Demand the Government gets serious about ending homelessness

This opinion piece appeared in The West Australian on Friday, 4 December. It is written by Gordon Cole, Board Member at Shelter WA.

It’s been a long and hard road for First Nations people to reach the point where we are today — finally others are showing respect for the atrocities we have endured and there seems to be a genuine desire in many quarters to help heal the wounds of the past.

But just when it feels like there is momentum building, we are slapped in the face with the stark realisation that there is a long, long way to go before my people can feel we have the same rights as everyone else.

Parliament House

Last week we saw dozens of Aboriginal people taking to the steps of Parliament House to camp in protest at the lack of housing options that will let them get off the street and into a home.

We’ve heard the heart-breaking stories of mothers and children who have already lost everything being forced to camp in tents or live with relatives in cramped, unsafe accommodation because nothing else is available.

This is not good enough.

First Nations Housing

Are we not trying to move forward in the pursuit of a fair and equitable future for all Australians and a commitment to redress the trauma of the past?

Why then are First Nations people forced to beg for something as fundamental as a home, on their own country, so they can keep their families safe?

Housing is a basic human right, the right to adequate housing has been recognized in article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and in other international instruments.

Housing Security

Having a secure place to live, is one of the fundamental elements for human dignity, physical and mental health and overall quality of life, which enables one’s development and yet here in Perth, as 2020 draws to an end, children are taking their own lives, mothers live in fear, families find themselves living in tents on the streets and our leaders think it’s acceptable, or that no one will notice, if we add more people to a social housing wait list of over 15,000 families.

“We should not be expected to continue to beg for a home when the solutions are at hand.” – Gordon Cole, Board Member at Shelter WA.

We should not be expected to continue to beg for a home when the solutions are at hand.

During the pandemic, Noongar Mia Mia, an Aboriginal community housing organisation of which I am chair, worked with government and partner organisations to provide a dozen homes for Aboriginal people who were living on the street.

Not Enough Homes

The problem is that we did not have enough homes, creating a lottery of winners and losers with deadly consequences.

Gordon Cole with John Berger

Now we want to do it again, for everyone. We have a major homelessness problem in our city, which hits Aboriginal people hardest. There are more than 1,000 people on the streets — dozens are still camped at one site, “Tent City” in the CBD.

Despite many proposed solutions, vulnerable people are still sleeping in tents without basic security.

Meanwhile, the city is littered with vacant buildings. One backpacker’s hostel identified during the lord mayoral campaign sits empty and vacant today, just one of multiple sites that are available now as a supported accommodation solution and a pathway to a permanent home.

Tent City

Tent City could be solved tomorrow as part of a culturally appropriate and comprehensive program that could be applied more widely to rough sleeping across Perth.

Skilled, experienced, Aboriginal-led organisations can run supported accommodation programs to get people off the streets and back on track and into homes, like we did during COVID. But they need the homes to go to.

“Tent City”

And as this newspaper said in its editorial last Friday, First Nations housing is at crisis point.

Social Housing

If Western Australia is serious about fixing the housing crisis, the only acceptable action is to develop more social housing. Vulnerable, traumatised families cannot be left to the private market. That is a dead end for both tenants and landlords, especially when we’re in the midst of a private rental crisis.

Nor should the Government have to do everything. If they work in partnership with community housing organisations providing the housing stock we need, we’ll support these families to rebuild a stable foundation and heal and grow in their own homes.

“We have 15,000 families on the waitlist for social housing.”

The events of this year proved solutions for all sorts of problems can be found if there is political will. We have 15,000 families on the waitlist for social housing, but the Government’s new housing strategy will deliver an increase of only 2,600 social homes over the next 10 years.

This will not end homelessness. This will not fix the housing crisis.This will not stop families and children living and dying on the streets, without the basic human right of stable, secure shelter.

State Election

As the State election draws near, now is the time to make your voice heard. Demand that the Government gets serious about ending homelessness and fixing the housing crises.

Demand that we have homes for everyone who needs one, by increasing investment in social housing and homeless services to allow us to get on with the job of bringing families home.

To do this, we need at least 2,500 new social homes each year, not in 10 years, if we are to fix the housing crisis.