Image description: Children play in raw sewerage around a toilet block.
There’s a running joke in the disability sector that goes something like this.
Q: If the 3rd of December is International Day of People with a Disability, what happens on the other 364 days?
I’m reminded each year on that day by the hypocrisy of the sector, who hold breakfast events to celebrate IDPwD despite most disabled people being unable to attend, who speak in glum terms about two percent employment rates and then do nothing to remedy it, who do things for us and to us but never with us, and consequently seldom get it right.
But sometimes I see this happening in other sectors. That happened this week, and it hurt my heart.
Down the centre streets of Perth, flags are proudly flying for NAIDOC week. There are celebrations in parks, in schools – even a ‘Miss NAIDOC Perth’ event for young Aboriginal women to be ‘trained’ in grooming and deportment and leadership skills. The theme for this year’s NAIDOC day is – ‘We all stand on Sacred Ground: Learn, Respect, Celebrate’.
Then why, during a week that purports to celebrate ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ strong spiritual and cultural connection to land and sea’, are there increasing numbers of homeless people living in tents in the middle of the city, in bitterly cold weather? Why are our government departments installing sprinklers to douse our homeless like fighting dogs? Why is it that raid after raid has been carried out on a population of people who already have nothing, and why is our City imposing further disadvantage on a population who have had almost everything torn away already?
The pictures are telling. Children play in effluent, raw sewage that has leaked from the overflowing toilets. The City of Perth has refused to carry out maintenance works on Heirisson Island, and the toilets have backed up, spilling sewage into the river. Pictures appear on Facebook – there is an outcry from the public, who recognise the risk to children’s health. The City acts swiftly – they install an orange, plastic barricade and a laminated sign that warns of contamination, telling people to stay out.
A woman tells me that a wheelchair has been taken in a raid. It turns out that it is not a wheelchair but a Zimmer frame, but the elderly woman to which it belongs can hardly walk without it. She is told to walk off the Island and leave, but cannot walk. Another woman with a chronic health condition is herded into the back of a paddy wagon. The raids come often, without warning – and every time the site is raided, the people are left with less. The tents, donated by Maori communities, emblazoned with messages of support, are removed on the back of a truck by silent City of Perth workers, with police standing by. The campers watch whilst their possessions are removed, leaving them with less than when they started. Weeks later, the concrete barricades are erected, preventing cars from entering the car park. I watch a car load of people handing out scraps of wood from a building site over the barricade to a waiting lad with a wheelbarrow, one by one, their warmth for the night. There were too many people there, says the CEO. We had to limit the numbers. I’d complained because they’d also prevented people with disability from entering the site – when I tried to get to the campsite to meet with a disabled woman and hook her up with advocacy services, I could not. The CEO tries to allay my fears – what happens if someone cuts off their foot with an axe? I ask. Emergency services can’t get in there. They can, he reassures me. Later, I learn that two young white women had set a fire at the rear of the Island and fire control vehicles could not access the site. The campsite is an accident waiting to happen. And when people are forced out, where will they go?
Learn, respect, celebrate. Those words haunt me today, on the last day of the NAIDOC ‘celebrations’. Little to celebrate for those who are out in the cold, and certainly little respect. Communications have been cut off between the two warring parties, the Aboriginal community who remains at the site and the City of Perth. Stalemated, they keep doing what they are doing – one side trying desperately to survive at any cost with their pride and dignity intact, the other imposing increasingly punitive measures to force action, whatever that may be. The legal issues drag on and on, but the reality exists that old women and small children are living in third world conditions, that people have been thrown off their lands and communities, that children are playing in effluent. Learn, respect, celebrate.
I wake at five am, the time when we Scout leaders recognise that the winter temperature always drops sharply, when no matter how warm your sleeping bag is or how many clothes you have on, you are always, suddenly cold. I think of the homeless man who is dying of cancer and living at Matagarup and I think of the elders, huddled in their tents. I wonder if they are cold – I wonder if they had firewood last night, or if they had a meal. Like the employees of the City of Perth, I am sleeping in a bed, with my belly full. Nobody would dare to take my possessions, nor turn a hose on me whilst I sleep.
I do not know what the solutions are – all I know is that what is currently happening is not working. I have called on the CEO of Perth for a ‘winter amnesty’, where both parties can work together to make sure that people are safe, as an interim solution. Others have called for a Homelessness Summit, or a discussion about how we can ensure that we have homelessness precincts. The bigger issues will play out in their own time – they always do.
But for now, on the last day of NAIDOC Day, 2015, there are 10,000 homeless in Perth. And old women and children who are cold, in a tent.
Learn, respect, celebrate. The theme is an opportunity to pay respects to country; honour those who work tirelessly on preserving land, sea and culture and to share the stories of many sites of significance or sacred places with the nation. – NAIDOC website