Long-grassers seen as blight on Darwin's iconic foreshore


Darwin Esplanade

I was sitting on the front verandah of our lovely small flat on Darwin’s Nightcliff foreshore, having invited my adult son and his family over for dinner. We were talking the local Vinnies’ decision to relocate its SOS Van from its highly visible city location on The Esplanade. This followed the airing of safety issues and complaints from members of the community.

As we looked out on the bike and walking path adjacent to the azure Arafura Sea across from our home, he raised the uncomfortable but pertinent question that emerges for all residents when faced with the possibility that the tranquillity and amenity of their beautiful environment is threatened by anti-social behaviour in close proximity. 

Darwin has a small group of ‘long-grassers’ who live rough both in the vicinity of the CBD and the original dormitory suburbs to the north. The Vinnies SOS van has been servicing the needs of the Darwin City based group for many years, with a permit from the Darwin City Council. It offers a meal and hot drinks to homeless clients five nights a week in a spot close to where many of them spend the night. 

It is a highly visible and iconic location, a short distance from the War Memorial that commemorates the bombing of Darwin during World War II. Permanent residents live in high rise apartments nearby and tourists stay in the five star hotels along The Esplanade. Like my own verandah, here are some of the best views in the Top End.

My son and I wondered how a community is to respond to the needs of its most marginalised citizens when their behaviour becomes an embarrassment, and possibly a danger, to other residents and visitors.

Should the interests of tourist entrepreneurs be put before those of the homeless and hungry? Should residents be able to enjoy the their picturesque location without the noise, fighting and litter of the riff raff?

The issue emerged on the day after Italian media reported that the Vatican had installed a shower block for the homeless on the edge of St Peter’s Square. If it is acceptable to cater for the marginalised in that highly visible tourist hot spot, surely there’s a moral imperative to acknowledge the rights and needs of the marginalised in Darwin.

Despite such conjectures, the St Vincent de Paul Society NT decided to relocate, so that it could continue to provide the service in a less visible location. 

But where to? Initially Vinnies has decided upon Ozanam Centre, its major outreach centre 2.5 kilometres away in Stuart Park. Those who are hungry and homeless will somehow need to get themselves over to Stuart Park to get a feed. 

Then how long will it be before the residents in the apartments and expensive homes, and business owners, in Stuart Park start to object? And if it is reasonable to require the hungry to travel so far for charity, the surely must be ready for further relocations of the facility. 

What are the alternatives? One of the major Churches in the Darwin CBD was asked if they would ‘house’ the service. All that is required is an open space for a small van and room for about 40 people to congregate for an hour or so and access to toilets. The request was denied, presumably because a judgment based on a negative assessment of the questions posed above emerged. There are at least four other major Churches located in the CBD including St Mary’s Star of the Sea Catholic Cathedral. 

Is it reasonable to expect one of these to offer a location (all have the space and toilet facilities)? Surely this is the ‘smelling like the sheep’ work that Pope Francis was talking about when addressing his priests in March this year. 

If not the Churches, who else should step up to the plate? Surely it is not the responsibility of religious people and institutions only. Indeed local service groups in Darwin both sponsor the SOS Van and staff it regularly. Many of these people who give up their time are not church goers. Similarly the Darwin City Council has a responsibility to meet the needs of all residents of the City, not just ratepayers. It, too, must accept a responsibility to engage in a careful investigation to find an appropriate site. 

There is a committee comprising relevant service providers, including Larrakia Nation, the Native title holder body in Darwin, who have been tackling this issue for many years. But a major concern is that widespread community ignorance and disinterest allows the strong voice of a small group to dominate the agenda and seems to have compelled the agencies to anticipate a community backlash, rather than feel that they are actually doing the community’s essential work on its behalf. The decision to stay on the Esplanade might be 'On the Nose' but it was the right decision, sadly forgone. 

Mike BowdenMike Bowden has worked as a teacher and community worker in Alice Springs and Aboriginal communities in the Top End.

Topic tags: Mike Bowden, Vinnies, homelessness, Indigenous welfare, Darwin, Pope Francis, St Vincent de Paul Society



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Existing comments

Well written Mr Bowden. The St Vincent St Paul Society's founder, was inspired to start his work by the question, which I summarise as: What am I actually doing about the things I claim to believe? The Churches, the charities, the government departments, and all of us as individuals, need to ask ourselves that question.
Vin Victory | 27 November 2014

My reaction is "how terrible" and then I think "what am I actually doing about it". Mea culpa.
Jenni Gormley | 28 November 2014

Last night in Seaford, Melbourne the social justice group of our St Ann's parish with others held a meeting to support the retention of a cabin park that houses over 100 desperate people, many of whom attended the meeting. If the cabin is closed up to 60 people would be on the street. A Number of people , mostly men sleep on the beach in Seaford. It is not enough that we just write and talk about this situation, this is the reality for many people in all suburbs of Australia.
Kevin Vaughan | 28 November 2014

A few days ago I overheard a conversation on the bus. A local resident was congratulating himself on the fact that the local council had 'moved on' a group of jobless, homeless young people. His companion commented that they'd only moved a few streets away, so 'the problem still exists'. So - the solution....? When people are the problem, rather than having problems, it's frightening to think about how the problem could be solved.
Joan Seymour | 28 November 2014

maybe it's gentrification creeping up on what used to be thought of as a public commons - the beaches and bushes nearby. maybe next step will be to fence it off so property owners don't get offended.
walter p komarnicki | 29 November 2014

Very well said Mike. You continue to speak for the homeless and those on the edges as you've always done. It is sad to read that this has occurred. It's becoming more common unfortunately. I do volunteer work for Vinnies in Melb and the homeless situation is getting worse.
Nancy Freddi | 29 November 2014

Here’s a crazy idea: Why doesn’t the Labor Party recraft the Mining Tax with all the revenues from that being put into a special fund for the homeless (and also refuges for abused women and kids)? Labor might even call upon Twiggy Forrest to back them. Though he was a strong opponent of the Mining Tax, how could he, someone who seems to have a social conscience, oppose such a scheme? The miners would of course reject it but the public odium of doing so would make them a very isolated group, exposing them as heartless Bs. How could anyone oppose a scheme to house the homeless and provide shelter for battered women/children? However, Labor must make sure that any Mining Tax was properly drawn up this time, not the shambles that was hurriedly thrown together by Swan, Rudd and Gillard. Labor should be guided by the way the Resources Tax was crafted by Hawke and Keating in the early 1990s - in a competent manner after prolonged consultation with the mining sector. There are about 105,000 homeless in Australia of whom over 6000 sleep rough. Estimates suggest that it would cost about $600 million to accommodate them. Such a scheme could be part of Labor's platform (and perhaps the Green's) for the next election. .
Dennis | 30 November 2014


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