On homelessness, privilege and consultation
Last Monday I attended a community meeting which I normally wouldn’t attend.
I’m not a “community meeting” sort of person. In fact, I’m not really a “community” sort of person — I’m a bit of a hermit, truth be told.
But I attended this community meeting out of sheer indignation that it had been called in the first place. I was determined to lend support to an idea which seemed to me to be so self-evidently and uncontroversially good that I objected to the idea of a community meeting being required at all. In the process I learned a lot about where I live, the people who are my neighbours, and how homelessness in my city (Melbourne, Australia) is perceived.
Like in many parts of the developed world, the ability of Melbourneans of limited means to afford housing is becoming more and more difficult, and as a result the incidence of homelessness is increasing dramatically.
Governments have been slow (sometimes beyond negligence) to recognise this problem, and the State government of Victoria (of which Melbourne is its capital and by far largest city) has been no exception.
Nevertheless, the government of Victoria has started to address the issue in small ways, one of which is its Towards Home program.
All good so far — where does the community meeting fit in?
The government’s housing authority owns a fairly sizeable, vacant block of land in an affluent suburb of Melbourne called East Brighton, across the road from another affluent suburb called Hampton. It’s adjacent a bus route feeding directly to the city’s extensive rail network, and thus ticks sufficient boxes to be ideal for housing people either from the area or with ties to it, who are now rough-sleeping.
Five single-bedroom modular houses will be sited on this allotment for 2 years, with a sixth live-in office staffed by a single carer shift 24/7 to provide the residents intensive social support.
And (some) residents of East Brighton and Hampton are outraged. Hence the community meeting.
Forgive me, but I would think five people moving into single units in a large suburb, with intensive support provided to help them transition out of homelessness, is at best something to praise; at worst, a non-event for all but the direct neighbours who will be curious about their new neighbours.
Alas, no. These were some of the questions asked of the panel of civil servants and service providers at the meeting:
Do they have jobs?
(It was the task of one of the service provision representatives to explain that rough-sleeping homeless people generally aren’t in gainful employment.)
How will they afford the rent?
(Rent will be capped at 25% of the resident’s income; as it’s vacant land the housing agency owns already, any rent charged effectively is financing the project.
If they aren’t employed, what income do they receive from which to pay 25 percent?
(I’m amazed that there is an Australian who is not aware of Centrelink. Perhaps some of the good people of this area have never had to consider how one would get by.)
Will they be allowed to use illicit drugs in their units? What will be done if they do?
(Illicit drugs are unlawful, and ultimately they will be evicted as any other tenant would be if their drug use became a problem known to their landlord.)
Why hasn’t the agency considered selling this prime real estate and using the proceeds to fund more housing somewhere more affordable, such as Nar Nar Goon?
(Nar Nar Goon is a commuter town cum outer suburb located 61 kilometres from the Melbourne CBD. It has the lack of services and facilities one would expect from such a location . It is also far from East Brighton, and I suspect that geographic property is more relevant here.)
What if they want to bring their romantic partner home to their unit?
(I’m still shaking my head about this one. Perhaps they’re worried about loud sex?)
Why weren’t we consulted?
This was by far the dominant theme. Superficially it sounds reasonable, until one considers that we don’t get a veto over our neighbours (at least, we do not in Australia). If I move next door to you, you get absolutely no say in the matter: and vice-versa.
Surely anything else is authoritarian?
(Pianissimo) It will affect our property values…
After the event, one resident made this observation as the unspoken fear.
3 thoughts about homelessness and privilege I took from this experience.
- Homeless people are perceived by those in privilege as the “other” and homelessness is seen as a problem that only happens to other people (nothing could be further from the truth).
- Evidence-based programs proven to assist effectively homeless people won’t touch the sides of the fear some residents have about people who are not like them.
- With property investment becoming the preferred means for affluent Australians to generate and grow their own wealth, programs such as Towards Home will come up against this fear that helping the homeless will negatively affect their investment.
This last conclusion points to the potential for required solutions to homelessness being unpalatable for a cohort of middle-class Australians precariously invested in property speculation.
(This is my first piece on Medium, and I’m certain I will look back at it with embarrassment in the not too distant future! Thank you for reading it.)