3 May 2023

Winter brings Canberra's hidden homeless into the open (and they can't be ignored)

| Zoya Patel
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homeless person sleeping on a bench

Rough sleepers are harder to ignore – and their plight is more obvious – with the approach of winter. Photo: File.

As the chills of winter become harder to ignore, it also becomes harder to ignore the other side of Canberra – the one that doesn’t meet our well-known reputation of being one of Australia’s most affluent cities, where progressive and liberal-minded, exercise-keen intellectuals sip lattes and draw public service incomes.

This past week, I’ve noticed signs of increased desperation among the poorest in our community everywhere I turn.

Every morning I walk my dog in a public area and quietly pass a man who has been camping in bushland for nearly six months now. The past few weeks, I’ve been rugging up more and more as the chilly weather sets in, and I can’t help but worry once again for rough sleepers who aren’t able to access emergency housing for complex reasons and who are facing a long, cold winter ahead.

During the rain this past week, I ran into my local shops to grab dinner supplies and paused out the front to speak with one of the regular folk who linger outside, hoping to nab a few coins from shoppers like me. I asked if she wanted anything from the shops, and as we chatted, I asked why she was sitting in the rain and not under cover.

“They won’t let me sit near the doors,” this young woman shrugged. As I handed her some food and cash on my way out, I had to reflect that anyone who thinks these people are ‘choosing’ their conditions of poverty aren’t considering the reality that people must be facing to sit in the freezing rain, drenched to the skin in the hopes of some food and cash.

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Later in the week, I was driving through the city and watched a window washer try to wash three windscreens, despite the drivers shaking their heads. One driver put on their wipers, and the man just quietly finished cleaning their windscreen anyway and shuffled away, looking downright dejected.

Friends in the community sector tell me about the complexities of the cases they’re dealing with. Families who have arrived on refugee visas who can’t find work. Clients who are managing domestic violence experiences, mental illness, chronic health conditions and social isolation. Every step forward is usually followed by a few slips backwards before they can gain solid footing again. It’s relentless.

It’s easy for us to blame the poor for their circumstances. People like to say beggars and rough sleepers have chosen their circumstances – why don’t they work? Why don’t they access support services? Why don’t they find an interim solution through a friend or family member until they can figure something out? Why don’t they move to where they can find jobs if it’s too hard here?

But of course, it isn’t that simple. The bureaucracy involved in even just finding out what services you might be eligible for requires a level of capability that many simply don’t have, and for so many, there simply aren’t fallback systems and networks to rely on.

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The other week I was in Melbourne for work, and I stepped into the Melbourne Central shopping centre in search of a pharmacy.

As I was walking, I passed a man I recognised. Middle-aged, with a ruddy face and tired eyes, he carried a big yellow hold-all over one shoulder and shuffled in socks and flip-flops. We clocked each other, and I realised he was a rough sleeper from Canberra. I had seen this man in Civic for well over a decade. He used to sit in the Canberra Centre during the day and sleep at the bus interchange at night. Now here he was in a different city but in the same situation, carrying his belongings with him and finding shelter in public places during the day.

Just looking at him exhausted me. I can’t even fathom what it would be like to be him.

He clearly left Canberra, perhaps hoping for better luck somewhere else. But in a population as small and well-resourced as ours in the ACT, I still can’t quite comprehend how it is that we have over 3000 people on the waitlist for public housing, who can expect wait times of at a minimum 291 days and up to five years. That number is not insurmountable, but with cost-of-living pressures as high as they are right now, it’s likely to increase.

Poverty and homelessness are treated like complex ‘wicked’ problems by decision-makers, but at their core, they’re remarkably simple.

Resources are unevenly distributed and economic inequality is fundamental to the system our society is built around. As radical as it may seem to think about meaningfully addressing this, it also feels unfathomable that we should allow people to sleep in bushes, sit in the rain, and shuttle from shopping centre to park bench, living just to survive, while others flourish.

