Who to blame for Aboriginal homelessness


Cyber bulliying workshop at Youth Plus program

Where do you start when it comes to addressing indigenous disadvantage; educational disadvantage, homelessness, chronic ill-health, drug and alcohol abuse?

Each of these problems presents its own challenges, yet we waste time, money and energy attacking the collective problem in a piecemeal fashion. What if there was a way of tackling them together, in a joint effort to ‘close the gap’?

Often when we see a problem, we immediately look for someone to blame.

Recently Cyclone Lam devastated large areas of Arnhem Land, resulting in much battered infrastructure in need of restoration. We can’t blame the cyclone itself. Instead, the fragmented way we approach the problem of addressing the needs of the locals is more the issue.

Recently, when I returned to Alice Springs, I was struck by the very evident crisis of homelessness. The front page of the Centralian Advocate on 24 February trumpeted: 'Empty Homes: Waiting list … over 600 with 114 dwellings vacant'. The 600 on the list can expect to wait six years for a three bedroom home.

Aimlessness is just as worrying.  As I drive around the streets of Larapinta on a weekday morning, I see many children and youths strolling towards the Corner Store. It is obvious that they have nothing more meaningful to head for on a week day morning.

I am not the first person to observe these things. I know that there are numerous people in the town, both in the community services sector and in the government, who are aware of these problems.

I worked for many years in an organisation that provides housing, employment and ancillary services to Aboriginal people in the town and I know of the energy and effort made by these staff and by the good people in the Territory Housing Department.  Yet the predicament remains and despite the policies of all governments and parties things have, from appearances, not improved.

Perhaps the key lies in the lack of work or engagement of so many Aboriginal people in purposeful, meaningful daily activity – be it employment, education or training – and the number of empty public dwellings in the same vicinity lends a clue to the deep malaise in the Centre.

Youth Plus is an extension of Edmund Rice Australia that was first established in Queensland. It opened St Joseph’s Flexible Learning Centre in Alice Springs three years ago. ‘Flexis’ are designed to re-connect disengaged students back to schooling. Across Australia, these students are regarded as the most at-risk cohort in various cities and regional centres.

The risks are juvenile delinquency, homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse and suicide ideation and attempts. In many Flexis, Aboriginal students make up a significant portion of the student body. In Alice Springs, Aboriginal teenagers comprise the whole student cohort apart from one solitary non-Indigenous student. These students are the children of many of the people I see walking the suburban streets of Alice. Thankfully St Joseph’s is now providing some of the meaning and purpose so lacking in the lives of many.

St Joseph’s employs a team of teachers and youth workers who as well as engaging students in a variety of interesting activities also collect and return students from their homes. Many of these students are often found in different locations each day. In a local form of ‘couch surfing’ they are footloose, frequently changing address as they access support from relatives dotted across the town.

Meanwhile NT Shelter’s latest report indicates that the homelessness in the Northern Territory, reported above at 750 out of every 100,000 (compared to a National figure of 49/100,00), is largely made up of ‘overcrowding’.  It is this frequent accessing of unsupervised ‘shelter’ that is covered by the category of homelessness.

One of the consequences of this style of living is the lack of planning and sense of responsibility that accompanies it. With ‘care-giving’ provided by persons other than the child’s parent or official carer, young people easily develop a laissez faire attitude towards attendance at school and other important aspects of their personal lives.

While being ‘sent’ to school is not the only effective basis of a successful education it does provide an essential platform. Too many Indigenous students are deprived of the routine of family life that equips them for a day of educational striving. While sending these children to boarding schools in the metropolitan cities has been suggested as one solution to this problem, the downside of boarding is both home sickness and disassociation from family and culture for these already culturally challenged young Aboriginal people.

National organisations such as The Lighthouse Foundation, a Melbourne based not for profit agency providing support to homeless youth, provide the structure essential to establish stability and security, love and care in the lives of homeless youth.

If a linked approach like this were attempted, there could be no justification for blaming anyone. It’s not the problems themselves that are the challenge. It’s more the way we go about trying to solve them. We fail to think laterally and in an integrated way, and that’s why there’s so much grief.

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

Image: Cyber bulliying workshop at Youth Plus program.

Topic tags: Mike Bowden, indigenous disadvantage, homelessness, closing the gap



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Existing comments

Problems for indigenous peoples are entrenched and the most positive thing I can think of would be to privilege their talk, their viewpoint and their experience. Devising ways for them to be educated, to be kept busy, to be employed are all good aims but indigenous people themselves should be the drivers of change. Each individual's perspective is unique. Sometimes stepping back and handing power back to the powerless can be risky but very satisfying to all concerned. Constitutional recognition is long overdue and so is giving indigenous people the right to plan for their own future.

Pam | 06 March 2015  

Always good to read an article by Mike Bowden. He speaks from experience in indigenous matters and can therefore suggest concrete solutions. His views deserve wider circulation. I regret to say that discussion about indigenous affairs has become so politicised that while grand promises are made during election time very few of them come to fruition after the votes are in.

