Indigenous disadvantage hits home

Indigenous disadvantage hits home

It’s 12:30pm in Belmore Park, in inner-city Sydney. By this time the place is drenched in sunlight and bustling with people. A dozen or so shabby weatherbeaten tents line the park’s perimeter.

Belmore’s temporary residents are drinking and singing along to ’90s hip-hop tunes, which are playing loudly through a set of old speakers. The owner of the speakers is a tall, slender man with jet-black dreadlocks. He has the Aboriginal flag printed on his hat and oversized T-shirt.

Tents at Belmore Park

Tents at Belmore Park

The tents are home for the park’s rough sleepers, most of whom are Aborigines. While homelessness exists among all communities, a 2016 Mission Australia report shows up to one-quarter of those who are homeless on any given night in Australia are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people, despite making up only 2.5 per cent of the population.

Chronically overcrowded housing is a significant factor behind that statistic, says Mission Australia’s chief executive, Catherine Yeomans. Other reasons include the impacts of domestic violence, drug and alcohol misuse, and unemployment.

CEO of Mission Australia, Catherine Yeomans

CEO of Mission Australia, Catherine Yeomans

Paula, an indigenous resident of Belmore Park, can attest to that. She is sitting on a shaded bench away from the crowd, a 7-Eleven Slurpee in one hand and a burnt-out joint in the other.

“Our men are so violent,” she confides, stirring the icy remains of her Slurpee with her chewed-up straw. “It’s because their fathers were violent and their grandfathers were violent. They just don’t know how to treat women.”

Belmore Park, near Sydney’s main Central railway station, is one of the places to which the city’s Aboriginal homeless gravitate. Paula ended up here after walking out on a 13-year abusive relationship.

“That’s my tent up there,” she says, pointing to a tattered piece of blue and grey canvas on the other side of the park. “It doesn’t have a door, so rats and spiders keep getting in.”

As Paula talks, a man walks past, apparently high on drugs and carrying what seems to be an overflowing bottle of urine. She points out three other men who are sitting with the crowd; clearly under the influence of drugs and alcohol, they hurl coarse remarks at passing women.

“A lot of those kinds of people around here,” sighs Paula. “This park is no place for a woman.”

Tent at Belmore Park

Tent at Belmore Park

According to a 2014 report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), indigenous homeless people are more likely to be female. This is confirmed by the 2011 census, which found that women make up 51 per cent of the indigenous homeless population, compared with 42 per cent of non-indigenous homeless.

The AIWH report also found that Aboriginal homeless people tend to be younger than their non-Aboriginal counterparts. Under-19s constitute about 42 per cent of the indigenous homeless population, compared with 23 per cent of non-indigenous homeless, according to the 2011 Census (The ABS will release the 2016 Census estimates of homelessness in 2018).

Among the large group sitting in Belmore Park is Sharnice, an indigenous woman aged in her late teens or early 20s. Sharnice is wearing a frayed, second-hand tracksuit, and has her hair pulled back in a low bun. She says she has been homeless for much of her life. She didn’t finish school and has never had a job.

The park’s residents do receive some assistance. Doctors visit regularly and offer check-ups. “We also have a lot of charities coming through here,” says Sharnice. “We have food trucks, people that give us toiletries, and Vinnies, who give us clothes.”

“I might get the doctors to look at me,” she adds quietly, as she picks at her fingernails. “I think I might be pregnant.”

As Sharnice talks, people hurry through the park, on their way to work, or study, or to Central station. Mostly they walk with their heads down, apparently oblivious to the poverty and disadvantage on display around them.

Tents at Belmore Park

Tents at Belmore Park

Sharnice and Paula are only two of many thousands of indigenous Australians who are without adequate housing or resources. According to Ms Yeomans, rates of homelessness in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are rising. She believes the problem needs to be tackled at a government level.

“We need a continuity of commitment from the government,” she says. “We have to make sure that we have the funding to fund homes where they’re needed and to fund appropriate support systems for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community members.”

Paula’s dry lips curl into a smile when she is asked about her previous Housing Commission home. “Why should we have to pay the government so that we can live on our land?” she remarks. “It doesn’t make any sense to me.” – Story and photos by Erika Jackson


Tags assigned to this article:
HomelessnessIndigenous Australians

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