Thursday, 23 November 2017

Homelessness "can happen to anyone"

This is the latest in a series of blogposts about homelessness. For this post, I spoke with Mekonen, who is the CEO of the Station, a drop-in centre at 82 Erskine Street, near Wynyard Station. I had found that people begging on the street in the city often go to the Station for a meal during the day, so I wanted to find out more about it.

MdS: Ok, [the voice recorder is] recording. So, I was interested the other day we talked and you told me a little bit about the history of the Station. Can you just quickly tell me a little bit how it started up and when it started up?

The Station started up in 1978 by a group of people who had an alcohol problem at that time. The centre was at that time closed so they asked the government if they could use the building for their meetings. And they were just using it as a meeting place and it just developed from there to becoming what the Station is at this moment.

MdS: So originally who was funding the Station when it was first started up? Was that the state government?

The state government, yes. The Department of Health in the first instance. But at the moment it’s funded by federal and state governments.

MdS: What type of services do you provide for homeless people?

We don’t claim to do miracle things but we are very good in crisis intervention. The basic things what our rough sleepers and complex-needs clients need, that is a place to come to have a cup of tea, a cup of coffee, breakfast, lunch, laundry facilities, showers. They just come in and rest and watch TV and meet someone. So we are very good at that kind of crisis intervention. On top of that we have a mental health counselling service, drug and alcohol counselling service, housing support workers. And on top of that we have legal advice, the St Vincent mental health team come there once a week, we have stakeholders like Centrelink they come once a week, doctors, psychiatrists. We do the whole lot, almost the whole lot at no cost to the client.

MdS: So how many clients do you see in a day or in a week?

In a day between 100 and 110, 115, it depends.

MdS: There’s about 105,000 homeless people in Australia according to the 2011 Census. The ABS uses different categories to count homelessness including sleeping rough but there are also other categories too. How important do you think it is to use all those different categories to count the homeless?

There are two things in homelessness. One is homelessness: people are homeless, they sleep in the street. And the other one is all homeless people who are sleeping in other agencies, overnight, for three nights or other homeless people who are staying in boarding houses, or there are also clients who don’t have adequate housing. So the number is, I’m not sure what the number is, but I’m just a bit sceptical about the number because it’s really hard to count the number of homeless people because [of] where they have been, where they find them, where do they sleep. There are homeless people sleeping in the train for example, moving from here to Lithgow and sleeping overnight there. People are on the move from Central to Sydney CBD. So really it’s very hard to get the homeless number right. You can’t just leave an application form, [and] say, “Where did you sleep last night?” They move, they are transient. They can move from here to Queensland tomorrow, or they can move from here to Wollongong tomorrow. They are always on the move. They are very transient, so it’s very, very hard to put a number. I would be very careful to put a number on homelessness. I would be very careful, yeah.

MdS: The figures for the 2016 Census will be released later this year, I’ve already been in touch with the Bureau of Statistics. Do you think the number is going to increase compared to 2011?

I don’t know but from what we see on the ground, it’s increasing. It’s not decreasing. I’m talking about the Station. But I wouldn’t have a clue how they put a number, they might have their own method, but from the Station’s point of view it’s increasing. We are getting more clients and younger clients now.

MdS: What are the main reasons that people give for being homeless? Are there any patterns that you can see?

Mostly it’s drug and alcohol, mental health issues, sexual assault. All those multi-issues are the cause of homelessness. Homelessness is something that can happen to anyone, no-one starts [out] to be homeless but something happens on the way and people can’t cope and they become homeless. But there is a combination of all those issues that people … The other [thing] that is very important is the affordable accommodation, also. Rent is expensive, the lack of government housing stock, the waiting list, all those kind of things, you know. Also the budget of people who are unemployed. It’s a combination of those issues.

MdS: What do you think that should be done to help alleviate the problem of homelessness? What types of policies do we need to introduce?

There is a need of more affordable housing and support with it if we are going to reduce homelessness. Affordable housing, governments, and also the outreach work because most of our clients don’t understand about budgeting, living skills and things like that. So it’s not a matter of just putting a homeless person in a house and expect them to live there for longer, or whatever. There has to be support and outreach service supporting them on their needs, whether it’s budgeting, cooking, paying their bills, just to make sure they keep that accommodation for a longer period. Without a roof over your head it’s very hard to work on their personal issues. So, as I said, housing is very important. Outreach support is also very important.

MdS: I think I’ve finished asking questions, is there anything else you think that I should know to tell my readers about homelessness? I’ve been writing about homelessness now for a couple of months on my blog and there’s a lot of interest out there in the community for these blogposts.

The public has to understand that homelessness is not a choice, it can happen to anyone. We have got electricians, plumbers, public servants, welfare workers who are homeless at the moment because something just happened. So we can never be judgemental about the homeless because it can happen to anyone. That’s what I would say to the public. Support the homeless, that’s all.

The Station is located on the corner of Clarence Street and Erskine Street, near Wynyard.

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