Cracks in the Walls

15 February 2016 Michael Green

Cracks in the Walls

It’s nearly five years since I first met Dee and Albert. I’m disappointed to realise that this article hasn’t dated: the issues remain the same, the number of people who are homeless hasn’t fallen, and funding for housing and support services is once again insecure. That’s the big picture. As for Dee and Albert, I still think of them often. Read on and you’ll find out why.

 

The first time I meet Albert, all I notice is his hair. I see him from behind, when his social worker points him out on a computer, playing poker on Facebook in the common room of his new supportive housing. He has the kind of hair you notice: long and black, shimmering and incongruous.

I’d been apprehensive about meeting him: unsure about how openly he’d talk with me, and wary about commandeering his story for mine. But Albert puts me at ease in a moment.

“A lot of people say I’m American Indian,” he tells me, and breaks into a modest, raspy laugh. “I’ve even had other Aboriginal people ask me if I am.” (Later, under my questioning, he reveals his only hair-care secret is Head and Shoulders shampoo.)
While we talk, a young man sitting two computers away starts coughing uncontrollably. Unnerved, I glance towards him; Albert sees this, reassures me, and then gently checks on the kid.

Albert has warm eyes and manners, but his nose is off-kilter and his chin angles the other way. The middle and index fingers on his left hand are stained where he holds his cigarettes.

At the end of 2009, Albert completed an Associate Diploma in Aboriginal Studies in Music at the University of Adelaide, and hoped to move back to Melbourne. “It’s got more life, you know. More going on,” he explains. “But last year was pretty bad.”

Until a few weeks ago, he was in alcohol rehab; three months ago, a rooming house; and six months ago, a friend’s couch. One year ago, he was sleeping rough. Tomorrow, however, is payday. First thing in the morning, he says, he’ll get one of his guitars back from the pawnshop.

A few days after meeting Albert, I’m in Melbourne, but not in the lively parts where he wants to be; I’m on the train towards Frankston, about to visit Dee. On my way I flick through the newspaper and see the rich list – since last year, mining heiress Gina Rinehart’s wealth has doubled, to $10.3 billion. Today’s an okay day for Dee, too. She and her daughter are booked in to give blood. The Red Cross bus is parked at the local RSL, only a few minutes’ walk from their unit, which means they can do a good deed without having to buy petrol or a train ticket. Since Dee got injured at work four years ago, she’s been sick or unemployed. Since February, her rent has trumped her income.

Dee introduces me to Brandy, her big handsome dog – a Japanese Akita, a breed known for loyalty. “Related to the Huskies and the white Samoyeds,” Dee explains. “She’s depressed – it’s too small here. Her face wasn’t grey, but she’s gone grey like me.” Dee bends down and rubs the dog between the ears. “We’ve turned old, haven’t we?”

That’s the other activity on Dee’s list: her hair. The Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service has given her a packet of dye, L’Oréal Ultra Violet Red. The box is sitting on top of the fridge, but she thinks she’ll leave it for another day.

***

In early autumn, the editors of The Big Issue asked me to write about housing and homelessness. “See what you come up with,” they said, handing over two manila folders of clippings and reports. 

I began reading them one afternoon, sitting in the park on the pretty street where I’ve lived for the past five years. It was pleasant outside and I chatted with a neighbour, one of several who’ve become my friends. Then I succumbed to the sun and napped there on the grass, awake to my good fortune.

In the next fortnight, I called charities and peak bodies, more and more of them, because each one recommended another. I boiled down their words into three facts:

More than 100,000 Australians are homeless on any given night. That includes some rough sleepers, but mostly it’s people forced to crash on couches and in spare rooms, or live in caravan parks and boarding houses; in beds without a secure lease or space of their own.

Most of these people experience homelessness only briefly. A crisis hits, in fast or slow motion – a car crash, redundancy, a broken relationship, domestic violence – and they’re out on their arse. But then, with help from agencies, welfare, friends or family, they find a stable home, even if the bills remain a stretch and life a stress.

