STEVE McDERMOTT (CEO) and MICHAEL PIU (COO) of St Patrick’s Community Support Centre respond to last week’s story in the Herald about crime at the Woolstores Shopping Centre, and claims that homeless people are responsible for it.
A TOPIC of debate that seems to regularly emerge in Fremantle is the thinly-veiled supposition there is a significant correlation between the overall level of crime and homelessness (“Crime spikes in East End,” Herald, July 12, 2014).
In terms of hard facts—as opposed to supposition and personal anecdotes—the research is thin on the ground. However, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare published a report in 2012 examining links between homelessness and juvenile justice (http://www.aihw.gov.au/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=60129542238).
It found that 11 per cent of young people under supervision of the juvenile justice system had immediately beforehand received assistance from a specialist homelessness service (cited as an indicator of their prior homelessness).
This would suggest that close to 90 per cent of those in the juvenile justice system were not homeless immediately prior to committing an offence.
Another common supposition is that services that seek to assist homeless people are in fact responsible for the presence of homeless people in Fremantle. St Patrick’s Community Support Centre, the lead service addressing homelessness in Fremantle and south-west metropolitan Perth, was formed in 1972 as a response to the serious existing problem of homelessness in Fremantle.
It is well established that homeless people gravitate to central business districts to seek shelter and assistance. A November 2012 report into inner-city homelessness in Perth and Fremantle, commissioned by the WA child protection department, Boxes in the Jungle, states:
“In the same way that inner cities are the focal point of city life and business, they often develop a concentration of homeless services. Homeless people are mobile and have often lost ties to places they used to live and work. They gravitate to the inner city to find services—both because that is where services are located and because public transport makes it easier to access them. This is reflected with inner city Perth and Fremantle servicing 32% of Western Australia’s homeless people.”
Homelessness services like St Patrick’s exist to respond to the immediate needs of this most vulnerable group of people in our community and to address the underlying issues that lead to homelessness, such as serious mental health; drug and alcohol dependence; family breakdown; education and employment issues; and the like.
The objective is to build the individual’s capacity and self-sufficiency—a sustainable, long-term solution to homelessness. In other words, agencies like St Patrick’s address and reduce homelessness; they do not increase it.
Uninformed comment on homelessness only serves to add to the problem, rather than the solution, by reinforcing false stereotypes and masking the true causes of homelessness. The problem of homelessness, and the path to its resolution, is a whole-of-community responsibility. Homeless people are people like you and me, who have become homeless for a variety of reasons that most of us are simply fortunate enough not to have experienced.
The suggestion that a solution to homelessness—and indeed for that matter, a solution to other social issues such as crime—lies simply with additional policing is hopelessly simplistic.
Social problems are complex, and arise from a range factors such as generational disadvantage; disparities in education; mental illness; drug and alcohol issues, domestic violence and familial issues; and discrimination among other factors.
They need to be addressed in a comprehensive and sustainable way, and require all elements of the community to take responsibility and work towards real solutions. Albert Einstein once said, the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.
His aspersion on mental health is unfortunate, but the point is nevertheless well made—a different approach to the problem is urgently required, rather than the well-worn finger-pointing at the most vulnerable members of our community, if we are to effectively address the social problems we face.