This article was first published on The Stringer and is republished with permission.
City of Perth versus the homeless – Kirsty Oehlers takes on council
by Gerry Georgatos
The homeless of Matagarup (Heirisson) have been scattered throughout Perth’s alleyways, squats, traps and under bridges. Some of the families have been taken in for the time being by supporters. However, the City of Perth has been pushing the line that there were not many ‘genuinely’ homeless people in the former island precinct safe space of Heirisson. This sickly reductionist line is a disgrace.
Teagan is one of the homeless moved on by the City of Perth executive and their rangers while escorted by a show of force of police muscle. The police said that they were only there to keep the peace. But no peace had been broken until the City of Perth showed up. The Western Australian Police do not have to be part of the City of Perth’s raids; they do not have to do what they do despite their private protestations by some of them that they are disturbed by the City of Perth’s conduct. Teagan remains homeless but now more vulnerable than at any time while sheltering at Matagarup. She has to deal with the various violence and sexual predation on the streets – moving from alleyway, squat, trap, bridge.
Teagan said that the City of Perth rangers took everything – the belongings of the homeless; tents, swags, blankets. After the Heirisson raid on March 5, Teagan and other homeless individuals slept under a nearby bridge. The next morning the City of Perth escorted by another police show of force – paramilitary style – ordered the homeless to leave the undercover shelter of the bridge.
In an unbelievable media release the City of Perth is selling Perth residents the line that the City of Perth has engaged services to assist the homeless. Teagan and others have a different story to tell.
Those who have been assisting the homeless are ordinary citizens, good souls – Jennifer Kaeshagen and Kirsty Oehlers of the First Nations Homelessness Project; Tanya Cairns of the homelessness charity HAND; and many right-minded Perth residents who have been there for the homeless day in day out, night after night for the last year. Australian Labor Party Senator, Sue Lines has been there for them – the only politician to scrub up. She turned up during the major raid on Tuesday.
Local citizen Clare Vinten salvaged everything she could on behalf of the homeless and stored their possessions at her home. The Nyungah family of Herbert Bropho for the time being has taken in one of the island’s long-term homeless families – a family of seven – five young children. Herbert understands the impacts and culminations of chronic homelessness. He lost two sisters and a brother to the streets. Nyungah man Clinton Pryor turned up daily to the homeless camp, walking down from his place of work in the heart of the city. Clinton had the rockiest of starts to life – taken from his mum when he was seven years old – watching her from the window of a small plane he had been bundled into, his mother running and screaming down the red earth tarmac of the community he would never see again. At eleven years of age he would lose his mother forever and his father passed away when he 16. All of a sudden, orphaned, he was lost and homeless – two years on the streets. He vowed to never forget those whom he met on the streets and he hasn’t. At this time his home is filled with homeless people sheltering after the raids on Heirisson.
“The weather is turning and I know what it’s like to be on the streets in the worst of the cold, the rough weather,” said Clinton.
Clinton has spent much of his own money feeding the Matagarup homeless – from what little savings he has.
Teagan said, “Massive thank you to Perth people supporting the homeless and for the blankets and jumpers, for the food.” Teagan said that ordinary citizens have brought food as night unfolds. One person brought a change of clothes for them.
“We appreciate all the help,” said Teagan.
Meanwhile, the City of Perth issued the media release arguing its case to evict the homeless campers. The City of Perth claimed that “the City continues to work with agencies such as The Salvation Army, Department of Housing, United Care West and Ruah to assist the genuinely homeless.” Are they suggesting that the majority of those who sheltered at the island camp were not homeless? They answered this in their media release, “Three-four family groups only meet relevant agencies’ criteria for being designated as homeless, and are being case-managed by these agencies.” It is like I am reading George Orwell’s ‘1984’.
Some offers of transitional accommodation were made to a few homeless individuals at sites sponsored by large charity based organisations. This is not permanent accommodation and sadly a significant proportion of welfare payments are subsumed as rent for this interim accommodation. The only person to secure genuine housing for any of the homeless that were on Heirisson Island is Jennifer Kaeshagen of the First Nations Homelessness Project – a non-funded 100 per cent volunteer effort.
Kirsty Oehlers is a social worker who also volunteers with the First Nations Homelessness Project. Kirsty has done more for the island’s homeless in psychosocial and practical support than all the agencies combined that the City of Perth has claimed to have engaged.
Kirsty said that the City of Perth’s media release is riddled with errors.
