may well appear the next. And the journey out of homelessness will inevitably be full of pot holes and circumstances where things go well and can come unstuck again.
In this context, we are probably always going to need services in our CBDs and regional centres because as good as we might become at helping someone transition back to having a home of their own, yet another person may find their life has unravelled in the most diabolical of ways, leaving them without housing to go to that night, let alone a home.
With this in mind, while we should and must work to ensure our neighbourhoods are safe, we should never allow development interests to drive services that support some of our most vulnerable populations from their longstanding places of operation. We really need to refresh our thinking about rough sleepers as a community. We all have a responsibility to build a positive response and let’s remember, most of us are only a few pay packets and a personal crisis away from becoming homeless ourselves.
As a community its again time to find a way to welcome, engage and work towards supporting homeless people safely, so they can get the hand up they need to escape difficult circumstances.