Conversations with homeless protesters

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When the surveyor Robert Hoddle was laying out the grid that would become Melbourne's CBD, he didn't include a public square, which was then the norm for European-inspired cities of the New World, since — it was reasoned — it would serve no commercial purpose.

Chris JohnstonSubsequent calls for a public space where people could gather were reportedly rebuffed by Melbourne City Council for fears it would provide a place for unruly citizens to gather and express their displeasure at the government of the day.

But by 1961, the thinking had changed and it was decided that, according to a town planner's report, a city square would be of 'great value to the property and businessmen of the central business area'.

This came to mind when I was speaking with a homeless gentleman camped in a corner of that City Square. He told me someone had approached him a few days earlier to offer his support, but said he'd prefer it if they'd move their protest somewhere else — far away from his Swanson Street shop.

Those occupying the space were happy to chat; that is, once I'd assured them that I don't work for the Herald Sun. They explained that it was an article published in that paper, making unfair and sweeping accusations against Melbourne's homeless for being aggressive, that was the catalyst for their decision to occupy the Square.

They're tired of not being respected — a word that came up over and over with everyone I spoke to — as if, because they're homeless, they have no right to it.

I asked John, a tall, articulate man with long hair and well-maintained hipster beard, if he'd had a chance to read the most recently published Herald Sun think-piece arguing that what they are doing is not a demand for help, but a political protest.

He smiled wryly, expelled a couple of bursts of laughter and said that that may be their most accurate reporting of the unfolding situation to date: 'This has always been a political protest ... that's always been our intention.'

 

"If you manage to get temporary accommodation in a boarding house, you're often forced to deal with the very problems that led you to be living on the streets in the first place." — John, homeless protester

 

These are among the most disenfranchised people in the community and there's a palpable sense that, for the first time in a long time, they actually have some agency. The protest, they feel, is forcing politicians, councillors and the public to confront problems related to homelessness that they know only too well, but that everyone else seems more comfortable ignoring. 'We don't want a home just for ourselves, we want to solve the homelessness problem,' John told me. Anything short of that 'would just be selfish'.

When I asked John what exactly he means by the 'homelessness problem' he spoke of the lack of services to prevent homelessness, despite many of the triggers — he listed drug abuse, mental illness, domestic violence and financial problems — being well-known. Everything is geared towards providing assistance when it's already too late. 'Once homeless,' he explained, 'if you manage to get temporary accommodation in a boarding house, you're often forced to deal with the very problems that led you to be living on the streets in the first place.'

Talking about his own experiences, John spoke of the lack of follow-up support. 'I would love someone to come and check up on me once a week ... I need that,' he said. 'But no matter how many times I tell people I need help I never seem to get it.'

Kierran Horsfield, dressed in a dark brown leather jacket, with boyish looks and a sweeping fringe, is also occupying the Square. He was the first to greet me as I approached their temporary camp and he exudes a sense of defiance and optimism. For him, there seems to be an obvious continuity between the 2011 Occupy protests, which he mentioned several times, and what's happening on that same site now. Even his rhetoric echoes that movement: one of the first things he said to me is 'they don't respect us as political actors'. He was referring explicitly to politicians and councillors, but I got the sense that a large section of the community is also included in that 'they'.

As people wander past the site, reading the signs and dropping coins in a bowl placed on the footpath, Kierran greets them politely and engages with them comfortably. Many come by and offer their support — they shake his hand, pat him on the back and offer words of encouragement. One young lady approaches and begins chatting with him; when she leaves she hands him a $50 note. He looks dumbstruck, bumbles a thank-you and comes over to where I'm standing with a couple of other protesters and just holds the note up without saying anything.

He takes it back into the main part of the camp where the majority of protesters are gathered before returning. It's hard not to be impressed by his idealism: he often sounds (and, indeed, looks) like a young campus radical, telling me that 'we're doing this ourselves, this is not some charity', that 'we've got nothing but the clothes on our back and hope' and that he won't be going anywhere until their concerns are addressed.

Kierran, like many of the others occupying the Square, wants to be heard. Their aims are somewhat arbitrary, but they are all born out of a commitment — no matter how hard things are — to live with some dignity. Here, as a group, people can't ignore them.