About one in eight, however, reel from place to place, service to service; repelled and repelling, like magnets the wrong way round. If you think about homelessness, some of these people come to mind: rough sleepers huddling at train stations, old men trembling with booze, beggars withered by childhood traumas. They’re usually men with many problems, long-term problems, all at once.

After I found out these things, I found Albert and Dee. And then these facts evaporated altogether. Albert has been homeless most his life; Dee probably will be soon.

In 2008, at the height of global financial panic, just months after Wall Street collapsed, the federal government released a policy white paper called The Road Home. It announced two ambitious targets for 2020: to halve all homelessness, and to offer supported accommodation to all rough sleepers who need it. Two months later, the government scrounged billions more for social housing, as part of the recession-busting stimulus package.

Soon after I began my research, one charity worker described the new policy to me as “the best chance we’ve had”.

***

I stay in Adelaide for a rainy week, visiting Albert every day, spending the long walk to and from his place thinking about what he’s said about his life and what it would mean to re-tell it fairly. I shelter beneath an umbrella, considering how disadvantage has passed from one generation to the next in Albert’s family, the way prominent noses have in mine. I draw my coat tight and shudder, too, about the holding pattern I have entered.

For this week at least, Albert orbits in a universe comprised of three core elements: instant coffee, Winfield Red rollies and Facebook poker. He is 38 years old, and unfailingly polite. He offers me coffee when I arrive and fetches me a newspaper while he paces upstairs to make it.

Today is the second day I’ve visited. We’re sitting in the common room again, on new IKEA chairs. He’s wearing jeans and a black-and-orange jacket bearing the insignia of Adelaide’s biggest homeless drop-in service, the Hutt Street Centre.

When I arrived, Albert was out the front having a smoke with his friend, Alan, who has a small moustache and a furrowed brow. They had been on the computers playing Facebook poker. Alan’s been on a lucky streak this morning, his virtual fortune rising from $10,000 to $36,000.

Albert talks about his own, more tangible finances: “I’ve got some fines hanging over my head in Melbourne. It’s nothing serious, but they go back a fair while. And because it’s a few thousand dollars and the combination of this and that: whoosht – jail. I’m not really interested in going to jail.”

So, in 2006, Albert decided to try his luck in Adelaide. “I wasn’t getting anywhere looking for work in Melbourne,” he explains. When I ask what kind of work he’s done before, he replies: “Ah, how do I put it? I’ve been in the wilderness for most of my life.”

The year Albert moved to Adelaide, Rosanne Haggerty, an American housing expert, completed her stint as the city’s ‘thinker-in-residence’. Under the state government scheme, international experts live in Adelaide briefly, meet influential people and make policy recommendations. “The Thinker,” says the program’s website, “focuses on the problems of modern life”.

Haggerty’s experience with community housing goes back decades. In 1991, after several years securing donations, investments and grants, she bought the Times Square Hotel in Manhattan, a derelict 15-storey art deco building. She had it refurbished, and when it reopened, the old hotel provided housing for 652 people: the otherwise homeless, together with low-income earners and people living with HIV/AIDS. There were onsite counsellors and common areas – a library, a roof-deck garden, a computer lab, an art studio, a medical clinic, an exercise room and laundry facilities. The lobby had a marble staircase.

The organisation Haggerty founded, Common Ground Community, now manages 12 buildings with nearly 2500 units. Its philosophy is that chronic homelessness is solvable. Housing that comes with linked support services is more effective – and cheaper – than leaving people on the street and relying on police and emergency services to deal with them. Almost nine out of 10 residents stay put.

In South Australia, senior public servants recall Haggerty’s charisma. “She probably ruffled feathers,” one told me, “but she does it in a nice way, in a way that’s always about how to make people’s lives better. And no one can object to that.”

For many charity workers, however, Haggerty had a confronting message: handing out food and blankets is misguided. Emergency shelters sustain homelessness, rather than end it.

