Tuesday, April 3, 2012


by Pamela Mawbey

It was cold enough to start teeth chattering in the Legislative Council room at Parliament House during the three-day Homelessness summit held there in May 2001.
Most of those present, accustomed to sleeping in warm beds, shivered and pulled their jackets more tightly around their shoulders.
But for those used to sleeping ‘rough’ in on park benches or in narrow doorways, the chilly temperature felt just like 'home'.
They settled back on the plumply padded leather seats and slept like babies.
The cold made it hard to stay focused on all the different facets of homelessness.
It was not just a single issue.
Nor was it a simple one.
Nowadays, there were so many different types of homeless people.
No longer were they just middle-aged men with a drinking problem, readily dismissed as such.
Welfare workers reported seeing a growing number of homeless women with children, men with children, and single adults.
The causes of their homelessness were family breakdown, loss of income through separation from a partner, joblessness, or gambling and other addictions.
A constant in their caseloads was the mentally ill, with homelessness just one of the many challenges these members of our civilised society faced on a daily basis.
Crisis accommodation that did exist was not geared to cope with such a diverse group.
This meant that those who did not fit into categories currently being catered for, the right boxes, were literally being left out in the cold.
For many homeless people, there was simply nowhere to go.
Refuges were stretched to the limit.
Low-cost boarding houses had been turned into backpacker hostels, or pulled down and replaced with multi-million dollar apartments.
Rents had gone through the roof, and the long queue for public housing was growing every day.
Anyone down on their luck in Sydney, without any family or friends for support, was well and truly locked out.
What was desperately needed was a well orchestrated plan on the part of governments to effectively deal with homelessness.
Things had reached a crisis point.
For too many years, homeless people themselves had been blamed for the problem, instead of the lack of adequate safety nets.
The provision of more short-term crisis accommodation was essential, together with some low-cost, medium-term housing.
The latter would need to provide homeless people with somewhere to stay for up to three months.
This hopefully would give them time to get a job and save enough money to get back into the private rental market.
That is if they were mentally stable enough to hold down a job.
Having an address would help.
It was impossible to get a job, or somewhere to live, without one.
Both types of safety net were needed in all local government areas, not just the inner city.
One radical idea floated at the Summit was the introduction of temporary, short-term caretaker leases to allow homeless people to legally ‘squat’ in vacant buildings for a while.
Perhaps it was time to bring back the old suburban drive-in.
Not for watching movies on the silver screen, but to provide a safe space with public conveniences for homeless people forced to sleep in their cars.

Pamela Mawbey is a journalist who has experienced homelessness and slept in her car
(C) Pamela Mawbey 2001