Reality TV: When You Move On The Homeless, Make Sure The Media Is Around

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This week, Brisbane City Council ordered police in to break up a homeless camp on the edge of the Brisbane CBD. Along for the ride, of course, were media. Greens Councillor Jonathan Sri takes aim.

This week, Brisbane City Council hit a new low when it evicted a group of residents who were sleeping rough under the Go Between Bridge in South Brisbane.

It seems the council saw fit to tip off the mainstream media in advance so they could film the moment when police and enforcement officers moved in, but neglected to inform or consult me as the local councillor for the area.

Responding to homelessness by moving people on is not sweeping the mess under the rug. It is better described as adding more crap to the mess, smearing it around with your foot, spitting in it, then hiding it under multiple rugs in different parts of the house.

Last Thursday, people not only lost a lot of possessions and a dry place to sleep. They lost access to a community meeting place where they could share resources and information, socialise with visiting friends, and find relative safety in numbers.

Brisbane City Councillor Jonathan Sri (Greens), .
Brisbane City Councillor Jonathan Sri (Greens).

The stated justification for the mass move on order was ‘public safety and hygiene concerns’. A cynic might say that that’s code for “Wealthy developers and investors complained that the rough sleepers were devaluing their new apartments.”

Before we get carried away with media reports of urinating, swearing and drinking in public, we should remember that rough sleepers are not degenerate ‘vagrants’. They are human beings just like the rest of us, who happen to be on the wrong end of a ruthless and economically unsustainable housing bubble.

Homelessness is complex, particularly under the bridges along Kurilpa Peninsula, where people have sought refuge and shelter for decades. Every so often, Brisbane City Council forcibly breaks up these makeshift camps, but does very little to address the underlying problems.

Most rough sleepers have significant physical or mental health issues for which they do not receive sufficient support and treatment. Many homeless people struggle to access welfare payments because they don’t have a fixed address or a reliable phone, let alone the skills and education to navigate a prohibitively bureaucratic application process.

When you’re homeless, almost everything costs more. Your bedding and clothing wears out quicker because you don’t have a safe, dry place to store it. You don’t have anywhere to cook or store food, so with the exception of a couple of food vans, you’re eating out for pretty much every meal.

If you’re lucky enough to have a working mobile (and somewhere to charge it), you’re probably on the most expensive prepaid plan rather than a better-value monthly plan. And you’re far more likely to get robbed or physically assaulted, or to cop a heavy fine for comparatively harmless offences like swearing in public.

Right now in Queensland, housing is extremely expensive, and there are far more jobseekers than jobs. Crisis accommodation is full, public housing waiting lists run into the thousands, and the few private boarding houses remaining in the inner-city are generally over-priced, decrepit, dangerous and socially toxic. So to suggest that the majority of these rough sleepers have ‘freely chosen homelessness’ is simplistic bullshit.

Moving people on when they’ve got nowhere else to go is lazy, ineffective and cruel.

Yes, there were occasional instances of low-level alcohol-fuelled violence along the riverbank (I’m told these mostly involved people who were passing through, rather than the more permanent regulars). And yes, the presence of people living in the park did make some residents nervous. Heck, it even makes me kind of nervous that we have a government that’s callous enough to leave people sleeping under a bridge while new apartments sit empty.

But the solution to anti-social behaviour in public spaces is to send in more social workers, not enforcement officers. We definitely shouldn’t be confiscating their possessions and threatening them with arrest.

Brisbane's Go-Between-Bridge, on the edge of the CBD. (IMAGE: Nic MacBean, Flickr)
Brisbane’s Go-Between-Bridge, on the edge of the CBD. (IMAGE: Nic MacBean, Flickr)

Based on my conversations with some of the people who were moved on, I believe it is factually incorrect to state that secure housing was found for everyone sleeping rough along the river before the move on order was issued.

There is an extreme shortage of affordable housing in Brisbane. If under-funded NGOs were able to find temporary beds for most of these rough sleepers, it may well have meant that other individuals and families were pushed further down the waiting lists.

This is not a story about one group of rough sleepers in one riverside park. It is a story of ongoing systemic failures that make stable housing unaffordable for the people who need it most.

The solutions are already out there. It’s not that we lack the detailed knowledge of how to solve homelessness in Brisbane. It’s that we lack the political will.

Once, not so long ago, Brisbane City Council provided lockers for homeless people to store their possessions, well-funded and strategically-targeted outreach services, public showers and toilets that were open late at night, and even free tents and bedding.

Most importantly, it used part of its massive budget to build or acquire hundreds of properties which could be rented out on a means-tested basis at below-market rents.

Today, all the council does is move people on, and pass the buck.

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Jonathan Sri

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