Tent City: The only way to get action

JESSE NOAKES is a former organiser for Extinction Rebellion who turned his hand to tackling homelessness with an no-holds-barred approach: gathering homeless people into one area, which became known in Fremantle as Tent City. In this week’s THINKING ALLOWED he argues it seems to be the only way to catch the state government’s attention and get some action.

THIS time last year, Pioneer Park swarmed with police and government officials supervising the removal of a camp next to Fremantle train station that put WA’s homelessness crisis on the map. 

One year on from ‘Tent City’, it’s a good time to assess if there’s been any impact on ending homelessness in Western Australia.

The Fremantle camp was one of three that garnered some political attention in the year prior to the 2021 Budget, created a relentless public narrative around these flashpoints. The campaign leveraged deep, trusting connection with the community on the frontline of WA’s housing crisis, and cultivated strong connections with journalists and media outlets to support people usually deemed too marginalised or vulnerable to share their stories. 

from the government and some parts of the homelessness sector of stigmatising and exploiting vulnerable people for political purposes.At the Fremantle camp, we were accused of luring people from existing accommodation with “ham off the bone” and “the promise of immediate housing”. 

The former claim was true, thanks to a team of hundreds of voluntary cooks who swung into action the day after Christmas while St Pat’s was closed and kept helping with the kitchen until no one was left hungry. 

Breakdown

The latter was a lie, thanks to a breakdown in communication between an out of touch CEO from a homelessness service and a minister with a big issue on her doorstep (both now gone), and a premier who’ll read whatever they put in front of him (he’s still here).

The housing wasn’t immediate, either, but it was finally promised eight months later, by the WA government whose 2021 Budget included what the treasurer called “the single biggest public housing investment in this state’s history.” 

It was a direct response to sustained and skilful media focus on the WA housing and homelessness crisis, a direct result of highly vulnerable families standing up, speaking out and sharing their stories to drive political change.

It’s still not nearly enough, of course, and comes too little too late for more than 100 people who have died homeless in Perth since the start of the pandemic. 

Even that hasn’t been enough to lift vaccination rates among the most vulnerable community in WA, abandoned on the street while the government rightly focuses attention on remote communities.

But it’s a lot better than nothing, which is what these families started with. 

And taking a billion dollars off the WA premier for public housing wasn’t the only political change they won. There’s now a new minister for housing and homelessness.

There’s also an inquiry starting next week in Parliament, expected to run all year, to investigate the homelessness crisis in WA and what happened to all the money that was meant to fix it.

A joint coronial inquest is also being planned into the deaths of several young Aboriginal women in the Perth CBD last winter.

There is also a new hostel for Aboriginal homeless people in the heart of Perth, first suggested during the lord mayoral campaign and announced during the state election campaign as a solution to the first tent city in the Perth CBD. 

It was a privilege to facilitate the early meetings between Wungening Aboriginal Corporation and the department that made it happen.

The camps were a response to Covid, and in every crisis there are opportunities. New collaboration is arguably the greatest legacy of this disruption. 

The HEART team was swiftly assembled a year ago in response to the escalating political pressure caused by multiple tent cities. 

Innovation

It was great to be inside the tent as the department and credible service providers realised this radical innovation in frontline engagement fast-tracked getting people housed.

It took the government six months to wrap up the first tent city at Lord St in the Perth CBD. It took them four weeks to wrap up the second camp at Pioneer Park. The third camp, which started on a Tuesday morning outside WA Parliament in August, was gone in two days.

I reckon if someone put up a tent in the heart of Fremantle today it would last about two minutes.

It reads like tent cities might be the most effective strategy to end homelessness we’ve ever seen in Western Australia.

Is that progress? So much for the politics and the policy outcomes – what about the people themselves? What have they got out of it?

Well, two out of three ain’t bad…

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