People Need Houses4 October 2016
To the prospective house-hunter, Bendigo Street in Collingwood contains prime property with cosy-looking houses tucked next to each other. However, these houses aren’t just a piece of real estate. Pinned along the pristine white fences are large cloth banners with bold messages: ‘Melbourne’s Housing Crisis: 25,000 Homeless’ and ‘People need houses, not stock portfolios’.
The Homeless Persons Union Victoria (HPUV) and other homeless people have occupied these houses for the past five months despite repeat attempted evictions by police. These houses are investment properties owned by the State Government and have been empty for the past 18 months. The HPUV states that this is a peaceful, political protest to raise awareness for how the properties they are currently occupying have been empty for over a year as Melbourne’s homelessness crisis grows.
Ten-year-old Wren is one of the many vulnerable people living on Bendigo Street. When Wren and her family first started living there, there was no electricity or water until they were able to siphon some from a neighbour. Even now, water will sometimes still run out, “which is really bad when I’m the last one to take a shower” she says.
Understandably, Wren doesn’t like her current situation. Previously, Wren had lived with her father and his girlfriend. Now she shares a room with her mother Anna and two siblings; other people in need occupy other rooms in the house. In addition, she says that people often yell at her.
“What kind of people?”
“The owners of the house and the police.”
However, when I ask Wren where she prefers living – with her father or on Bendigo Street, she replies: ‘I prefer this place because I just want to be with my mum. When I was at that house, it was really bad.’
Wren and her brother have also been interviewed by the Department of Human Services because of their living situation. This is a point of concern for her because even at 10, Wren is aware of the sombre fact that “it’s really easy to get your kids taken away”.
Wren and her family are Indigenous Australians; as of 2016, Indigenous children are 10 times more likely than non-Indigenous children to be living in out-of-home care (e.g. foster homes). Not only do these children face the trauma of being taken away from their homes, those who grow up in residential care grow up cut off from their community and culture with limited resources. Once they turn 18, they become legal adults and no longer have a ‘home’.
In the future, Wren hopes to live internationally, such as in London or Los Angeles. She is also considering living in outer space, possibly on a newly established planet colony as a pioneer of the stars.
Wren’s mother Anna was forced to leave her previous home with her children due to domestic violence. Anna was unable to find accommodation, leaving them homeless until she came in contact with another resident on Bendigo Street.
Anna says that if she hadn’t met the HPUV, she would have seriously considered going back to Wren’s father as her family had nowhere else to go. She states that many ‘resources’ for families and domestic violence victims are often just “not set up for women”.
She described to me her difficulty in going to various help centres, cycling through them with increasing stress and panic as they were unable to help her family. Anna once went to a crisis accommodation centre called Launch. Launch could only offer temporary housing (one night or two) in an environment that was not considered safe for young children. Anna spoke particularly of her experience when she went to a domestic violence organisation and was turned away because she did not have a referral from a caseworker.
When I ask Anna how her experience with the HPUV has been, she tears up. “They’re the kindest people… it makes me so happy, they’ve got good hearts and I’m glad to know them”. After months of stress and fear, Anna and her children have finally been offered public housing, something she says would not have happened without the attention drawn to Bendigo Street and her own opportunities to speak with media because of it.
Sadly, Anna’s situation is relatively uncommon: there are currently over 30,000 Victorians on the waiting list for public housing. As most people know, securing housing in Melbourne is an exhausting process that includes inspections and document verification. Anna is lucky that she does have documents such as an ID and passport but many chronically homeless people do not and cannot afford to purchase any. Even worse, many homeless people also face tremendous obstacles such as PTSD and other mental health issues that prevent them from finding work and presenting as ‘clean’ enough to be a tenant. This includes domestic violence victims like Anna, trans people who are rejected from housing due to their gender identity and members of the Stolen Generation who were taken from their homes as children.
Anna has strong words for the people who have been condemning the occupation: “People out there think we’re trying to get a free house and jump the queue; well I’ve paid rent for eight years, I quite like paying rent and I’m hard working. We had to move out for a reason and these coldhearted people who think we’re just bludgers and want everything handed to us; they need to look as if it’s their granddaughter out there one day, because it will be good-hearted people [like the HPUV] who will take care and help them.”
More information about the HPUV and the Bendigo Street Occupation can be found at hpuvic.org or their Facebook page Homeless Persons Union Victoria.
All names have been changed to preserve the anonymity of interviewees