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Just do something about NT homelessness



The statistics provided by NT Shelter are chilling. The rate of homelessness in the Northern Territory is 12 times the national average. Six per cent of all Territorians are experiencing homelessness. Eighty-one per cent of homelessness in the NT is due to overcrowding. Twenty per cent of Aboriginal people in the NT are homeless. More than 16 per cent of Territorians under 16 are homeless. The NT has 13 times the national rate of people sleeping rough.

In this Chris Johnston illustration, a football flies over the homeless camping in the longrass, aiming at the general public - some of who reach out to accept the message, some are uncertain, and some hide or shy away from it. The words 'do something' are written on the ball.Homelessness is a burden, not just on the homeless person but on the wider community. There is an 'opportunity cost' implicit in homelessness. The concept of opportunity cost is the cost of doing nothing and letting things go on as they are. What would the whole community gain if say half the existing number of homeless people were employed and paying rent? The entire economy benefits by getting people housed and employed. By not addressing homelessness the whole economy and community suffers.

John Kennedy coached the Hawthorn Hawks AFL club from the late 1950s to the late 1970s. He was famous for his commitment to fitness and hardness at the ball — and his oratory. Perhaps his most famous contribution to the game was his comment at three quarter time of the 1975 Grand Final against the rampant North Melbourne Kangaroos, coached by Ron Barassi. When addressing players who hadn't performed well till to that point, he shouted: 'At least do something! Do! Don't think, don't hope, do! At least you can come off and say "I did this, I shepherded, I played on. At least I did something."'

It's not just 'long grassers' or 'river campers' — the Aboriginal people from remote communities camping 'rough' in Darwin and Alice Springs respectively. They are the visible marker of a deeply entrenched problem. 

Long grassers and river campers have a place they call home back in remote parts of the Territory but their homes are not liveable. The recent class action by the residents of community housing at Ltyentye Apurte/Santa Teresa, 80km south-east of Alice, demonstrates that.

The problem is under-resourcing across the Territory. Agencies like Yilli Reung and Tangentyere in Darwin and Alice Springs and the housing associations in remote communities are working at the coal face with energy and initiative. The NT government has committed $10 billion to addressing the problem. But ready solutions do not present themselves automatically.

The Northern Territory branch of the Community and Public Sector Union has recommended to the Gunner Labor government to consider a strategy that was outlined at the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) sponsored conference in Darwin in August 2019. A presentation by Samantha Evans explained overseas models of shared equity. The examples she offered indicated a role for governments, philanthropy and private for-profit investment. In the Australian setting, and in the Northern Territory particularly, the role of Aboriginal and other community-based housing providers needs to be factored in.


"The big question is how are the insights and creative knowledge of institutions like the AHURI to be effectively and permanently recruited and inserted into decision making about public housing funding?"


The overseas examples offer innovative possibilities. They deserve consideration. They require deeper, more extensive thought.

In the NT we need buy in. We will need more than the existing players — governments and Vinnies, Salvos, Anglicare, the Aboriginal housing bodies and town camp associations. Success in addressing the overcrowding, particularly in remote and town camp Aboriginal housing, will depend upon wider partnerships between governments, Aboriginal agencies, not for profits, business, philanthropy, lending institutions, entrepreneurs and ordinary people.

The challenge is in recruitment — interestingly the same issue that brings success to AFL teams. They know it and allocate personnel resources and spend much time and effort on 'building their list'. To stay with the AFL analogy and to again quote Kennedy, what is clear is that we have to do something! And we have to do it as a team committed to a goal to end homelessness.

The big question is how are the insights and creative knowledge of institutions like the AHURI to be effectively and permanently recruited and inserted into decision making about public housing funding?

We need a Marlion Pickett injection! An investment in a full-time Northern Territory housing think tank comprising representatives of both Commonwealth and Northern Territory governments, Aboriginal agencies, not for profits, business, philanthropy, lending institutions, entrepreneurs and ordinary people, staffed by a small highly qualified secretariat would appear to provide a way forward.

