The hard heart of the city

Until last Friday, around twenty homeless people had set up camp in Melbourne’s City Square, creating shelter where it elsewhere eluded them, as a public petition for more secure, affordable housing in Australia’s second most populous city. The presence of the camp was also a visceral risposte to claims, which appeared in the mainstream media last week, that homeless people had been behaving unpalatably, including asking passers-by for money in an aggressive fashion.

While the news stories about shambolic and combative behaviour from homeless people appeared recently, it is in fact a riff on a very old and very persistent narrative. This narrative holds that people with the temerity to be unmonied and unhoused in public deserve their lot, and direct requests for assistance are to be met with just enough humanitarian sensibility to suggest compassion, and with just enough threat to suggest that the social order which scaffolds homelessness will not be disrupted.

Take the comments of Lord Mayor Robert Doyle on the City Square camp, as reported by the Age via the ABC. ‘We’re not a hard-hearted city’, he stated. ‘I mean, we understand that these are people who need our help.’ Doyle then said, ‘On the other hand, if they’re aggressive, or if they’re dangerous, then it’s going to be a police matter.’ A major from the Salvation Army added that people living homeless may have moved into the centre of the city as it is safer than the outskirts.

This discursive wedge between performative compassion for the homeless and the threat of punishment for their actions, mediated by the voice of charity, will be familiar to those currently building homes and services in the previously empty buildings on Bendigo Street in Collingwood. Five properties, which have been sitting unused for a year while the city prevaricated on the building of the East West Link, have now been repurposed in the form of a refuge for women leaving violence, two new homes for homeless families, a community centre providing free services including skillsharing and youth support, and an embassy for members of the Kulin nation. The occupations are coordinated by the Homeless Person’s Union of Victoria, who told Overland that ‘properties that have been sitting unused for over one year have, in a period of just over one month, been transformed from bricks and mortar into a community.’

Those who camped out in City Square and those currently occupying Bendigo Street agree with the government that there is a crisis of increased homelessness and unaffordable housing blighting Melbourne at present, where 30,000 people sit on the waitlist for public housing and the homelessness figure stands at 26,000. They diverge, however, on the appropriateness of simply moving into unused properties and adapting them for use by those previously unsheltered. In mid-April, the occupants of Bendigo Street received a letter from the Victorian Government Office of Housing, claiming that they were preventing other people, including women and children escaping domestic violence, from accessing safe housing. Roads Minister Luke Donellan echoed the government position that those occupying Bendigo Street should effectively get in line for services that thousands of other homeless people are also waiting for.

The government’s claims appear to be tied up in their intention to contract the Salvation Army to manage tenancy of the properties. Without a doubt, the self-managed and fruitful actions of the current occupiers on Bendigo Street fly in the face of the government’s purported plans for the previously unused housing stock. However, it is all too convenient to strike a distinction  between ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ recipients of public resources like shelter from domestic violence and other forms of housing, particularly when there has been such a lag on the part of the authorities in terms of distributing and administering these resources.

Call it nuisance, trespass, squatting, repurposing, protesting, or homemaking; actions like the Bendigo Street occupations and the City Square camp speak back to this demarcation of worthiness, shaming the state and other arbiters of public resources. In so doing they can carve out more space for us to solve our own problems. As a tactic, autonomously generated occupation of contested space has founded many new ways of living together and supporting each other in cities across the world: from Australia’s first women’s refuge, Elsie, to the squatted community centres and housing cooperatives of Berlin and Copenhagen.

Of course, as the Office of Housing and the Salvation Army will argue, making public policy on a matter like housing, that has wide-scale, meaningful benefit, is complex; it does tend to require discernment between who, how and where the resources are to be allocated. By that logic, it may seem simplistic to walk onto the public square, homeless and poor, and demand your welfare be addressed, as those in City Square did. It may seem similarly one-dimensional to draw a parallel between numbers of people without shelter and the numbers of vacant homes, as those on Bendigo Street do. However, such demonstrations surely highlight that we are far from solving the problem of homelessness, and that state partnerships with welfare organisations have so far failed to deliver the fair distribution of property that may yet be the solution.

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Image: Adrian Fallace/Flickr

Ann Deslandes

Ann Deslandes is an Australian researcher and writer who lives in Mexico City. Most recently, her words have appeared in Ms. magazine,’s Across Women’s Lives, and Overland. She is a proud member of the MEAA and former activist with the Australian Services Union and National Tertiary Education Union.

More by Ann Deslandes ›

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  1. Just a thought – if the houses in Collingwood are set up partly for the purpose of protecting women leaving domestic violence, surely they wouldn’t want the name of the street publicised?