She proposed dramatic change. Until recently, most Australian housing services operated on a ‘treatment first’ or ‘housing readiness’ basis: get into treatment for your troubles, then we’ll offer you a place to live. Instead, Haggerty and others pushed for the reverse: ‘housing first’ tied with support services for as long as necessary.

Common Ground Adelaide was launched in 2006, mirroring the New York model. In April, the organisation opened its second premises – a red-brick, heritage building overlooking a park in the Adelaide CBD, retrofitted with 52 apartments. It once housed a printing press and, briefly, a nightclub. For the last month, it has housed Albert.

The building is bright and airy, equipped with its own part-time medical and dental clinic and a worker who coordinates regular activities for the residents, things like gardening and ten-pin bowling. The large common room, complete with kitchen, computers and couches, has a bright orange wall that perfectly matches Albert’s jacket. His onsite social worker explained to me about the pair’s regular meetings and the support plan they’re drawing up together.

But as I walked home that day, my footsteps wavered. I had Albert’s words in my head, with a scene from 10 years ago: the time when he accessed his human services file. Among other things that continue to upset him, he read that not long after he was born, his mother, a diabetic and bad alcoholic, left town without him. Her partner told people the baby had died. Someone made an anonymous call and Albert was taken away.

“I grew up on the welfare system, ward of the state and whatnot. Never had a proper family.” The longest time Albert had a stable home was between the ages of five and 10, in foster care.

“There was a time when I was a teenager and I thought ‘I’m on my own now’. But when I pulled that file out and read a lot of stuff, I thought, ‘Ah no, no, I’ve always been on my own, even before I was born.’”

Around the time he read his file, Albert told me, he had a tendency to get a bit wild.

***

I get unsteady again when I type the transcript from my visit to Dee’s house. She speaks fast, in staccato sentences without pronouns. I’ve slowed the tape way down, but still she outpaces me. The birds chirp slowly and every 10 minutes a train toots, stretched out along the line. All the while there’s a warped hum in the background, like a tape on rewind.

“Boss dropped a pallet on my shoulder,” Dee says. “Rotator cuff stuffed. Went through rehab and ops and for a good 18 months I wasn’t able to work. Incapacitated.”

As I listen, I picture her two-bedroom unit, neatly kept, but flimsy like a cardboard box. Dee is Maori; in good humour, she described herself as “not your petite young girl who wants to sit and type”. Yet somehow, the dwelling seemed to have diminished her big laugh and limbs.

The tape continues and I recall the scene: the two of us sitting on an L-shaped couch, arranged with fluffy cushions; Dee talking about the big things in her life. “Went back to work maybe a year ago, and got cervical cancer. So had that removed and I got all-cleared end of January. And I’ve been trying to get a job since. I was a warehouse manager, travelled interstate. But with the injury, not allowed to do that anymore. Turned 40 last month. Find a new calling at 40? With no experience, no nothing? It’s not happening.”

My concentration slips again from the recording and I wonder how I’ll be able to express the heat of Dee’s despair. Then I hear myself ask: “Uh, so do you have enough to eat?”

“No. No. We go without,” Dee replies. “You have to. We’ve got no family. I’m not lining up in a soup kitchen, I’d rather go without. It’s just the way I feel. Sorry. Nothing you can do about it – I’m not going to rob somewhere. Some people do. Geez, I hope I don’t ever feel that way.

“You hear about it on the news, people robbing 7-Elevens and taking 50 bucks and this and that, and some people are so desperate you wonder – are they just scum? Are they just bums? Or they just someone like me who’s lost it and who’s sick of not feeding their kids?”

Above Dee’s TV cabinet I’d noticed three small lava lamps; green, orange and purple, with gold flakes flowing and shimmering inside. These are her luxuries. She keeps them going because an energy auditor from Kildonan UnitingCare explained they only cost one cent per day.

It was through Kildonan that I met her. The charity mainly works in Melbourne’s north. One of its services is to help people overburdened with energy bills understand how to reduce their usage. After the advisor visited Dee, he negotiated a payment plan for the money she owed the power company.

