On homelessness - and a blanket, under the stars.
I know what it is to sleep rough.
I lived in the city, with other young people. I was only fourteen, and the streets were the safest place for me.
It was safer living under a bridge than it was living at home, because there was nobody on the streets who had ever tried to hurt me.
In the eyes of the law, I would not have been regarded as a 'genuine homeless' person. I had a home, with a bed, with a blanket. In the eyes of the law, I would have been seen as a runaway. In the eyes of someone like the Lord Mayor of Perth, I would have been seen as someone who was 'not actually homeless'. In the eyes of the City of Perth, I would have been regarded as someone who should be 'moved on'.
That's what happened last week to more than 100 mostly Aboriginal people living at Matagarup, a registered heritage site and Aboriginal meeting, camp site and hunting ground.
Homeless folk were forced to leave by police and council rangers, who arrested at least one man, issued two move on notices and seized personal property.
What does that actually mean?
Here's a picture of Kirsty Oehlers from the First Nations Homelessness Project, assisting homeless Koori children during a police backed City of Perth raid aimed to move on the homeless from the Heirisson Island Matargarup First Nations Refugee Camp. These children and their parents were subsequently police escorted to a carpark at the Burswood casino (the next Shire), and just left there.
'I can explain what happened here,' says Kirsty.
'We were given a short reprieve to get things out of this family's tent before they started dismantling it and throwing things into bags (probably later to be binned).
The kids' father and I went to their tent and I asked the kids to collect the things they wanted. They took their favourite blankets, soft toys and books. Too sad for words to see them quickly taking their treasured things...beautiful kids and family.'
I know this child. She sat on my knee once, and told me that she had a blanket with stars on it. She told me that princesses lived in castles.
That family has travelled around Australia. 'I was in Shark Bay,' the child told me. Her mother absentmindedly tucked her hair behind her ear so that it wouldn't fall in her eyes as she was talking to me. Her little sister, the baby you see in the photograph behind the shopping cart, fell over and was picked up by a community member with the kind of practised ease you see when others are taking care of children in their care, in their community.
Those children are included in the comments by well meaning white folk who argue that there are criteria for 'genuine homelessness', that perhaps they should not get involved. Perhaps they shouldn't be there, they say. Why won't they go? Why are they there?
The City of Perth is doing a great job of painting the issue of homelessness as an issue of criminality. Over 80 percent of tents removed on Tuesday were vacant, they say. Vehicles were unregistered. A media statement was issued saying that the raids were carried out 'in line with community and ratepayers expectations'. The Lord Mayor of Perth, Lisa Scaffidi, has previously stated that she is in possession 'of strong anecdotal evidence' that 'professional beggars were potentially earning hundreds of dollars a day.'
They are the same agency that, according to a member of the WA Police force, that have told WA police to continue to raid the island until the people no longer return.
They are the same agency that tipped out food, poured out water in raids. Illegally destroyed people's property or took it, telling people they could pick it up if they could pay the 'costs of removing, impounding and storing the item'.
They are the same agency that ticketed journalists for parking their cars during the raid - $75, then another $100 for not moving. Shortly after 6PR tweeted about the fines, two rangers removed the tickets and cancelled them.
They are the same agency who slapped a $500 fine on a broken down car parked at the Island. The car is owned by a homeless family with five children who cannot afford to pay it. Senator Sue Lines created a go fund me account to pay the fine, which was raised by the public in under six hours.
Inside Cover journalist Ben O'Shea says that people had returned to the island within a few hours, and wondered out loud why people were being moved on - yet again, for the ninth or tenth time.
'If something didn't work after the third go, you'd do something different, wouldn't you?' he asked.
There's also the issue of cost. Homelessness activist Jennifer Kaeshagen says that the heavily financed, police escorted City of Perth raids are estimated in the mainstream media as costing about 20 grand. That's for planning, conducting and enforcing each raid, not working with the homelessness community or linking with agencies. During last week's raid, no assistance from homelessness agencies could be arranged, except for the Aboriginal Health Service and Nyoongar Patrol (who attended of their own accord).
'And as for the the City of Perth welfare officer,' says another activist,
'She considered that she was doing her job by simply giving me brochures to hand out to the homeless.'
Jennifer believes that it is 'a budgeted war on Black poor'. And it's being waged on a (Federal and State recognised) Registered Aboriginal (Sacred) Site.
Nine young women who had previously sheltered at Matagarup under the care of the Aboriginal people at the site are now sleeping rough under bridges. The others have scattered, are missing. The community are dispersed. The children were dumped in a car park.
I will not be sleeping outside tonight. There is a storm brewing over the city - I can see lightning flashes from outside my window. Inside my home, the temperature is set to a cosy 21 degrees.
My bed is warm.
Water comes from the tap.
I can cook without searching for gas or wood, keep my food cold without ice.
I do not have to dig a hole or go far to find a toilet.
My children are safe.
I am safe.
That wasn't the case all those years ago. When the police brought me home that last time, my father grabbed me by the neck of my shirt, smashed the back of my head against the hallway wall.
You won't do that again, he said. Embarrass me like that. He rubbed with his sleeve at the smear of blood my head had left on the plaster, and arranged for me to be sent away to live with a distant relative in a third world country, eight and a half thousand kilometres away.
Nobody sees the reasons for homelessness. They are invisible, as invisible as a child with a shopping trolley in a casino car park, as invisible as the faint smear of blood on a hallway wall. The seven year waiting list for social housing, the 'too-big' families, the intergenerational disadvantage, the intersectional issues like violence and racism and ableism and bigotry.
And in the end, it is not up to you or I to judge how or why we should offer assistance, whether or not people are the 'deserving homeless'.
I have a bed, not just a blanket.
There is a roof between my blanket and the stars.
I am not in danger, or sleeping on the streets.
Most likely, neither are you.
Here's what you can do to help - from Jennifer.
'What I would advise supporters at this point in time, further to visiting the island and building relationships with individuals there in need of support who can best let you know what they need at this mad time and how, would be to contribute to the strategic campaign of pushing back against such draconian measures as practiced by the City of Perth just to 'move on', criminalise, punish the homeless.'
Write to politicians you think may engage in the bigger picture, respectfully, in terms of the homeless at Matagarup.
Write to the media.
Write to the Perth City Council members. Educate them as to the reality of the people, and call them to account.
Here are their email contact details.
Lord Mayor Lisa Scaffidi email@example.com
Deputy Lord Mayor James Limns firstname.lastname@example.org
Janet Davidson, OAM JP (Councillor) email@example.com
Jim Adamos (Councillor) firstname.lastname@example.org
Lily Chen (Councillor) email@example.com
Jemma Green (Councillor) firstname.lastname@example.org
Judy McEvoy (Councillor) email@example.com
Reece Harley (Councillor) firstname.lastname@example.org
Keith Yong (Councillor) keith.Yong@cityofperth.wa.gov.au
I wonder where that child's blanket is right now. You know, the one with the stars on it.
Image description - a woman pushes a shopping cart loaded with clothes.
A police van is in the background.
Three small children are carrying their belongings, including toys.