  2. Thanks for addressing this. I was just in Melbourne and the number of homeless people begging in the CBD is quite distressing. Not as distressing as the vast numbers of people who walked past them of course.
    Every homeless person who approached me did so with obvious anxiety. But I witnessed numerous instances of irritated dismissal of the homeless by other pedestrians. ‘Aggression’ by a homeless person (starving, ill, perhaps mentally unwell) risks the full force of a police response. Aggression toward the homeless, not so much.
    In the meantime I pay taxes to pay politicians to pay themselves to sleep in their own houses. Fuck Turnbull and his millions, and Shorten and his endorsement of torture of homeless asylum seekers and Di Natale and his au pairs and his ‘pragmatism’.
    By, all means let’s occupy the real estate of the negatively gearing rich.

  3. Pity the Salvation Army abused so many people. They have given millions to the abuse victims that were meant for others.
    Maybe if they discouraged drunks, druggies and mums having tons of children things may be different. They do not encourage work. Better if the money was given to Hillsong they would encourage the opposite.

    1. This is a long ongoing socio-economic-structural problem not of the making of the dispossessed but by the movements of capital, fast and slow. I’ve given for years to the dispossessed in an around the bowels of Flinders-Southern Cross Station area, and now problems abound everywhere in and about the body politic. Have a heart – for Jesus’s sake.

  4. The only point in this article to contest is the statement that the solution to homelessness is complex. This is the oft-repeated mantra of the housing crisis & welfare agencies, particularly the Salvos. It’s repeated on commercial radio, the falsehood that according to Brendan Nottle all of the destitute currently languishing on our city streets could, at the very least, be given crisis housing. This exercise in victim-blaming from the corporate media paints the city street-dwellers as recalcitrant, opportunistic beggars who shun the well-meaning offers of assistance. The reality is that there is nowhere near sufficient beds in homeless shelters to accommodate those in need. Moreover, the homelessness industry, mainly comprised of the agencies funded to provide a week or so in a dodgy rooming house, would be at a loss to survive at their present scale if genuine public housing had actually been delivered in Victoria over the past 20 years.

    It is of course true that once people are deprived of a stable, affordable roof over their heads, multiple problems will emerge – sustaining employment, mental stability and social relationships are all sacrificed once we are deprived of basic shelter. Not to mention the consequences to general health and wellbeing of exposure to the elements on a freezing Melbourne winter’s night. Relatively few are picked up by the NGOs and provided with comprehensive support until they’re housed and given resources to help get them back on their feet.

    The main issue i wish to highlight is that public housing has been abandoned in favour of a privatised model of social housing which, due to its profit incentive, privileges those in work to the long-term homeless. The Bracks/Brumby government gave these Housing Associations over a billion dollars and didn’t create any net new public housing. The Rudd Building Stimulus dedicated over $500 million for the delivery of genuine public housing in Victoria, but where on earth did the money go?

    Contrary to what the bureaucrats and social housing entrepreneurs tell us, public housing in Victoria actually makes a profit of around $100 million annually from rental income. It appears this profit is returned to Treasury rather than being ploughed back into the sector. Yet suddenly, last year revenue from rental income was halved, with no explanation. The Age seems to have no interest in pursuing any of this.

    Through its courageous occupation of Bendigo street the Homeless Persons Union has focused public attention on the public housing crisis. Yet still the homeless industry CEOs take a bizarre line. Listen closely next time you hear one of them on the radio – they are quick to ring in and wring their hands about the debacle, but they NEVER campaign for public housing. Their sleepouts for corporate leaders are pitched as events that help solve homelessness when in reality they are merely fund-raisers and publicity stunts. It’s time the NGO sector and both Federal and State govs were held to account. All i can really suggest, dear readers & writers, is to ask more questions and see what sort of answers you are given. If it looks like a duck & quacks like a duck, it probably is a goddam duck.

  5. Great reply. Re the Mystery of the Missing or Misused Millions, I’m not surprised but wish this was more widely known and publicised. It is a regular and seemingly accepted occurrence in any sector that is to provide a support. Many years ago, Federal dollars were given to the Victorian State Government to forward to Scope, the organisation delivering services for people with cerebral palsy. The money was to purchase an air conditioned bus for clients to attend their day centre in Malvern.

    No idea where this money disappeared to. Still no bus. This is despite the parents’ association having been the advocacy group.

    A challenging business model that urgently needs challenging to ensure change.

  6. Yes i wish the true state of public housing finances – and actual housing numbers – was a lot more transparent. Public housing stock numbers are now conflated with social housing in the Annual Report to mask the non-existence of new public housing. But hey, trust me, i’m on the case, currently devoting some time to helping DHS air their dirty linen.

    Elizabeth Anne, i guess it all happened too long ago but you could always hold the board of Scope, or any NGO, accountable when promised and funded resources don’t materialise.

    It’s just more tricky when it comes to government, they tie you up in red tape & bureaucratic-speak until you lose the will to live. But this time i’m not giving up, so stay tuned!

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