On another day, I visited Kildonan’s headquarters in Epping, in Melbourne’s northern growth corridor, for a launch promoting a low-interest, micro-finance loan.

In his speech at the event, Harry Jenkins, the local federal member and speaker of the lower house, joked that Kildonan’s CEO, Stella Avramopoulos, was known around the office as “she-who-must-be-obeyed”. Avramopoulos, who has dark, sparky eyes and leaves a residue of energy even after she exits a conversation, grew up in the region serviced by her organisation.

After the launch, she chatted in the foyer while assorted charity workers milled around sandwich platters. Recently, Avramopoulos told a Victorian inquiry into child protection that the number of people requesting financial assistance from Kildonan had doubled in the past five years. “They were really gobsmacked because it was a reality they didn’t know,” Avramopoulos told me. “And I said, ‘Well, that’s what happening!’”

In the first week of January this year, while the nation worried about the English cricket team winning the Ashes, six people arrived at Kildonan’s office asking for help, forced to choose between paying their rent or buying food for their families. The next week, three more presented with eviction notices.

Households who spend more than 30% of their income on their mortgage or rent are considered to be in ‘housing stress’. All the charities I contacted for this article told me housing stress has become an increasingly mainstream concern.

“These are not families who saw themselves as struggling or at risk of homelessness and yet here they are, now in severe financial distress,” Avramopoulos says.

In her lounge room, Dee tells me she thinks about her rent before she goes to sleep, and before she wakes up. Before she wakes up. “Not a nice thought, but an everyday one. Rent. Rent. Rent.” She says words in threes.

“Uh,” I say, and pause. “So, uh, how do you spend your days now?”

“Sit around and look at the walls. Talk to my dog. Teach her tricks. I go for a walk sometimes, but I don’t even feel like doing that.”

Dee is crying, wiping tears away from her cheeks with the sleeve of her purple windcheater. “Do all these appointments, apply for jobs. I go to counselling for depression and anxiety. Drink coffee. I don’t drink alcohol. I started smoking cigarettes.”

I walked back to the train knowing this: Dee and her daughter’s rent is well over two-thirds of their combined income, forgetting groceries, bills or food for the dog. And I know this, too: the rent is due next week and Dee won’t be able to pay it.

***

When Albert was sleeping rough, each day went like this:

“You’d wake up five-thirty or so, quite often by the magpies – that was my alarm clock. You’d have a cigarette, go behind the pavilion and have a piss, then have a few cigarettes and wait till Hutt Street opens. I’d get there just as it opened up. It’s on the good side of town and I didn’t want people staring at me when they’re driving to work.

“First thing I would do is have a few coffees, shit, shave, shower – depending on if it was needed, or if I was up to it. I wouldn’t hang around. I’d come back and have lunch, then I’d grab my sleeping bag. Usually if you had money you’d get a cask of wine because there’s not much to do. We’d just sit and drink and smoke and talk.”

During Albert’s time on the street, Kylie Burns (who leads the Hutt Street Centre’s primary homelessness team) safeguarded his music diploma in her office. Burns has a presence at once cherubic and stoic. “He’s a good guy, Albert,” she tells me. “You really wish him well and hope he can achieve what he wants.”

The day I visit, she’s wearing a white, knitted top. There’s a pink toy pony sitting on her desk and bubblegum pop playing on her radio. Earlier in the morning, I’d seen bearded, scraggly men waiting for the centre to open, with plastic bags tied over their feet to keep out the wet.

Hutt Street serves breakfast to about 100 people and lunches to about 200 people every weekday. Burns walks me through their facilities, past the dining room, showers, laundry and storage room, to an art and education centre, an op shop, a lounge and a bank of computers.

The centre signed a new funding agreement with the South Australian government at the end of 2010, as part of reforms that backed more outreach and long-term housing programs – in line with Haggerty’s recommendations.

Burns has reservations about the change. “I can see [Haggerty’s] point of view, but in a practical sense, if we weren’t here, where are people meant to go?” she asks.