Uncle Pat | 09 March 2015  

"Attacking collective problems in piecemeal fashion! " You have hit the nail on the head here,Mike. Most issues facing our society need to be looked at in depth ,not just at the end results. This may include looking at the many determinants of the behaviors. We abhor domestic violence, but don't address families under intense pressure to "make ends meet" ,to pay the bills, mend the car or frig or washing machine..We don't address the culture of using alcohol to cheer us up, dull the tiredness or the pain. Are we able to get the right leaders in the various fields to instigate and provide reasonably paid self affirming jobs , ?. Do our schools provide well equipped teachers who offer education in values , budgeting, life skills and self respect and affirmation. ? Why can't we teach drug awareness programs that are evaluated ,revised ,continually improved. ?Can we give satisfying work to the many skilled people needed to provide close ongoing support for those who have fallen or about to fall.?. Why can 't the media everywhere foster respect for the human body ,for other people and property. ?How can we help foster the spiritual dimension of our people.? What can we offer to help people find meaning in their lives? Why are our churches and we the members not diversifying and doing the good news instead of just talking it. Pope Francis installed showers for homeless to use. Simple but effective.Let's have less talk , (conversations!)more getting to the needs of society as a whole and not just attending to making profits., writing reports,superficial quick fixes and political point scoring. With continued bipartisan government support and programs could we not address our terrible treatment of our indigenous brothers and sisters.. ? "We fail to think laterally and that is why there is so much grief". Oh so true Mike.

Celia | 09 March 2015  

The 'welfare mentality' has crept into our social fabric for over 50 years to the point that it has become 'normalised'. A bit like the rubbish I see around many Aboriginal communities and camps has likewise become part of the 'landscape' young people grow up believing is 'normal'. Encouraging a new way of 'seeing' things is imperative if things are to 'turn around'. Being 'bored' is a choice. What else can one 'choose' to be? The only thing we have absolute control is our attitude. Being aware of the language we use is also a healing measure. Instead of constantly referring to domestic violence, what does domestic harmony look like??? Focus on the positives of what you want, model them and promote them through education and community programs. With rights come responsibilities. Grow and sustain the fiscal economy in tandem with the social economy. It's not all about money. Too much emphasis on the 'money story' has resulted in greed, corruption and crime. Yes, Mike, it is all possible from this breath forward if we choose to think laterally and be creative with our solutions. Stimulate the passion in people; not the pain.

Phil Walcott | 10 March 2015  

I worked in remote NSW in 60's. Aboriginal Housing was mostly almost non-existent. Welfare dependency is caused by the "helper mentality" - best of intentions and all that BUT this does not empower people for their long-term future. NO government has ever been serious about giving any form of self determination - therefore 50 years on not much has improved with remote housing. I can't see any polly getting excited about the voting power of our first people. Celia's comment describes the strange way that government doesn't work to improve anything. Most of the Government money for Indigenous affairs ends up as salary for the multi-layered bureaucracy! However - I do see many more young Aboriginal men and women completing schooling to year 12. Hopefully a greater knowledge of selves and the world can lead to this generation being able to take charge of their lives.

John Henry Cooper | 10 March 2015  

i saw the St Joseph's Flexible Learning Centre in action last week. After 25 years in education in the NT, this was the first time that I had seen this 'cohort' of students in a schooling situation. They students were attending, they engaged in the meal provided, now to get them learning... What an exciting adventure.

Sally Hodgson | 11 March 2015  

Aboriginal homelessness has a very long history. It has been a tragic story of disposession since the 19th century. The British Government and then the Australians wanted the white Australia policy.They robbed these people of their land, language, culture and families.You can't repair this in one or 2 generations. It is called trauma. Send out the most qualified and creative teachers and health workers and pay them well.This may make a difference. Show respect for the people who once cared for this land before the whites arrived. I think we all have to take resposibility.Send medical students, engineering students, building experts with apprentices. Give the complacent white youth the education of working with the underprivileged of society. BUT ask the Aboriginal community what THEY want. We think we have the answers. Our PM has all the answers. But we know nothing. We need to learn and this can only be done by learning from the different communities themselves. We must remember that each community is different, have different languages and culture. It is time for white people to tread softly.

Mira Zeimer | 12 March 2015  

This is a huge problem which I believe can only be solved with the assistance of small organisations such as the Lighthouse Foundation which operate and are managed in the local community.( I am not familiar with the Lighthouse Foundation organisation but it is probably similar to small organisations which I support and are managed by Australian good samaritans in Nepal and Bangladesh). I believe that disadvantaged aboriginal people need mentors living in their local communities to encourage and assist people to take responsibility and action to improve their education, housing and health. I believe that the administration of these services should be excluded from Federal, State and Local government departments. I believe that Federal and State governments should develop a consistent affirmative action policy for aboriginal people in remote areas for quality housing, schools, libraries, computer centres and recreational centres. I am often bemused that the mainstream media highlights problems in NT Aboriginal communities as if they do not exist in other parts of the country. I am involved in some volunteer work at a house in Geelong which provides emergency shelter to homeless men. Most of these men are homeless because of failed relationships, dysfunctional families or unemployment. Most of these blokes are poorly educated, illiterate and have poor inter-personal communication skills and do not have a trade or professional qualification which would enable them to obtain a permanent job.

Mark Doyle | 17 March 2015  

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