Yes, homelessness in Perth is scary – but not for you

I feel for Tony Barlow, I really do.

I feel for anyone trying to make a fist of retail in today’s economic climate.

Homelessness can be scary. But for whom?
Homelessness can be scary. But for whom?CREDIT: KATE HEDLEY.

Beaufort Street is on its knees, the formerly vibrant strips of Fremantle and Subiaco have seen better days, and now, according to Mr Barlow, Perth’s CBD is dying.

Empty shops, exorbitant parking fees and constant roadworks were cited by the prominent Perth businessman as reasons behind his shop’s closure and the slow death of the city.

But it was Mr Barlow’s reference to “rampant homelessness” that struck a nerve with me.

People sleeping rough in the CBD “made some people feel unsafe,” he said.

It’s a common complaint, and I’m not having a go at Mr Barlow for putting into words what so many people think as they walk past yet another huddled mass tucked into a city doorway.

I just want to set some things straight.

If you are one of the 9500 people in Western Australia with no place to call home tonight, you are far more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than any of us who have safe places to sleep.

Statistics released by WA’s peak body advocating for affordable housing and ending homelessness, Shelter WA, show more than 52 per cent of rough sleepers had reported being a victim of assault since becoming homeless.

Think about that for a moment.

It means every second rough sleeper you come across as you walk through the Perth CBD has been attacked on the streets.

Compare that to how many victims of violent crime you personally know of in your everyday life.

Is it really us who should be scared of homeless people?

What are we afraid of?

Even without the constant threat of violence hanging over their heads, people experiencing homelessness are at greater risk of physical illnesses including cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

These same people are much more likely to develop – or to already suffer from – significant mental illnesses, with up to 40 per cent of homeless people winding up in our emergency departments with mental health concerns.

Add to this a community perception that homeless people represent a danger to the general public, and it’s not hard to see why so many rough sleepers have lost hope in ever finding a home, or ever being able to lead a life free from fear.

Any single one of us could become homeless.

For many, the link between staying afloat financially and being able to afford food and shelter is tenuous.

Thousands live from pay cheque to pay cheque, and nobody is immune from becoming the next hard luck story on the front page of the newspaper.

If you are homeless tonight, and you are seeking emergency accommodation, you’d want to hope you are one of just a third of people who will be afforded access to crisis care.

Two out of three others in your situation will be left with no choice but to curl up outside a city shopfront.

The closure of the latest restaurant or menswear store or cafe will be the least of your worries, and so it should be.

Homelessness is not a cause of a “dying” CBD. It’s a symptom.

Shelter WA CEO Michelle Mackenzie agrees.

“The link between business closures and homelessness in the city is tenuous,” she says.

“Statistics show that it is people who are homeless and live on the streets who are more likely to be unsafe, not the general public.

“We need to shift our thinking.

“Housing and services for people who are homeless, along with compassion and not vilification of their personal circumstances, is needed to end homelessness in the city.”

Not only is it more than a little tone deaf to point the finger at our city’s most vulnerable as part of the reason behind your business’s failure or why you are frightened to go into the CBD, it is flat-out wrong.

I know Perth has problems at the moment; I know retailers are battling and, like I said, I feel for them.

But I feel more for those who – quite literally – have little more than the shirt on their back and a reputation for being scary and dangerous.

Life is hard enough for all of us.

Why would anyone want to make it even harder for those already in crisis?

Until we stop seeing the issue of homelessness as a cause of problems plaguing our city, nothing will change.

We need to look a little deeper.

We need to stop being so scared.

By Kate Hedley

This article first appeared in The WAToday July 10, 2019 — 12.04pm

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