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Facing Homelessness

It’s 4am, I haven’t slept yet, and won’t be in the comfort of my bed for another 3 hours. Dazed, as I walk the streets of Perth’s main bar and club district, Northbridge. This morning I am hitting the streets of Perth with a crew of volunteers for Perth registry week, which is, in essence a census of homeless people in Perth.

Perth is a city I know well, what I don’t know is the situation of hundreds of homeless here. Sure, it’s easy to find people begging for change, or selling  The Big Issue. For most of us homelessness is not really on the radar; we are a rich country, a country in which money comes easy – apparently, and a country in which egalitarianism runs through its citizens’ veins, supposedly. Yet we don’t give a great amount of attention to homelessness, which is a great failing, both socially and economically. We seemingly have collective blinders on and ignore those most in need through misconceived preconceptions. I could count on one hand the number of times I have given change when asked by someone who seems to be homeless, yet I the number of times I have been asked would be ten fold.

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Perth registry week is a massive undertaking, involving Ruah (a Perth based community services organisation) in collaboration with various government bodies and numerous NGO’s, such as Nyoongar Patrol, Mobile GP, Uniting Care West, St. Bartholomew’s, The Salvation Army, Anglicare WA, and St. Vincent de Paul. In total there was 26 organisations and 85 volunteers involved.

I met the crew organising registry week at Ruah’s headquarters in Northbridge. Everyone here is a volunteer, except our chaperones from the WA Police. Our crew (Team Two) consists of Patricia from Ruah, Amanda and Emma from St Patrick’s and Tracey from the Police.

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Before we set off from the Ruah centre, we are given a run down on where we will be going; our route will be the shopping district of the CBD. The volunteers are given a refresher on how to correctly use the SPDAT (Service Prioritisation Decision Assistance Tool) surveys; SPDATs are used to identify the risk of those either sleeping rough or homeless. SPDAT allows NGO’s and government departments to glean a more objective understanding of the risk of individual homeless people, and lays the foundation for intervention and triage.

A simple way to explain SPDAT is to break down the results from the surveys: if a participant scores 0-4, they are deemed to be able to find their own housing, a score of 5-9 requires brief and limited support to find housing, a score of 10 and above requires permanent assistance to find housing and long term support.

As we walk through Northbridge, Jim Decouto of Micah Projects, talks me through the rationale behind Perth registry week. He has flown over from Brisbane to be part of this census, as Brisbane was the first city to introduce SPDAT’s.  “We have established an intercity collaboration amongst key service providers to advance and adopt a housing first and supportive housing approach to house and provide integrative wrap-around services to the most vulnerable in our cities,” says Jim.

“SPDAT triages individuals and families based on their acuity [SPDAT score] into, low, medium and high categories. This enables government and NGOs to target appropriate resources and supports the needs of people within the low, medium and high needs. The SPDAT brings objectivity into decision-making as to who is the most vulnerable on the acuity scale.”

Something I had not considered is the cost of homelessness to the taxpayer, through implementing SPDAT and a triage approach in Brisbane, the taxpayer has saved huge sums of money by intervening before the most at risk homeless require urgent attention. Jim continues, “People who live on the streets or sleep rough live 15-20yrs less than the average. This can be explained by their exclusion from upstream or preventative health, housing, mental health and social services. Hence they tend to utilise the most expensive reactive services such as; hospital emergencies, watch houses, corrections and the legal service systems, police and ambulance services repeatedly.”

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As we make our way down our first dimly lit ally, just off the Murray St mall, Patricia walks behind a green skip bin, a place a homeless man calls home. He was sleeping directly on the concrete, with not much in the way of a blanket. Patricia, Amanda and Emma, talk with the man, trying to glean any clues as to his situation. Before we set off, they leave him a donated swag, in the hope he will find some warmth tonight.

Patricia tells me they are aware of this man; his situation is quite dire, with a life expectancy of less than a year if he cannot be taken off the streets, his SPDAT score is well above 10. His situation, like so many others, is in need of a solution, but, there is nothing that can be done other than the volunteers suggest he goes to a homeless shelter – we only have a system of reaction to homelessness in Perth, that is to say, if this man showed signs of violence, he could be arrested, or if he showed serious signs of mental instability or physical trauma, he could be hospitalised. This is not only highly costly but ineffective in finding pragmatic solutions that will assist homeless to find their way back into society. They are patched up and put back on the streets.

  In Defense of Los Angeles

As we walk through the Murray St Mall, it dawns on me, most of the people walking around are actually homeless. We meet a young Irish man, whom struggled to hold a conversation with us; he quickly resumed his brisk walk around the city, not wanting to discuss his situation in detail.

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We soon meet another man walking around, he is willing to sit down and talk with the Volunteers. His name is Bradley; he too has been homeless for many years. His situation, whilst not a dire as the first man we met, is nevertheless a difficult one. After being homeless for so many years, his opportunity for assimilating into our ‘normality’ is slim; it’s hard to see how Bradley would be able to live the life I enjoy, in the same city.

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As we walk back to the Ruah centre for debriefing we run into an aboriginal couple, they are long-term homeless. The story of the women really shocks me; she is only 28 yet looks over 40, has been homeless for half her life, and has been involved with substance abuse since she was young, on top of this, she has been sexually, verbally, and physically abused for most of her life. With all of the odds against her, she has quit drugs & alcohol and has found a safe place to call home – a quasi squat – where they sleep outdoors in the eastern suburbs of Perth. I am left thinking, if I was in that situation, would I try so hard to come off the drugs, when all is seemingly against me, would I have her strength to break the cycle of drug abuse and homelessness. Unfortunately not all of the homeless in Perth have this ability, as they are too deep into drug & alcohol addiction and have crippling mental health issues. This is why we need a better system for taking homeless off of the streets, as with the right support, we can give them a better life.

By the end of registry week, 168 participants were surveyed, of which 41 were under 25yrs of age. The average time spend on the streets for under 25’s is 3.2 years, for 25’s and over it is 6 years. The majority surveyed are receiving some money from the government, yet this is not enough to take them out of their current situation. Half of the respondents reported emotional, physical, psychological, sexual or other abuse or trauma.

Through using SPDAT, community organisations and governmental departments in Perth are able to more effectively deal with homelessness, yet I am left with the feeling that without a major political imperative, very little will be achieved.  One solution would be to follow Brisbane’s approach by way of direct intervention and triage, which will not only cost us less economically, it will also provide a tangible opportunity for many for many homeless find their way back into society.

We have the opportunity to drastically reduce the number of homeless in Perth and save tax payers money right in front of us, all we need is the political will to enact changes to governmental policy to provide more housing options for homeless people and further funding in immediate care, rather than reactive health and penal policies that maintain the status quo rather than effectively deal with the situation. Without us taking a deeper interest in homelessness and pressuring politicians to put in place a governmental framework for proactive intervention rather than reaction, the situation will continue to be dire for so many living on the streets.

By the end of the morning I find myself with a newfound appreciation for my bed, and for the roof over my head. Something hundreds of people in Perth don’t have.

James Knox is Editor in Chief of FLINT, based in Perth, Australia. 

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