Recent weeks have seen a series of homeless people die on the streets of Perth. Last year there were at least 56 deaths.
Research by the University of Western Australia (UWA) released in August found that of the people who died homeless in 2020, 28 per cent were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Indigenous people make up just 3.1 per cent of the state’s population.
The head of UWA’s Home 2 Health research team, Dr Lisa Wood, said the WA State Government needed to start providing accurate data on homeless deaths to the public.
“It’s a terrible stat but it’s not surprising, because we know that homelessness is hugely overrepresented among Aboriginal people … I think the issue of homeless death is hidden around the country, there just isn’t the data.”
As there is no consistent data being collected or recorded on the deaths of people experiencing homelessness across Australia, this already vulnerable group is rendered largely “invisible” to governments. That means the numbers of deaths on the streets could be even higher than that reported.
WA’s overheated housing market is adding to the problem. In the first two months since the end of a rental moratorium in March, landlords lodged hundreds of termination notices in court and 200 people found themselves without a home.
The state government has promised more than $80 million towards community bed-based solutions and is in the process of building two “common ground” facilities and a lodge with room for 100 people.
Advocates for the homeless, however, say that it doesn’t go far enough and more investment in public housing is needed.
There are currently 17,000 families waiting for a social home, 3220 of whom are considered priority housing. At the end of the moratorium only 235 units were under construction and 50 others under contract to be built across the state.
WA Communities Minister Simone McGurk conceded as much, saying: “Even if we doubled or tripled the amount of funding that was available, we cannot get those properties built in the short term.”
This is despite WA being on track to post a record surplus, fuelled by a surge in the iron ore price, when the budget is handed down in September.
The former coordinator of the National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project, Gerry Georgatos, has said that WA in particular could solve homelessness if the political will was there, noting that building a home for every homeless person in Australia would cost significantly less than the Federal Government’s submarine program.
Homeless people are fed up with the lack of progress. On 13 August angry protesters blocked traffic in Perth following the death of another homeless woman on the city’s streets.
About a dozen people gathered outside Perth train station, where a 34-year-old woman was found dead overnight. The 34-year-old woman had been found unconscious near the station and could not be revived.
Advocates say the woman was an Aboriginal person and homeless.
Protesters vented their anger at police but were eventually moved off Wellington Street, where traffic had been brought to a standstill.
The protest follows a vigil held outside state parliament earlier this month for a Noongar mother of six who died on the streets in June.
Rough sleepers and their supporters have also camped outside parliament and placed 56 black crosses in front of the Premier’s Office in protest at the government’s inaction to prevent deaths on Perth’s streets.
WA Premier Mark McGowan said he wasn’t aware of the vigil or the homeless camp but he said tent cities, like the one which sprung up in Fremantle last year, created “lawlessness and trouble”.
“Obviously now that I’m aware that it’s there I’ll talk to the police about it,” he told reporters.
McGowan’s cynical dismissal of the problem is an insult to all those caught up in the homelessness crisis. The answer is simple: build more houses now.
By Jake Connolly