Profit Over People, Surplus Over Safety: Courtney Herron’s Death Was Entirely Preventable



The full details of the death of Courtney Herron in Melbourne this week are yet to emerge. But we already know enough about her life to spark immediate action to prevent future deaths, argues Brendan O’Reilly.

We don’t yet know much about why Courtney Herron was killed but we do know that she was homeless. That ‘bleeding-heart’ Detective Inspector Andrew Stamper put it this way:

“This was a young woman who had significant challenges in her life. We as a community should be protecting these people and we didn’t. We failed on this occasion.”

We know she was homeless and we know that at least 1,700 Victorians “sleep rough” each night. These are people who can’t get a bed anywhere – not on someone’s living room floor, not in some squalid rooming house, certainly not in a rented flat.

We know that there were 82,000 people on the public housing waiting list in Victoria in June last year, and that this list was growing at 500 people a month.

We know that the Victorian government has pledged to build 1,000 social housing properties over the next three years. Even if each unit housed three people it will take 82 years for everyone on that list to get a roof over their head. And at the current rate of increase, another half a million will have been added to the list by then.

We know that the Victorian Government is bringing down a budget surplus of a billion dollars. We know that the Victorian government Treasury Corporation 10-year bond rate is 2.29%. Without a calculator we can know, therefore, that they could choose to borrow 15 billion dollars and build 30,000 or 40,000 social housing units right now and obliterate that obscene waiting list.

And still keep half of their precious surplus.

We know that if they did this there would be no need for anyone to be sleeping rough. Everyone who wanted a home would have one. Everyone with a drug or alcohol problem or a mental illness or trouble keeping a job, could now concentrate on solving that problem, rather than shuffling from bridge to park bench, from friend’s couch to rooming house and back again.

To everyone who squeals about government debt and government spending and taxes being too high, I say how many homeless people need to die before you change the way you think? Is our AAA credit rating worth a murder or two? What about a dozen?

It’s not that we’re reluctant to spend money on the down and out. We happily slap them in prison, often without conviction, at a cost of $100,000 per head per year. I spoke to a legal aid lawyer last year about a man with a mental illness who was homeless and now in prison. He had nowhere to go when he got out. Couldn’t live with his family. Couldn’t possibly pay private rent. Had only been on the public housing waiting list for eight years, which, I was assured by the Office of Housing, was “nothing”.

The lawyer told me that this described half of her clients: homelessness, prison, homelessness, prison. We’ll spend $2,000 a week to lock you up, but we won’t spend half that a month to give you a home.

Speaking of prisons, the Victorian government is building more of them, of course, at a cost of $1.8 billion over the next three years.

In the 50s and 60s governments built homes for poor people as a matter of course. They might not have been the prettiest homes in Melbourne, but they were homes that people could live in and be proud of. And these governments didn’t congratulate themselves for doing this – it was just something that needed doing.

Providing cheap homes for poor people made as much sense as building roads or paying school-teachers.

What have we become that we are so lousy with our money? Why does our government congratulate itself for building homes each year for 1% of the people who need them?

We know too that Courtney was a victim of male violence and we know that men must change their behaviour and hold each other to account. We know too that this change won’t happen overnight.

We know that if everyone has a house to live in then everyone will feel safer. We know that if women in abusive relationships can leave and have somewhere safe and cheap to live then they are more likely to leave and to be safe. The housing crisis gives men the upper hand in a situation of family violence.

Detective Inspector Stamper’s words should be clanging loudly in our ears. We should be protecting these people and we aren’t. We shouldn’t care so much about our budget surplus, but we do.


Brendan O’Reilly is a writer and works in the disability field. He has had work published in the Age, Herald-Sun, Big Issue, Overland and elsewhere. Brendan has lived in Melbourne since 1985, but was born and raised in Canberra, and also lived in Tasmania and Warragul in country Victoria.