I’ve been enjoying the #DungeonDrawingDudes challenge this month, but I felt unhappy about today’s challenge, which is a ‘dwarf bum’. I know a lot of people who’ve been homeless, including some of my close friends. Someone calls someone a bum when they are being disrespectful. Someone calls themselves a bum when they feel bad about themselves. I felt that the language being used in today’s challenge was disrespectful, and while it is a small and perhaps petty thing to argue about language used, I felt a need to make a cheeky response:
On Saturday night the Melbourne mayor Robert Doyle was rattled by activists outside his home, protesting the proposed changes to Melbourne’s anti-camping laws. The proposed changes effectively punish people for sleeping rough.
In light of the proposed changes it is ironic hearing Robert Doyle complain about having his home disturbed. I can relate to the sense that the mayor is getting a taste of his just desserts. In many ways it seems like a fair response. (I think our leaders can expect to see more of this kind of action if they allow inequality to keep increasing.)
Fair as it may be, I would question whether the action is likely to have helpful results? The changes to the camping by-law have not yet been passed by Melbourne City Council. Call me naive, but I know that there are people from the street community, the homelessness sector and wider society who are seeking to engage councillors on the proposed changes. If we’re not able to stop the changes, engagement with the Melbourne City Council may make opportunities to influence how the by-law is interpreted and policed. (The proposed changes make the law much more open to interpretation.) If the mayor and his family are rattled, I can’t see him or his fellow councillors being more open to building bridges. This will make things more difficult for people who are sleeping rough in the city, not for psuedo-anarchist hobby squatters.
Melbourne 1836, Reinhart Hofmann.
(You can have a look at this painting at the State Library of Victoria.)
A lot of Australians seem to like camping.
Australians seem to like going to the beach, even in Victoria where the water’s pretty cold.
Australians seem to like having a barbeque, and in Melbourne we have public barbecues all over the place.
Melbourne started as a camp, where people came in from the beach, at the spot that is now enterprize park. Camping and other forms of outdoor living are part of our social practise because they are connected to our colonial history. John Batman’s party were camping on contested land. The area that is now the location of Melbourne, was already the homeland of the Woiwurrung and Boonerwrung peoples, who called the area ‘Narrm’. The colonial government of New South Wales believed the land belonged to the British Crown. Batman was trying to acquire land for his business, then Port Philip Association. This created a complex conflict (which I struggle to get my head around) between Tasmanian businesspeople, New South Welsh bureauocrats and local Aboriginal people.
Once again we have a situation where camping is contested in Melbourne. The proposed changes to Melbourne by-laws make it easier for authorised officers to interfere with people who depend on camping in the city. I wonder if we would see the current conflict differently if we humbly recognised that our city began as an unauthorised camp?
You can make a submission to Melbourne City Council about the proposed changes here.
The homeless community in Melbourne has gotten a fair bit of negative press lately. Contrary to many of the stories we’ve been hearing in the media, I’ve often received generosity from people who I know who are homeless or have been homeless. I wouldn’t say that it’s a rule, but it’s definitley a strong theme.
1. At one stage when I was living in Ballarat there was a bloke in our street who started chatting to me when we saw each other in the street. He was from out of town but when he was in Ballarat he was squatting in one of the old houses in our street. He took me to come and see where he was squatting.
2. When I first started volunteering at the meals in the city I was taught to cook by a bloke who had been homeless and now lived in a boarding house. He showed us what to do in the kitchen and served everyone. He also invited us to come and have meals at his house and basically looked out for us.
3. Another boardinghouse resident who I met when is started hanging out in the city took me to visit the Hare Krishna temple and paid for my trip back to Ballarat. (I didn’t have work at the time and didn’t know how I was getting back.)
4. There were a lot of different streeties who would look out for us as we chatted with people at the food vans or when we went out to distribute blankets and hot drinks around the city.
5. We recently met a couple of blokes who have been sleeping rough in our neighbourhood, out of the city a bit. They find that they’re often given things they can’t use, so they’ve sometimes passed those things on to us to redistribute.
