Despite a resources boom, there are more people sleeping rough in Darwin than ever before.They are waiting longer for public housing and are subject to new laws that, critics say, are designed to target the homeless and criminalise public drunkenness.Here, homeless people are known as “longrassers”. These are some of their stories.By Ruby Jones
Getting sick and going back to hospital. In and out.
Many of Darwin’s homeless have chronic health conditions, including Mark Yantarrnga, who has breathing problems.
He did not know his exact diagnosis, but said he was told his health problems were from too much drinking and smoking as a young man.
He is from Groote Eylandt, just off the NT coast, but lives in Darwin so he can access the hospital. He has no fixed address, but hopes he will find some public housing soon.
“Getting sick and going back to hospital. In and out” is his day-to-day life, he said.
“That is why I need somewhere to stay, a little flat to stay in with my family to look after me.”
Mortality rates of Indigenous Australians are double that of the rest of the population.
On average, 65 per cent of all Indigenous people will die before they turn 65, compared to 19 per cent for the rest of population.
More than half of the call-outs attended by Darwin ambulance crews were related to alcohol, paramedics said. The rate of smoking among the Indigenous population is more than double the non-Indigenous population.
Criminalising our people for their poverty, their homelessness, their disadvantage.
June Mills, Longrasser Association founder
There are no government statistics about how many homeless people live in Darwin.
But June Mills, who set up the Longrasser Association, said she thinks there are up to 3,000 people sleeping rough.
She said over the years the situation for the Territory’s homeless has become worse, not better.
“I’m frustrated, I’m angry, but what can we do?” she said.
“Like I said I have been talking about this stuff for so many years but they don’t listen, they don’t care.”
She said authorities were targeting homeless people more frequently.
“Ultimately they just get fined so much that they end up in jail. That is what happens and that is part of the plan as far as I am concerned — criminalising our people for their poverty, their homelessness, their disadvantage.”
She called for more emergency accommodation and stated that many people who live in the long grass will also die in the long grass.
I’m getting sick, no-one is supporting me to put on my power and water.
Miriam Ashley, One Mile Dam resident
Families at One Mile Dam look after each other. The community shelters people who might otherwise end up in the long grass, and numbers can fluctuate from 40 to 100. Miriam has lived at One Mile for nine years, and for the past three years she’s had no power or water at her house.
“I’m getting sick, no-one is supporting me to put on my power and water,” she said. She said she was constantly afraid the land would be taken from residents’ hands for redevelopment. One Mile Dam, a collection of run-down houses and tents, is prime real estate on the edge of a sacred billabong and on the outskirts of Darwin city. In the last year, housing estates including Kurringal and Runge near the centre of Darwin have been demolished to make way for new private developments. New public housing has been built further from the centre.
Meanwhile, the NT Government has been pursuing a contentious policy of increasing the urban density of Darwin. There has been a construction boom of city residential apartments, mostly housing single transient workers in the mining and resources industries. Critics of the policy say it has changed Darwin’s social fabric.
If people don’t have mental health issues when they start out there, they certainly will end up with it.
Marg Egan, advocate for the homeless
Marg Egan, the daughter of one of the Northern Territory’s most well-known administrators, Ted Egan, has worked with Darwin’s homeless for years. She spent a period of time homeless herself, and says people in Darwin are too judgemental of those without a home. “We have sick old first Australians, who are dying before our eyes, and often quietly dying,” she said. She has seen how life in the long grass takes its toll. “If people don’t have mental health issues when they start out there, they certainly will end up with it — there’s no stability, there’s no safety, they are continuously moved on,” she said.
She wanted people to be more compassionate. “Homeless people are part of our community; don’t think you are immune to it,” she said.