Shifting shelter for homeless Indigenous in Goldfields

The Department of Indigenous Affairs bulldozed a camp for Aboriginal rough sleepers last week due to concerns about the safety of the place known as ‘Silver City’, but the complex problem of accommodating transient visitors remains.

It’s another chapter in the vexed question of how to deal with transient Aboriginal populations throughout the goldfields and Western desert.

No-one thought Silver City was a safe or comfortable place to live. A notorious ‘town camp, it comprised a ramshackle collection of open shelters, a water tap and a few toilets in disrepair. It was located a few hundred metres from the Aboriginal housing community of Ninga Mia and five minutes drive from the city of Kalgoorlie-Boulder.

Ab Shelter Goldfields
This makeshift dwelling has been set up Ninga Mia since Silver city was demolished

The Department of Indigenous Affairs, which manages the land and took the decision to demolition the camp, said in a statement it did so to “remove the unsafe infrastructure and fill the old disused toilet tanks to ensure the area is made safe, and cleared of all dangerous and loose debris. Debris, which potentially was a hazard and likely to cause injury or death in a strong wind or upon collapse.”

When the ABC visited the Silver City site, the walls from corrugated iron shelters were lying on the ground; beer cans, broken glass and clothing were strewn everyone, and the place was deserted. DIA, when asked what would happen to the people who had used to camp there, said “Silver City was not considered accommodation.”

“Any visitors from the Ngaanjatjarra Lands area will continue to stay with extended families, at the Trilby Cooper House accommodation and/or at other various locations.”

Moving up the slope towards Ninga Mia, a community of about 25 houses, it soon became clear where some of those “other various locations” were. A makeshift shelter had been erected close to one of the houses, using tarps and what looked like corrugated iron pieces of the former Silver City shelters. It formed an open sided covering several mattresses.

Extended families are also overstretched, a problem Julia Shadlow-Bath, CEO of the Goldfields Indigenous Housing Organisation (GIHO), which manages public housing is wearily familiar with.

At another house in Ninga Mia, currently vacant and earmarked for a family on the GIHO waiting list, eight people are squatting. The temperature is very cold, they’ve lit a fire on the verandah and at 11am, there’s already a carton of beer open. The group are from Warburton, one man says he’s on his way to Perth for medical treatment.

“Wherever you’ve got a regional hub you’ve got people coming into town for funerals, alcohol, health,” Ms Shadlow-Bath says.

“You’ve got vast, transient family groups moving between towns and communities who arrive with very little resources or possessions but are all either staying with family, friends, sleeping rough and enormous overcrowding. That leads to comments about vandalism. It’s not necessarily vandalism, it’s maybe 15 people all sleeping in what shelter is available.”

Silver city was awful, she says, but by knocking it down “you’ve got one less temporary housing solution for an already disconnected people.”

The Ngaanyatjarra Lands (often referred to simply as ‘the lands’) are far east of Kalgoorlie-Boulder in the Western Desert, stretching to the borders of the Northern Territory and South Australia. There’s a cluster of remote communities in the lands, the largest of which is Warburton, population approximately 500.

The Ngaanyatjarra people remain deeply connected to land, culture and language, but they are not immune to the problems of 21st century life. Health problems (especially the need for dialysis), funerals and other services force people to make the 800km journey on unsealed road west to the goldfields. The lands are also dry communities – Laverton, 400km north of Kalgoorlie, is the first place on the trip west that you can get a drink.

Once in town, some people have great difficulty getting home. Roads are impassable when it rains, even if you have a car or an offer of a lift. Temporary accommodation is available at Trilby Cooper Hostel, which was set up especially for remote visitors. It charges subsidised fees and has rules about drinking. Most community leaders agree the hostel has worked well, but there are always some who sleep rough.

“People who aren’t living permanently in Kalgoorlie are visiting for all sorts of reasons, and with a variety of priorities. Kalgoorlie is increasingly facing the pressures of transient populations from the Ng lands coming here for right and wrong reasons. They come under-equipped and put pressure on existing families.”

DIA’s statement said they are looking to address the needs of transient people in Kalgoorlie and Laverton.

“As part of futures planning around accommodation needs, and to assist with understanding the apparent migratory movement in the Goldfields, the DIA commenced a “visitors mapping” project in early 2011.”

“This project will ascertain the numbers, purpose and duration of visits and impact on the regional centres of Kalgoorlie and more recently in Laverton. This mapping will inform all levels of government, and provide the evidence to plan targeted investment and the design for long-term solutions around transport and accommodation needs within both Kalgoorlie-Boulder and the remote communities.”

In the meantime, Julia Shadlow-Bath has had to explain to the squatters that there is no room for them at Ninga Mia and arrange for the house they are squatting in to be boarded up.

Tents have sprung up on roadsides on the outskirts of Kalgoorlie. One resident of Ninga Mia said he was concerned that campers would bring litter and alcohol into the community, giving all the residents a bad reputation.

GIHO has a waiting list of 150 families for permanent housing, but just providing more housing isn’t the complete solution. One of the problems Ms Shadlow-Bath and her staff grapple with is the complex welfare needs of some of their tenants, and the lack of health and social services in remote communities. She also believes there needs to be more responsibility taken by individuals.

“A lot of these people are from outlying communities and they function as healthy, happy people. But they are coming to Kalgoorlie because the outlying communities aren’t as well serviced as they used to be.”

This issue of services in the goldfields hit the headlins this week after a leaked report alleged children in Laverton are being abandoned and forced to beg for food and resort to prostitution to survive while their parents visit Kalgoorlie. The report also stated that two children were forced to live in the town’s rubbish tip.

In the wake of the report, Minister for Child Protection, Robyn McSweeney, made a hurried visit to Laverton this week.

The minister has announced a Department of child protection team leader would be based in the town within a week, and two responsible parenting workers would be recruited.

“They go into the home and teach the parents how to be parents.”

Ms McSweeney said the claims in the leaked report haven’t been verified, but said she had discussed particular issues with visitors from the lands with the police and shire president.

“Laverton is a little different – it’s the first port of call for the people coming west. When the roads are blocked the people are stuck in Laverton and they can’t get home. When there’s sorry time they come down to Laverton and don’t go home. That is where the trouble comes from.”

“The Aboriginal people and I discussed these issues and the Aboriginal people were quite cross that they were being painted in such a bad light. I have a view that parents are responsible for their own children, and if we can help them be responsible, the children have better outcomes.”

“Our people will go up to the lands and start pro-active campaigns in their own communities, so we can have different outcomes when they come to Laverton and Kalgoorlie.”

The need for responsibility is echoed by Julia Shadlow-Bath.

“Governments are trying very hard on all levels to make this work, but of course governments don’t act quickly. At the same time, where is the engagement by the people for whom the policies are being made?”

“You can throw money at the problem, but if the people’s day to day issues is the harsh reality of being homeless and no food and shelter. They live on a day to day basis, they live hand to mouth. There definitely needs to be more leadership in the group, but you know leadership is usually by who has the most money in their pocket to buy the next lot of grog.”

~ By Emma Wynne and Andrew Thompson, 8 June 2011, ABC (Goldfields) News

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