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The ACT Government, needs to Listen, and stop Being UP themselves, Container Homes, there are Plenty of then its not Hard ACT, to turn a 40 ft Containers into Mobile housing units, you should be able to fit at least 8 rooms Shelters, to keep, out of the cold or the heat.

GrumpyGrandpa6:12 pm 04 May 23

Canberra, with it’s affluence is an expensive place to live, if you aren’t amounts their number.

We have restricted land supply pushing up property prices and rentals, the Government charging Land Tax on rental properties which pushes up rents. With housing costs being at least partially linked to government policy and with the government having different priorities (LR), those doing it tough shouldn’t get to hopeful.

It’s sad, but we live in a town where Pedal Power has more influence over Government than does organisations like Anglicare.

Another Barr and Rattenbury success story

Katrina Chisholm1:36 pm 04 May 23

The ACT Government removed the ABC flats in Ainslie and all public housing along Northbourne Avenue. How many of the current homeless people in the ACT are a result of the lack of affordable public housing. There are allegedly a number of public housing units that are empty awaiting repairs.

Capital Retro10:31 am 04 May 23

I note that while you were in Melbourne you recognized a “down and out man” who used to be roughing it in Canberra.

Maybe he couldn’t afford to rough it in Canberra anymore so he “hit the Hume” like so many others from all socio-economic classes are.

“Resources are unevenly distributed and economic inequality is fundamental to the system our society is built around.”
Here’s another bit of perspective on the issue. The dole of $700 a fortnight equates to over $18,000 a year. The entire world’s gdp is about $100 trillion a year. If you took this amount and distributed it perfectly evenly across the 7 billion people of this earth, everyone gets less than $15,000 annually which funnily enough is less than the dole!
We as humans just aren’t productive enough on average to sustain such high living standards as people in the western world come to expect. I once met a migrant who was unemployed because he lied about the skills to get a visa. He was living on the dole and sending half of it overseas to support his family.

Jenny Graves2:47 pm 04 May 23

I hear what you’re saying. But the fact is that a roof over your head and food in your stomach should be a basic human right. That costs considerably less in third world countries than it does here.

If it’s a geographical cost of living issue does that mean the unemployed living in Sydney should get more in Jobseeker than those living in Darwin or regional towns?

Serious question, are these people so lazy or lack the wherewithal to go to Centrelink and grab their cheque for $700 each fortnight? Or is it they can’t control spending on alcohol, cigarettes, gambling or others? Half the world’s population lives on less than $5 a day. That is 3 and a half billion people on $70 a fortnight in countries with no social security system doing actual manual labour to scrape together one tenth of what Australians are entitled to for free. Have a think. Is cost of living ten times what it is anywhere else in the world? A can of tuna or head of lettuce ten times as dear? In a country that is a net producer of food? If you’ve travelled as widely as me you’ll get one thing above all: perspective.

john crawford8:35 am 04 May 23

One thing places like China and Thailand have is a two tier economy. I could buy a vegetable pancake from a street seller for 50 cents, which was delicious, and then go into a Starbucks for a 7 dollar latte. Australia is so affluent it doesn’t have anything for 50 cents.

What happens in other countries is irrelevant. Can you pay for rent, food, clothing, medical services, utilities etc in Canberra while on income support? And, by the way, the biggest barrier some people are facing has nothing to do with laziness. It is often mental illness that impacts on their ability to interact with bureaucracy.

We pretend hardship and mental illness don’t exist in other countries because it is “irrelevant”. Ironic the same left wing mob croon over the poor refugees. Guess crossing into Australian maritime waters is the only boundary between relevance and irrelevance.

John, there might be some truth to that but if you were to buy a stack of home brand frozen vegetable pancakes from Aldi I’m pretty sure it’d work out to less than 50 cents per pancake. Pro tip for those doing it tough by the way. 😉 And I’d argue a daily latte for the homeless is unnecessary. Didn’t realise mendicants required that level of caffeination!

Capital Retro5:32 pm 04 May 23

Those ALDI vegetable pancakes are Made in China, by the way.

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