“We don’t just do crisis stuff; we do long-term response, too. But I think that sometimes, the ‘housing first’ model sets people up to fail. Living close together wouldn’t work for a lot of our clients – some of them have been sleeping rough for 15 years.”

A senior employee at a national charity tells me that while the ‘housing first’ philosophy has broad support, its implementation is still in question. “The bottleneck is bricks and mortar – if you don’t have access to suitable housing, the whole tenet of ‘housing first’ breaks down,” he said.

Even so, the approach has spread throughout the country, both in pre-existing scattered housing and in new dwellings. More Common Ground-style apartments are under construction in Sydney, Brisbane and Hobart, and a large building opened last year in Melbourne.

This year in Brisbane, a ‘housing first’ outreach campaign run by Micah Projects, called ‘50 Lives 50 Homes’, out-performed its target. It housed 73 of the city’s most at-risk rough sleepers in less than 12 months.

But it is the South Australian government that has made the biggest changes, across all its housing services. In the words of one insider, they’ve “thrown everything up in the air on the evidence that it’ll land in a better place”. In a few more years, she said, they’ll know if it has.

The same goes for Albert. I walk to visit him on a Saturday. The common room is closed at weekends. He shows me to his bedsit on the second floor, apologising several times for the mess.

I think his room is tidy. It’s small, about five bed-lengths by two, with a high ceiling and perky furnishing, like the rest of the building. There’s little marking the space as his own besides the laminated music diploma stuck to the wall and a small figurine of an American Indian on his coffee table.

Albert pulls his hair into a ponytail and starts doing the dishes, standing neatly with his legs together, half-turned towards me while we talk about his plans, long-term and short.

He wants to enrol in a bachelor degree in Aboriginal Studies in Music next year at the university. “My intention is to stay here for a few years, but because I’m so used to not being in the same spot too long, who knows? I could be here for one year and decide I’m going to move on – even though it is ideal.”

Earlier in the week, Albert’s social worker from Common Ground called the job network on his behalf, chasing up training. The following day, they booked him on a course to get his forklift ticket.
This afternoon, he tells me, he’s planning to watch a DVD – maybe Avatar – then at about three o’clock he’ll begin reading through the information booklet for the course. Alan had planned to go out for a drink this Sunday night, but Albert said he couldn’t come; he wanted to be okay for the training, which starts on Monday.

“A woman once said I was a quiet achiever. That’s what I am, you know, a quiet achiever.”

***

I visit Dee again. I’d been hoping to be there when her daughter helped dye her hair, because I thought it would make a hopeful scene. But when I arrive, her hair is already dark red. It looks good, and she appears several years younger. She returns to her couch in the darkened living room to continue watching the mid-morning TV news with the sound down, arms crossed in her loose fleece-lined jacket, the three lava-lamps flowing.

Before long, the questions taste sour in my mouth. It is her face that turns grey now, as I ask her again about all those worries. She’s $600 behind on the latest rent. The payment plans brokered by Kildonan for the utility bills have expired and disconnection notices came for the gas and electricity.

Upset, Dee directs conversation through her dog, who is lying at her feet. “Yeah, it’s not fair is it? It’s not a nice conversation, no it’s not – tickle, tickle,” she pats the animal, speaks in cuddles. “She’s eight today. Old lady now, aren’t you? No birthday cake, no dog food!” she laughs, and then briefly falls silent. “She knows when I’m not happy. She’ll stare at me.”

When her old home that she’d lived in for nearly a decade was put up for sale, she moved half-an-hour down the train line to a much smaller place. The rent was higher, but it was the only one she could find that allowed pets.

She has long been on waiting lists for public housing, and for a housing co-op in which she would pay below-market rent. But around the country, waiting lists for public housing run to the tens of thousands. As decades have passed and the population and economy have grown, governments have not provided the public housing to match. The tenants have shifted from low-paid workers to the most marginalised in society – carers, single mothers, the elderly, disabled or chronically unemployed.