We have to do something!



Mike BowdenMike Bowden has worked as a teacher and community worker in Alice Springs and Aboriginal communities in the Top End. He is receiving a theology PhD from the University of Divinity in Adelaide in 6 December 2019, for this thesis exploring Aboriginal and Catholic spirituality, 'Searching Altyerre to Reveal the Cosmic Christ'.

Topic tags: Mike Bowden, Northern Territory, homelessness



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Existing comments

Maybe the community is the problem.

john frawley | 06 December 2019  

Confusing for me... one article here is outraged that people would query the possibility of survival in the outback because indigenous people have done it for thousands of years, yet here is a plea to end homelessness there. I accept Mike's expert article and team building mentality but struggle with how change in the provision of accommodation can be achieved while some would protest a return to country. That's the other team...

Ray | 06 December 2019  

Hi My names is Miss Margaret Thompson I'm a resident of Ngukurr Community there is a major problems within the communities with over crowded extended family members living in one house or more is fully crowded we need more houses to be done people need a shelter to live so that their kids can have a good nights sleep for school or even for their parents that have job or don't job so its really challenging for us all around the aboriginal communities"

Margare Thompson | 06 December 2019  

It's great to see that you "can't keep a good man down". Congratulations to Mike on receiving his PhD.

Dr Wendy Beresford-Maning | 09 December 2019  

Thankyou Mike, this long standing issue in NT is catastrophic and we can - elect decent people and demand this IS a priority .As a Victorian we all are affected in degrees in communities with no jobs poverty crime , poor health poor education .. the government wants a surplus but this is false economy false savings when housing should be treated like all other infrastructure. No one can learn or function without good housing and as you mention other nations’ perspectives we have to toss this 18 th century thinking out. We are ruining our social fabric and the cost is and will be growing to an impossible enormous burden. The young are as vulnerable as the elderly . I have been impressed with Ged Kearney , elected in northern Melbourne seat of Cooper and her willingness to stand up and perform in parliamentShe was a nurse and she understands the impacts of no affordable housing on health education and welfare - these the basic elements of a GOOD society something quite simply this old formula for economic porosperity is not working . We need to listen to indigenous knowledge otherwise we will not survive with our colonial ways ; this ignorance is a stalemate we have to admit.

Catherine | 09 December 2019  

Is there a problem here with the 'and/or' thinking of a 'traditionalised/colonised-acculturated mentality', and the 'both/and' mindset of an evolutionary take on life. Somehow to be viable local communities need to maintain their traditional life-support attitudes while at the same time drawing on the inputs of the erstwhile colonisers. All-round openness to conversion would be a good outcome, well-housed folk going about communnity commitments over time without forgetting the law of modest returns in our projects.

Noel McMaster | 09 December 2019  

While Mike is writing about the Northern Territory crisis, it is a nationwide problem. A lot of the allocated money goes into administration and outsourcing to consultants, with little reaching the coalface. Consultants can write report after report, often at great cost to the tax payer ; often going over the same old ground again and again!! but the reports get filed away to gather dust. It is well and truly time that bureaucrats and politicians get off their collective back sides and go out and see the real world. I was absolutely shocked at the living conditions in the N.T when I went there on excursion with a school group over a decade ago. I have been to third world countries frequently over the years and seen better conditions then I saw around Alice Springs. We are a very wealthy country and we can do much much better eradicating homelessness. Sure there will be short time pain financially; but with decent planning and execution of those plans, including consultation with those affected by this blight, the future can only be positive, economically and socially.

Gavin | 09 December 2019  

We were in the Kimberly after the intervention and kept hearing on talkback radio what a relief they felt , that they could get their lives back FREE OF GROG. Maybe unfashionable but a definite answer, Get off the grog!!!

Adrian Harris | 14 December 2019  

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