Politics Opinion

Sacrifices by the working class will worsen our homeless crisis

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Treasurer Jim Chalmers strategy of sacrifices by the working class may exacerbate our poverty and suicide rate (Image by Dan Jensen)

A strategy by Treasurer Jim Chalmers on fixing our budget situation could worsen Australia's poverty, suicide and homeless statistics, writes Gerry Georgatos.

*CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses suicide

WE LEAVE people behind, particularly our most vulnerable. More than 100 of Western Australia’s street homeless die on the streets each year. More than half of the dead are found on Perth pavements.

The nation does not weep because those at the helm steer us away from the images and the cries.

I am reminded of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet:

‘But rather an image you see though you close your eyes and a song you hear though you shut your ears.’

It took less than a week since the Australian Federal Election for the Labor Government to roll out the first of its betrayals, as all governments do forever and a day. The social contract during the election period of promised common good was torn up with no accountabilities to face.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers and Finance Minister Katy Gallagher blitzed the media with the nutshell claim they suddenly discovered the budget situation as “dire” and “significant savings” must be found and this should be on “sacrifices” by the working classes — more indenture.

The lowest quintile of income base comprises the most significant proportion of suicidality and of the suicide toll.

Horrendously, those who steer, deceive. Nothing can be achieved in the foreseeable future to relieve debilitating living costs which already impale the homeless and public housing tenants, who are our poorest Australians thereafter the homeless. Working-class Australians confronted by relative poverty are swiftly informed to expect more socioeconomic stressors and sacrifice for nation-building.

There will be zero economic relief.

Treasurer Chalmers is quoted:

“...people [must] recognise that sometimes sacrifices are necessary if we are to make progress.”

Whatever shape the Federal Government, in terms of when bills need to be passed outside of Labor and Liberal bipartisanship, which will be the majority, the crossbenchers will define who they are. Historically, for the most part, crossbenchers have been underachievers despite propaganda.

During the Election, Labor portrayed a “better” future for all Australians. Far from it. To expand on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago 1918-56 — governments lie. They know we know they are lying. Still, they continue to lie.

Governments lie, religiously. So, it means, contextually, they don’t care that we know. What they care about is that we cannot do anything about this. Till we can, the abject and relatively poor live tyrannised.

The working poor – and the abject poor – are on the increase, with no end to this sight. I remember both children and older individuals who were evicted to the streets or to a nomadic life shifting from house to house, took their lives.

Of Australia’s households, 4% are public and social housing rentals. Social housing living Australians are our poorest Australians thereafter our homeless. I have estimated suicides are up to six times more likely among social housing living tenants compared to other household Australians.

If Australia genuinely wishes to reduce its tragic suicide toll, then focus on housing the homeless, supporting social housing families and supporting Australians living in the lowest two quintiles of income base. Governments who go this path will be long remembered.

The incumbent Federal Government claims it discovered budgetary “black holes”. Australians work enough and should not be exploited further while austerity is doled.

Sadly, real wages will continue to fall. The wages price index and inflation and indexation creep for far too many will degenerate to minefield living. Suicide tolls will remain high.

Already, one in five Australian children live in some form of poverty. If all we can do is weep then do this till the nation wails. When enough people rise, change happens. If so, those at the helm will not be saved by lies. If we despair into silence, those at the helm will continue as is.

In 1963, Australia recorded its highest ever suicide rate. A tight-fisted brawny economic recession hit, cataclysmic for many families. Workers were told we are nation-building and to serve the country. Those who became unemployed were unsupported and braced as best the tempest. The suicide toll skyrocketed.

I forecast by the decade’s end, Australia will go close and may even surpass the 1963 suicide rate. The austerity the Federal Government is leading Australians to hopefully does not also betray essential services and downsize social care systems, as their predecessors did.

It is beyond sad that politicians are allowed to lie. The national budgetary “debt” is suddenly to Treasurer Chalmers an excuse the Government cannot afford “everything that we would like to do”.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) boss, Sally McManus, on 21 May labelled the Australian Labor Party's win as a victory for workers. Let it be proved first.

