What Homelessness Is Like:
A Letter by Keely Swannie to Lord Mayor of Melbourne Robert Doyle

Posted on 05 March 2017

No more bandaids & bans: We need housing for all! Photo CC BY Katherine Phelps 2017 March 03

Dear Mr Doyle,

I just wanted to send you a personal message to let you know how I am feeling about your proposal to ban homeless people from sleeping rough in the city. I think it absolutely sucks.

First of all Mr Doyle, let me remind you that anyone can become homeless. Even you. All it takes is one thing to happen and your world can come crashing down. Maybe you lose your job, maybe you’re trying to escape domestic violence, maybe you have a mental breakdown or maybe this or maybe that. My point is there are a multitude of reasons why a person can become homeless.

My understanding of the situation is this: we have 247 people sleeping rough in the city of Melbourne at the moment and you have only offered housing to 40 of those people. I’m not very good at math by any stretch but I’m pretty sure that means 207 people miss out. Why? And how do you choose who gets a place and who doesn’t?

That brings me to the statement that “they’re not all homeless, we have offered them rooms in rooming houses but they decline….” when was the last time you set foot in a rooming house? I was in one on Sunday. I do not blame these people for declining to live in these pits of pure hell.

I am a volunteer social support worker for a lady with mental illness in a rooming house in Coburg run by Unison (it was Yarra Community Housing but they merged with another company last week). This “house” is absolutely deplorable to say the least. You open the door and are immediately assaulted by the smell of rotten food and urine in the halls and common areas. Her room is kept very clean but is now infested with mice because it’s opposite the common room where people have left food, refuse and even dirty laundry that has now been there for about 2 weeks. On top of this, she can’t lock her sliding door properly and it leads out to a courtyard easily accessible to the street.

She has made phone calls and sent numerous letters to her “manager” with little to no response. Her rent is around $230 a week which is almost half her weekly income and it rises at the drop of a hat. I gave her some plants out of my own garden and she almost didn’t accept them because she fears that her “manager” will think she bought them and increase the rent again. I could go on but I won’t. Rooming houses are unregulated and unsafe.

I guess what I’m really trying to say is this Mr Doyle: if you want to eradicate homelessness in our city, you are going the wrong way about it. Instead of criminalizing homelessness and punishing the most vulnerable of our citizens even more than they are already being punished, you should be thinking about how you can minimize the risk of homelessness more by funding programs that are trying to help marginalized and disadvantaged people from becoming homeless in the first place. Offer every single one of those 247 people a proper house. And make rooms in rooming houses a more attractive option by regulating them, cleaning them up and making them safer!

Yours truly,

Keely Swannie

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