The Bendigo Street occupation began when four women were evicted from 16 Bendigo St, Collingwood, on 11 March 2016 – a vacant house they had been squatting. The Homeless Persons’ Union Victoria (HPUV) was distressed both that the women were forced back into homelessness and that the house was soon discovered to be among twenty other vacant properties on the street. What began as a run of the mill, stock standard eviction precipitated the Bendigo Street occupation. 18 Bendigo St was the first to be appropriated on 30 March. Throughout the occupation, authorities, including the State Housing Minister Martin Foley, refused to meet the protesters.
The vacant houses resulted from the Napthine Coalition Government’s compulsory acquisition of properties for the construction of the East West Link tunnel in 2014, a project later cancelled by the Andrews Labor Government. After the cancellation of the project, twenty of the houses were earmarked to become public or social housing. Yet they have been left vacant for over two years. Over fifty people have occupied fourteen of the houses since, including four families.
Joel Bynon, a member of the HPUV, said, ‘the Government promised these houses [to public housing facilities] and went and started signing leases for different mobs to manage them. So there was either impotence, incompetence or negligence on behalf of the Government’.
The purpose of the occupation was to raise community awareness to the fact that public assets are being unused during a housing crisis. A housing crisis occurs due to an increased demand for housing where there is a limited supply. This pushes housing prices up, resulting in a vulnerable population incapable of affording housing.
In addition to the limited supply of housing, poor living conditions create a housing crisis. Low living standards and poor conditions (especially in social and crisis housing) have caused the United Nations to proclaim an official housing crisis in Australia.
Since 1996, reports from the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur have stated that there is a major hidden housing crisis in Australia and their subsequent annual reports have reiterated this. The 2006 Report stated that the Special Rapporteur was ‘particularly troubled by the inadequate housing and living conditions’ in Australia, and that, ‘unfortunately, this situation is not acknowledged by the authorities’. The crisis remains unacknowledged by authorities ten years later.
The 2016 Homelessness Australia statistics state that there are over 22,000 people experiencing homelessness in Victoria, a twenty per cent increase since 2006. The public housing waiting list currently consists of 35,000 people, with this figure increasing each month by 100 people.
And conditions inside existing crisis and emergency accommodation are not tolerable. ‘When you get beat up for three cigarettes or someone is getting raped in the hallway and no one turns an eye, no one pays any acknowledgement, that’s the type of experience that’s happening in [that] crisis accommodation’, says Bynon.
During the Bendigo St Occupation, the Salvation Army continuously expressed concern that the people squatting in the houses were blocking domestic violence victims from receiving social housing. In fact Salvation Army employees were living in about three of the twenty houses that were not housing domestic violence victims. This was discovered by the HPUV upon meeting the residents.
On 11 August 2016 a Writs of Order notice was issued by the State Government giving the occupants forty-eight hours to vacate the properties. On 14 August an injunction issued by the Supreme Court halted Victoria Police and the State Government from evicting the occupiers. Supreme Justice Garde ordered the State Government to perform a ‘human rights impact assessment’. The Government was encouraged to proactively engage with the occupiers to establish a sensible outcome. They initially instructed the occupiers to follow the normal procedures to gain public housing. Unimpressed with the revised offer of a bedsit each, the HPUV rejected the Government’s response, reiterating their initial request to immediately provide the occupiers with public housing.
The occupiers became tinnitus to the Victorian Government. The constant ringing in their ears caused a momentary lapse of resolve and in October the Government capitulated, providing public housing to all the residents represented by the HPUV. Those represented by the First Nations Peoples (the independent group representing Indigenous peoples) were to continue occupying the Bendigo St houses until they found public housing.
Yet, a momentary lapse is just that – momentary. On 28 October the ringing was replaced by police sirens at 13 Bendigo St for Frank Hayes, a member of the First Nations Peoples. The street became crowded as Hayes and two others were arrested by twenty police officers and a sheriff. Hayes was arrested due to a failure to appear at court regarding a fine for travelling on public transport without a myki card. The police evicted Hayes and his family members from the house without a warrant. Accused of theft, the family’s personal possessions were confiscated and loaded into a removal truck. No evidence and no conviction were retained, but at the time the truck was loaded, there was no higher authority to stop the police from using this force. On 28 October many witnessed the active causation of homelessness by the Victorian Police.
Tinnitus may become quiet at times, but it doesn’t go away. The occupiers protested the Government’s break of their agreement with the First Nations Peoples. After five days of protest, on 1 November, the occupiers reclaimed 10 and 16 Bendigo St, and no. 13 the following morning.
At around 4.30 pm on 2 November, up to fifty police officers marched into Bendigo St to forcibly remove the occupants. Police physically dragged out those inside the houses. The Housing Minister Martin Foley’s words echoed in the air as the scene unfolded: ‘Every Victorian has a right to feel safe in their own street’.
A man who was forced out of a house with his pants down clung to the front gate of the house. Vulnerable and scared, he was dragged into the street and thrown onto the road by police. The feeling of the tar against his face reminded him of what the force of the law can do. This is how the Bendigo St houses were taken back by the Victorian Police.
Strength and ambition waned into melancholy on the morning of 4 November as reports of a man in his fifties found dead in no. 4 were shared. The man remains unidentified. Despite the harrowing sadness of his death, it was over-seasoned by claims of substance abuse and crime by Martin Foley and the mainstream media, including The Herald Sun, and as an event which arguably caused the occupation to end.
The claims made were not true. People did not have to consciously avoid stepping on syringes on the street during the occupation and burglary was not at an unprecedented high. In September 2016, the Victorian Crime Report stated that burglary in Collingwood had decreased by sixteen per cent since 2015. And drug abuse and mental health issues, which are commonly described as the same issue, were not disrupting the neighbours.
Nevertheless, these are relevant issues that have been debated for some time, and are particularly pertinent now given the Melbourne City Council’s recent proposed ban on people sleeping rough in the city. The question posed is, ‘should those experiencing homelessness with substance abuse problems and/or psychiatric disabilities receive treatment or housing first?’ A common argument is that substance abusers should be clean before they are issued a house.
Tsemberis & Eisenberg conducted a study in 2000 to investigate whether housing or treatment should come first for those experiencing homelessness with ‘psychiatric disabilities and concurrent substance addictions’. The comparison was between a system designed to house those who had finished treatment, and a system which offers unconditional housing with optional treatment available. The results ‘challenged the popular clinical assumptions about the limitations of people with severe mental illness and the type of housing and support best suited for their needs’. The study concluded that housing first was the most effective way to ensure abstinence. Those who claim that substance abusers should be abstinent before receiving housing misunderstand that stability is the first step to getting clean, to well-being and an improved life.
By 10 November, the Victorian Government had won their court battle, allowing them to force the occupiers to leave Bendigo St, and they regained control of the houses. On 23 November the last three remaining occupiers were evicted.
Diogenes, the original cynic philosopher, was once asked what hope is. His answer was, ‘the dream of a waking man’. Though the occupation has ended and the State Government has regained possession of the Bendigo St houses, this action has awakened more people. It has provided hope. More people have become aware that there are things that we can do. And it will continue to until solutions are put in place.