In 1983, the immediate former boss of the ACTU, Bob Hawke, became Prime Minister. Despite the nation’s love of a “larrikin” and salt-of-Earth type, the Hawke-Keating era oversaw wage accords locked in that would lead to wage stagnancies and real wages dip in the decades ahead. The Hawke Government oversaw the implementation of a neoliberal concord. It removed domestic economic market protections, wild deregulations, sold off capital assets, weighed in privatisations and scaled back hard-won workers’ rights.

On the back of obliterating Pandora’s Box, ensuing governments have tracked along with more damage — the real cost in human lives, drudgery, miserableness, pile-high unresolvable stressors, mental unwellness and absence of hope.

Since 1983, real labour costs have been reduced by 24%, while the net share of national income consigned to profits increased to its present record high of 32%. It has been 39 years since 1983. Both the Labor and Liberal parties can equally take credit. Of the last 39 years, both have governed 19.5 years each, equally. With mostly hidden bipartisanship, they have teamed up four-fifths of the time to pass bills. It is as if they are a mirror image of each other. Alas, they tell us otherwise.

In fact, Australia is that wealthy that its economy could have delivered universalisms — the elimination of street-present homelessness, zeroed an end to all forms of homelessness and housing insecurity, delivered substantive assistance in housing affordability, transformed prisons into genuinely restorative and transformational experiences and reduced the suicide toll. The leading cause of death for Australia’s teenagers is suicide.

Several years ago, a homeless pregnant mother of seven children reached out to me, desperate. It is unimaginable to most household Australians that a mum with seven young children was chronically homeless, shifting from house to house, in alleyways, parks and squats throughout Perth. She heard from a friend of a disused house in a nearby country town. She holed up in the rundown firetrap condemned dwelling in Tammin — 180 kilometres east of Perth.

My partner, Jennifer Kaeshagen, who has found homes for many homeless families, drove with me to Tammin. The mum was nine months pregnant. There was a 20-month-old, a three-year-old, a four-year-old, a six-year-old, an eight-year-old, a nine-year-old and an 11-year-old. The hovel is heart-wrenchingly indescribable.

This was towards the end of 2014. Just prior to the Christmas stretch we found the family interim accommodation in Perth after the previous Western Australian Government and the then Department of Housing claimed they could not help. The mum delivered her baby on New Year’s Day.

As Jennifer does, she found the family longer-term accommodation and intensely supported them. Jennifer did what a rich government and heavily funded Department of Housing failed to do. How is it that all these toddlers and children were failed? Their plight was carried by Perth’s news channels. Still no budging those at the helm.

During last year’s July, 28 days rained, many of the rains relentlessly torrential. The volunteer-based National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Service I self-funded, now no longer as my Parkinson’s disease has had me call it a day, did what it could for the homeless in the rains with nowhere to turn. Over several nights, my colleague and friend Megan Krakouer and my colleague, friend and daughter, Connie Georgatos, distributed over 1,000 wet weather hooded windcheaters to the street homeless souls of Perth, Mandurah and Bunbury.

To get to all the squats and alleyways, ensuring as best we could we leave no one behind, we turned up past midnight with the windcheaters and care packages. They were soaked.

Our hearts broke for a shivering mum with a four-year-old. In the days ahead, we assisted them with interim accommodation.

Megan, Connie and I will always remember one wild rain frosty night with a huddle of homeless young and older. Drenched. I went to a nearby Mcdonald's and ordered 16 coffees. I was asked why so many coffees at 1 AM. I explained. She looked at me, drenched. She said they’ll be no charge. The Mcdonald's crew surprised me with 16 toasties. I just stared and smiled out a “thank you”. When we connect as sisters and brothers, we care. Love is boundless.

No one need be homeless.

If you would like to speak to someone about suicide you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher with an experiential focus. He is the national coordinator of the National Suicide Prevention & Trauma Recovery Project (NSPTRP). You can follow Gerry on Twitter @GerryGeorgatos.

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