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Australia’s homeless — third highest rate and street homeless deaths increasing

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Australia has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the world, with people dying on the streets (Image via Pixabay)

Gerry Georgatos, who works at poverty’s coalfaces, argues that on average each year, 5% of Australia’s street homeless die on the streets.

THERE ARE MANY FACES to homelessness. A 51-year-old woman walked into my Perth office who has lived 13 consecutive years street-homeless. Not long ago, she spent 18 months sleeping her nights in the same park. She is weary, harrowed by neglect. For the most part, she has not wanted to be seen, but sadly because far too many have not wanted to see her.

She was softly spoken and of few sentences at a time, but articulate. She has five children she rarely sees and as she says, any time spent with them is “a bonus and a lift”. She has nine grandchildren. Her children and grandchildren are doing okay, some thriving.

As I sat across this woman in my office, she has salt-of-the-earth patience. She completed year 11 at a good school and worked a few jobs. She did her best as a mother. So, what went wrong?

She had been removed from her parents in the early 1970s by child protection authorities in Perth. She was placed at Perth’s Sister Kate’s Orphanage. Like for so many, worse lived nightmares began. Sister Kate’s is where she was sexually abused, violated and raped. Like for so many, the sounds of silence were crushing.

She tried her best at school and liked being at school, but at the end of each school day, the betrayal of Sister Kate’s was there to return to and call home.

She owes $110,000 in escalating unpaid fines. These fines should have been waived and she should have been fully supported. Her story should have been heard. The fines were mostly for public housing debts, traffic violations and other akin infringements.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse brought about the Redress Scheme. The Scheme has offered her $28,000 in compensation for the years of sexual abuse at Sister Kate’s. Where are the scales of justice? A homeless woman impoverished owes $110,000 in escalating fines and penalties for failure to make payments — by comparison to the years of rape and assaults, next-to-nothing infringements. The very society that destroyed her life from the near beginning offers her $28,000.  

Homeless Australians on average die in their 40s — half-lives. Several years ago, Bethlehem House, the only men’s shelter in Hobart, found the average age of death of the homeless they supported was in the 40s.

Recently, it was reported that 15 homeless people have died on Perth streets since July. The average age of the deaths was 47 years. These figures were aggregated by a UWA research team led by Professor Lisa Wood. Since the beginning of the year, 32 deaths of homeless persons have occurred on Perth streets.

Australia is one of the world’s wealthiest nations — 12th biggest economy, among the highest median wages and ranked number one in the world for highest median adult wealth. According to the Global Wealth Report 2018, the median wealth of adult Australians is $264,903. The median wealth of the world’s adults is $5,820.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics counts nearly 117,000 Australians in some form of homelessness, with more than an estimated 7,000 living on the streets. I argue that homelessness is in excess of 300,000 Australians and closer to 15,000 sleeping on the streets.

Nearly one-fifth of Australia’s homeless are children aged 12 years and less. You know the heart of a society by how it treats its most vulnerable. I have never forgotten the statement by a homeless person to a group of support workers: “Please don’t say my needs are complex. I only need a roof and a bed.”

In Western Australia, there are 14,890 applications waiting for a public housing rental, with 2,097 priority listed. The waiting list represents more than 42,000 people. The majority are children.

In March 2017, Labor took government in a landslide, promising much. In that time, public housing has declined by nearly 1,200 from 44,087 to 42,932 homes. In recent years, the average number of deaths on the streets of homeless people in Perth alone has been 30. Nationally, I have estimated the death toll on the streets of homeless people at more than 300, and in some years, 400.

To contextualise this, one comparator grimly stands out. If we accept the street-present homelessness at a little more than the ABS estimate, say at 8,000, we will find that around 5% of street-homeless people die on the streets each year. Australia has a population of 25 million and its annual death toll is around 165,000, or 0.66%.

Finland has much less adult median wealth than Australia at $44,606, but has managed in almost doing away with street homelessness in Helsinki.

Extraordinarily, Australia has the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s third-highest rate of homelessness. The highest homeless rate in the OECD languishes with New Zealand. Though the USA is harsher on its poor and homeless, nevertheless, proportion to population, Australia and New Zealand have more homeless people.

There are nearly 10 million Australian households, but just over 400,000 public rental homes. The poorest Australians are our homeless and thereafter, people living in social housing. Since the mid-1980s, Finland has tackled homelessness steadfast continuously. As a result, in recent years, Finland is the only country in Europe where homelessness has decreased. It does not take long if there is a will.

The Finnish Housing First approach was introduced in 2007 and that’s not long ago. It began with four individuals who campaigned for a solution for our most vulnerable — the homeless. Subsequently, the Finnish media relentlessly focused on the campaigns of these four individuals, a cultural shift ensued and the Finnish Government shifted policy formulations to a Housing First approach.

I haven’t met a person who lived or lives on the streets and has not said that it is the hardest, scariest, worst of living.

Gerry Georgatos is the national coordinator of the National Suicide Prevention & Trauma Recovery Project. Gerry can be contacted at coordinator@suicidepreventionnationnal.com.au or you can follow Gerry on Twitter @GerryGeorgatos. He has a Master in Human Rights Education and a Master in Social Justice Advocacy & Civil Rights Arbitration. 

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