Indigenous disadvantage hits home
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Indigenous disadvantage hits home

Stories/258 , Issues/First Nations , Issues/Homelessness
Belmore Park, Haymarket NSW 2000, Australia
29th Nov 2017
Indigenous disadvantage hits home
Indigenous homelessness is a conversation we need to be having more often.

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.

Pictured: Tents at Belmore Park, Sydney.
Pictured: Tents at Belmore Park, Sydney.

The tents are home to the park's rough sleepers, most of whom are Aboriginal. While homelessness afflicts all communities, Mission Australia reported last year that 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 percent 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.

Pictured: CEO of Mission Australia, Catherine Yeomans.
Pictured: CEO of Mission Australia, Catherine Yeomans.

Paula, an Indigenous resident of Belmore Park, can attest to that. Paula 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.

Belmore Park, near Sydney's main Central railway station, is one of the hubs for Sydney's Aboriginal homeless community. 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 and stirs the icy remains of her Slurpee with her chewed up straw, 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; seemingly under the influence of drugs or 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."

Pictured: Tents at Belmore Park, Sydney.
Pictured: Tents at Belmore Park, Sydney.

According to a 2014 report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), the majority of Indigenous rough sleepers are women. This is confirmed by the 2011 census, which found that women make up 51 percent of the Indigenous homeless population, compared with 42 percent 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 percent of the Indigenous homeless population, compared with 23 percent of non-Indigenous homeless, according to the 2011 census.

Among the large group sitting in Belmore Park is Shanice, an Indigenous woman in her late teens or early twenties. Shanice 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 people check-ups. "We also have a lot of charities coming through here," says Shanice. "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."

According to The Health and Welfare of Australia's Indigenous Peoples 2010, Aboriginal women often face discrimination in the housing market or may be unable to find housing that suits there needs due to high birth rates.

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

Pictured: Tents at Belmore Park, Sydney.
Pictured: Tents at Belmore Park, Sydney.

Shanice 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."

First published on Hatch@Macleay.

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