6. A couple of years ago we had some renovations planned at our unit. The plan was that we’d be out of the unit for a maximum of three weeks, but it actually ended up being five weeks. One of our neighbours (who we first met when he was sleeping rough and hanging out a lot in the city) offered that we could stay with him in his flat.
As more privileged people getting involved at the margins of society it can be easy to bring an invasive controlling posture into marginal spaces. I think that when we become aware of that, a helpful response can be to think of ourselves as guests in someone else’s space.
It might be a geographical space. For example, I’ve been wanting to get more involved in the work my church does at the housing commission flats in our neighbourhood, so I’ve just been hanging out at the drop-in centre there with some of the people from the flats. One of the older folks there who’s lived at the flats since they were built has been hosting me by insisting that I sit at her table and introducing me to other residents. I could insist on getting busy volunteering, but I think it’s respectful to be directed by one of the locals and take the time to grow trust. I expect that if that goes well there’ll be opportunities to help at some stage, but that the relationship might be more equal and mutual.
It might also happen in a social space. For another example, I’ve been wanting to be involved in supporting folks in the CBD who have been sleeping out, particularly as the parts of the media, the mayor and a decent chunk of the public has turned against them. Since I worked for ten years with a community development organisation in the CBD who worked with people who were homeless I know a fair few people who’ve been homeless and some who are currently homeless. However, as I’ve never actually been homeless myself I want to be careful about jumping in thinking I know what are the best things to do about the problem. I think it’s better if I can take a lead from people who are currently homeless or have been in the past. So last week when the police were moving people on from Flinders Street station I was trying to take a lead from people I know who have been homeless or are currently. That ended up meaning that I was mostly just trying to be a calm calm presence in the space and look out for opportunities to support the people who had been sleeping at the station. I ended up doing similar on Tuesday during the Future Melbourne meeting. There was a lot of activity going on outside the town hall to protest Robert Doyle’s plan to ban sleeping out in the CBD, so we were just trying to create a bit more of a peaceful and welcoming space at City Square.
Still from ABC News – ‘Violence on Flinders Street as Police Move on Homeless’
Last year I attended a rally in Melbourne CBD organised by Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance in response to the ABC’s coverage of the abuse of juvenile offenders at Don Dale. One of the things that stood out for me was that despite their anger, the young Aboriginal people organising the rally were clear that they didn’t want people getting aggressive or violent. Meriki Onus was saying that they didn’t want any more trouble caused for Aboriginal families by a violent protest because they already have enough trouble to deal with. I noticed at one point someone tried to start a chant of ‘Fuck the police!’ but no-one joined him. We practiced civil disobedience by sitting down in the intersection of Flinders and Swanston Streets (the two main streets of the city) but we did that peacefully and calmly, and many people stayed past midnight.
I contrast that with what happened on Wednesday last week as rough sleepers were evicted from outside Flinders Street station. A large crowd of anarchists turned up part way through the eviction and looking for a fight with police. One guy ended up punching an officer in the back of the head and five people were arrested altogether.
Being arrested at a protest might not be a big deal for plenty of activists, but it could be much more serious for someone who is sleeping rough. Like many Aboriginal families, I would think that folks who are sleeping rough already have enough trouble to deal with without being arrested for protest violence as well. I think activists need to be led by the people they’re claim to advocate for. I don’t think that can be done on the fly.
I recently found this note attached to someone’s belongings in the city:
Kindly remove your belongings
Any unattended personal belongings will be removed after 2 hours from the time of this notice.
This notice is given at 12:30pm on 6 January 2017
I can understand neighbours in the city being frustrated by the presence of people who are having to sleep outside their property. It’s inconvenient for people who are trying to run a business or offer services to have someone sleeping outside your doorway. However, I don’t see the long-term point of moving people on. If you move someone on, aren’t you just moving them into another neighbour’s space? And since there are so many people without somewhere to sleep, wouldn’t you just be vacating the space for another person to come and sleep there? It seems to me that our efforts would be better spent hassling our politicians to provide public housing.
What do you think?