There is no one-size fits all approach to indigenous housing. The needs of remote communities are not that same as those in urban areas. What is common across the board is the impact of bad government intervention.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders make up 23% of homeless persons, but represent 3% of the population. The vast majority of Indigenous homelessness is due to severe overcrowding (which is considered as a form of homelessness).
At StreetSmart, we work to mobilise resources for critically underfunded homelessness initiatives. Our partners in the Indigenous sector tell us they have fight tooth and nail to get the government to invest in their work. The money is there – with investments like the Remote Housing Partnership worth $5.4 billion. But it doesn’t ‘trickle down.’
Robert Cooper from Larrakia Nation in the Top End has been in the housing sector for more than a decade and works hard to get the ear of policy boffins that hold the keys to billions in public investment. He explained that it took more than a year of haggling to convince one grant holder to invest in the local community, rather than the fly-in-fly-out alternative. The community (in Cape York) eventually won, and the housing project has been extremely successful – “It needs to be driven by the grassroots. It’s not rocket science.”
One of the first criticisms is ‘where do all taxpayer funds go?’ That’s a great question, and the reality is very little even makes it to country. Report after report has found that public funds are misspent – largely gobbled up by the bureaucracy.
The First Nations Homelessness Project – a project of the Ngalla Maya Aboriginal Corporation, is a Perth charity that works to prevent Indigenous families from being evicted. Until late last year, they had no government funding for their work.
A quick scroll of their Facebook feed shows an active community of volunteers helping to keep people housed through working bees, tip runs, and collecting donated goods. They have a 100% success rate for preventing eviction.
Jennifer Kaeshagen, Director at First Nations Homelessness Project says that over-crowding is a big problem in Perth. She explained that the domino effect of evictions are in part what drives overcrowding – “When a family is evicted, they turn to the extended family for somewhere to stay. It just intensifies the problem.”
Overcrowding is not just an inconvenience, it has clear links to violence, substance abuse, communicable disease and makes it near impossible to keep kids happy, healthy and safe. It’s the number one issue for Indigenous housing today, where 70% of those who are considered homeless are living in overcrowded dwellings.
Most of the families the First Nations Homelessness Project support are in public housing, and Kaeshagen is sceptical about the likelihood that issues like maintenance and chronic undersupply will be addressed.
“As long as the waitlist keeps moving, [the government] can maintain the status quo and avoid a serious conversation about the need for more housing. The lack of investment in prevention churns people through the system but comes at enormous cost.”
Common reasons people face eviction are for things like rubbish removal and lawn mowing. Not rental arrears, not conduct, but property maintenance. “People living in poverty can’t afford tipping fees or a lawn mowing service. When you consider that every eviction cost a taxpayer about $40,000 who is it really helping?” Kaeshagen asks.
Kaeshagen explains that evictions are a big cause of child removal, “As soon as a family gets an eviction notice, child protection are notified and if the family has nowhere to go other than the already overcrowded house down the road – they are at real risk of being removed.”
A recent report on government services found the rate that Indigenous children are being removed from their families at a much greater rate than at any time during the stolen generation era. If you missed the spate of news around the Apology Anniversary that drew attention to this – it is worth stopping to understand just how successive governments have wrought havoc on indigenous issues, and not just ‘failed to protect them from themselves’ but exposed children to worse conditions in state care.
“While many Indigenous people in public housing have complex issues, the reasons people are pushed out of their homes and separated from their families are often not that complicated,” Kaeshagen says.
Something as simple as supporting people to stay on top of maintaining their housing would prevent the flow on effects, which are extremely traumatic.
Most of the families the First Nations Homelessness Project supports are in public housing, which places change well within the hands of government housing departments. Up North the big ticket is the Remote Housing Partnership, little of which actually flows into communities.
The obvious answer is to give Indigenous people ownership and to actually listen and respond to what community-level organisations have to say. The usual rationale is that indigenous organisations are badly run – rife with problems like bullying, corruption, or fail to genuinely represent their community. That is true for the entire community sector – health, housing, you name it.
It’s not a good reason to invest more in child removal than prevention. Let’s recognise institutional racism when it’s sitting in front of us.
We don’t listen to or invest in Indigenous Australia because we never have. Thinking that more of the same will do any good is doing just the opposite. We need to put the sordid history of paternalism and punishment behind us and give ownership to community initiatives like Larrakia Nation and the First Nations Homelessness Project.
Until we listen and give voice to Indigenous people – we will keep needing to fundraise to support organisations that do.
To support grassroots homeless projects become a StreetFunder.
And follow the First Nations Homelessness Project here.