“I am involved with this community of people as a social work advocate for the First Nations Homelessness Project with Jennifer Kaeshagen. I work closely with the people on the island, providing psychosocial care and support.”
“I can verify that at the time of the raid there were numbers of homeless in much greater numbers than what (the City of Perth) quoted. Our count was in excess of 100 people – all homeless,” said Kirsty.
“In the days since the people were removed from Matagarup, I have met with and assisted numerous individual and couples who were not factored into the citation of (City of Perth’s) three to four families.”
“The number of people I have worked with since their removal is more than twenty. These people are now living on the streets and only this afternoon, I visited a group of nine sleeping under a bridge. All of these people had been previously cared for as part of the Matagarup community.”
The City of Perth stated in its media release, “More than 80 per cent of tents removed from Heirisson Island yesterday were vacant.”
Kirsty said, “It is not possible that 80 per cent of tents were unoccupied. There was woman new to the island who arrived the night before who was homeless and in need of a tent. We have no idea where she is now. There were no vacant tents on the day the City of Perth removed everything.”
“Any tents left behind belonged to people who left the island in fright and desperation not to lose their belongings.”
Kirsty questioned the level of engagement between the City of Perth and the homelessness sector. “It is interesting to note that (the City of Perth) says it works closely with agencies.”
“Yet, none were present on the day of the removal of the camp when people were distressed, homeless and traumatised.”
Kirsty filed all of the above as questions to the City of Perth. The silence echoes.
Three months ago, I met with the City of Perth at their invitation – the meeting was convened by the then City of Perth CEO, Gary Stevenson who has since been sacked by the Council following a suite of allegations of improper conduct against various councillors. The Corruption and Crimes Commission examined the allegations and thus far has made some damning findings. The meeting with the then CEO was also attended by two other City of Perth executives, one of them who minuted the meeting. The executives were present at Heirisson on March 5 coordinating the raid. The meeting was also attended by Nyungah Elder Bella Bropho, Nyungah social justice activist Clinton Pryor, Jennifer Kaeshagen and two others. I had only just returned from a desert town where in the course of my predominant work – suicide prevention – I had been assisting suicide trauma affected families. In the five days leading to Christmas Day, three young people were buried. The youngest was a 15 year-old girl. I attended their funerals, three graves in a row. I have worked alongside the homeless for more than two decades. I know what they face on the streets – the sexual predation and the violence. I understand the abyss they stare into. I understand the traumas, the multiple traumas, the constancy of these traumas, the degeneration for many of them into the worst traumas, aggressive complex traumas.
I broke down during that meeting, cried aloud while in my mind’s eye seeing those three graves I left behind only days before and reflecting on the many souls on the streets I have met. I pleaded with Gary and his colleagues that in the event of a potential raid on the Matagarup homeless that I and Bella Bropho should be given prior notice so as to care coordinate various interim transition and transport in particular for the children and the most vulnerable. Gary gave me his word. Gary recognised the number of the homeless on the island had grown significantly and he spoke to this. He and his two colleagues shook my hand. That Gary was sacked by the City of Perth does not entitle the City of Perth to void their CEO’s promise. His colleagues, one of whom was present at that meeting, coordinated the raid.
A promise was broken, trust betrayed. The victims are the homeless.
In my view the nine councillors of the compassionless City of Perth should be sacked. They have long failed the children, the vulnerable and the families of Matagarup. There is not a single councillor who has stood up for the homeless.
Teagan does not know where she will sleep tonight.
“It’s getting harder to find dry spots.”
About the Author
Gerry Georgatos is a life-long human rights and social justice campaigner, and a multi-award winning investigative journalist. His predominant work is in suicide prevention research and in unveiling racism and in articulating the ways forward. Some of his stories on homelessness in First Nations communities have led to many people housed and to restorative cultural projects. His social justice campaigns include his ongoing work with the homeless, asylum seekers, people in prison and post-release, his anti-drugs campaigns, fighting racism and discrimination, and his freedom of speech campaigns.
Georgatos is considered by some as a ‘polarising’ and ‘controversial’ writer and social justice campaigner. He is an expert in his fields, particularly in the understanding of racism and in suicide prevention – and involves himself at the coalface in addition to interfacing with Governments. His advocacy style can at times be confrontational. He works with a sense of urgency. He travels widely. He has a ‘relentless crash through style’ and is resilient when it comes to hatchet jobs on him or when he is persecuted or ostracised. “You let this stuff slide,” he said. His diverse lived experiences, his compassion for others, his various expertise make him a valued contributing journalist and writer for The Stringer.