They seem to genuinely derive strength from being there together. 'We're always here [in the CBD],' James told me with a sweeping gesture as if he's revealing a Sale of the Century showcase, 'we're just spread out throughout the city.'

The way they speak about their own personal struggles makes the idea of 'the homeless community' — a common refrain in the media and among the public more generally — seem meaningless to those to whom it's applied. Homelessness is almost always forced upon people who've no one left to turn to. And the inadequacies in the services that are meant to support them mean that these men and women often find themselves isolated and alone. But here they have banded together around a shared purpose.

It remains to be seen what will come of their protest, but one hopes that, whatever happens, the idea of 'the homeless community' actually comes to mean something more substantive than it did a week ago.

Postscript: Police broke up the camp Friday morning, removing the makeshift structures and shelters the protestors have erected over the past week. According to reports from the ABC, the protestors have vowed to continue their demonstration without their belongings.

 


Tim RobertsonTim Robertson is an independent journalist and writer. He tweets @timrobertson12

Topic tags: Tim Robertson, homelessness, Melbourne, Occupy


 

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I am wondering if groups of them could rent places together and with a bit of support, run things themselves.
sylvia blayse | 20 May 2016


Am a great fan of Tim Robertson's articles. He presents the facts in their social and political setting, making it clear - without actually shaming or blaming - where the real responsibilities for solving injustice lie. Fifty dollar handouts are wonderful but as long as those with the real power and money to correct the third world situations on our own doorsteps, nothing will ever change for the poor and disenfranchised. Shame Australia. Shame! It's not only political; it's criminal.
Annabel | 23 May 2016


In western societies the most crippling of all poverties is, what I call, Relational Poverty: an entrenched isolation in which there is minimal and, often times, no meaningful human contact. Amongst those experiencing chronic mental ill health, for instance, this is an all too pervasive reality: one that leaves people who are very sick fending for themselves on the streets, in refuges, gaols and public housing estates throughout the nation. Much of our approach to welfare and homelessness (governments, community, churches) is underpinned by impersonal charity which focuses on relieving material poverty: e.g. through the provision of low-cost housing, welfare benefits, soup kitchens, refuges, second-hand clothing bins, vouchers etc. This has its place and, in some instances, is critical; but it has little, if any, impact on addressing Relational Poverty. More often than not, our ‘impersonal charity’ helps people survive/exist only; lives are not transformed. Within this milieu, relationships are not fostered or encouraged, so people become entrenched in a never-ending cycle of homelessness: bouncing from refuge to refuge and back again. Thus, the often complex issues that underlie peoples’ crises are never properly addressed, so nothing really changes; we just re-cycle homelessness. In essence, we tend only to addressing ‘houselessness’ (physical needs), rather than homelessness (spiritual/emotional needs).
Fr Peter day | 23 May 2016


Tim's article and Fr. Peter Day's all too pertinent comments could be blue prints for action. Case workers and social workers, companions along the way, available people and places , communities that provide time out , refinement and reinforcement of individuals' positive goals all could help prevent isolation and foster beneficial relationships for people struggling in today's world. Fr. Peter Day , have u ever considered standing for parliament. ? With ideas like you have shared today , I'd vote for you! Didn't Pope Francis also suggest getting into the thick of things , even washing the feet of prisoners on Holy Thursday.? Gillian Bouris in her article gives a clue of how money could possibly be redirected (and there's many more ways) to support the marginalized and disadvantaged in our midst. Let's act to promote the compassionate wise ideas of visionaries such as these four people.
Celia | 23 May 2016


Excellent and sensitive story.
Tony Roach | 23 May 2016


Could every parish support and provide accomodation a small start but am shore y0u would find plenty willing people
pamela byrnes | 24 May 2016


Excellent article Tim. Living and working in the CBD its very confronting to see the evidence of inequity in the homeless of the city.
Lyn Bender | 25 May 2016


I fully endorse the aspect of 'relational poverty' as being previously unrecognised in its importance. I volunteer for one of the large charities and in my privileged encounters sense that the personal touch far outweighs the food handouts
Margaret Atchison | 21 April 2017


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