The federal government’s stimulus package included funding for nearly 20,000 new social housing dwellings. Many not-for-profit housing associations received balance sheet boosts they should be able to leverage for ongoing investment. But Australia’s cities are growing fast, and much more is needed. The National Housing Supply Council, a government body, estimates that there was a national shortage of about 180,000 homes in mid-2009, the number having doubled in the preceding year, while prices for existing houses rose sharply.

Near Kildonan’s office in Epping, the landscape has transformed. “When we moved here in 2003 there were still kangaroos hopping around everywhere,” Avramopoulos says. “People thought we were mad to set up a building in the middle of nowhere. There’s been an extraordinary amount of change and some of the service systems have not moved in.”

When population growth outstrips investment in housing, infrastructure and services, the economy still grows and most people become richer, but we are subsidised by the suffering of the poor. “Those at the upper echelons are getting so much stronger financially, but there are fewer and fewer options for the bottom percentile,” Avramopoulos says. 

When I left Dee’s place, she walked with me to the letterbox. It was the first time I’d seen her outside her unit, unencumbered by the closeness of the walls and the darkness of her lounge. As I walked away she bent down to pick up her mail and called out, “Want to take my bills?” She gave me a big throaty laugh. I laughed with her and for an instant everything seemed like it would turn out okay, until I remembered it probably wouldn’t.

***

For months I pore over books and documents about homelessness. About housing affordability, poverty, education and income inequality. Structural causes that fuse with the vagaries of personal and social circumstances, chance and mischance. I learn of the thousands of agencies, services and workers implementing a web of policies and tailored responses.

But I can’t keep all the bits and pieces arranged in my mind. Instead, I keep remembering a paragraph in Haggerty’s report:

“In advanced democracies, where homelessness during peacetime was rare until the last 25 years, [it] has been particularly disturbing and uncomfortable to deal with: too complicated, too vast, too much of an affront to our societies’ faith in social and economic progress.”

I thought about this paragraph the morning I read the rich list. That was the morning I’d met Dee, and found out she couldn’t pay the rent on her small, cold unit. I wondered if the lack of affordable housing was inevitable, so long as we seek to better society’s material wealth, rather than the quality of life of our people.

And, again, I thought about Haggerty’s words when I visited Common Ground Adelaide and witnessed the green shoots of well-targeted public and private funding. Albert has a home, a support plan, and his own plans.

But, so far, the big funding push in The Road Home hasn’t made it to all quarters. For example, Avramopoulos is yet to see it reach Melbourne’s outer north. Still, she remains hopeful. “We actually save a lot of money if we invest in early prevention. Housing is one of the critical areas that can act as an intervening force. I know it’s possible to make change,” she says. “I’ve seen it.”

Eventually, stuck for how to write about what I’ve observed, I begin listening to Dee’s interviews while I walk through the city. I notice that she was quieter the second time I visited: less feisty, more resigned. Her voice is soft on the recording, and even though I turn it up as loud as I can, she vanishes often in the noise of the traffic, disappearing among the trucks, the trams and the pulsing crossings.

As I walk, her voice comes and goes: “…yeah, I speak to my mum every week in New Zealand. She’s got nothing and I don’t want her to worry. I can come across quite good…make a joke and laugh. But she always asks, have you got a job, have you got a job?”

There are long pauses, too, where no one speaks because I don’t know what to say. “Another half-year gone,” she says.

When I can’t hear the recording for what seems like a minute, I give up listening, unsure if Dee’s predicament was overwhelmed by the city, or by a silence I was unable to fill.

 

Michael Green published a follow-up article to 'Cracks in the Walls' on his blog in February 2013. You can read his article here.

» Michael Green is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Big Issue. His website is michaelbgreen.com.au.

» For more information on the housing programs mentioned, visit fahcsia.gov.au/sa/housing; commongroundaustralia.org.au; and kildonan.unitingcare.org.au.

This article first appeared in Ed#386 of The Big Issue. It is being republished as part of our countdown to our 20th Birthday. Stay tuned for more great content from the last two decades. #20yearsofTBI

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