The night of 17 June was bitterly cold. A 38-year-old Noongar mother of six, Alana Garlett, laid out her swag in front of Wesley Church, in Perth’s CBD, as she had done every night for years. When ambulance officers came to her aid early the next morning, Alana was having trouble breathing. She was rushed to Royal Perth Hospital, where she died soon after.
Alana first became homeless at the age of 15, after losing a cousin to suicide. Her parents, Norma and Allen Garlett, had also experienced homelessness. Norma, who suffers from diabetes, and Allen, who suffers dementia, are now left to care for Alana’s children.
Alana’s tragic death is all too common. Last year, 56 homeless people died on Perth’s streets—more than one death per week.
The WA Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that 9,000 people are homeless across the state on any given night, 1,000 of them “sleeping rough” (on the streets). Thirty percent, some 2,700 people, are Indigenous. And Aboriginal people are estimated to make up around half of those living on Perth’s streets.
The state’s homelessness crisis is unfolding amid a resources boom fuelled by China’s demand for Pilbara iron ore. This has led to the lowest vacancy rate in Perth’s private rental market in 40 years. As rental prices rise, so the queue for public housing grows longer.
On the night of 3 August, a dozen people slept in tents at Solidarity Park, behind state parliament, to draw attention to the crisis. They erected 56 crosses on the lawns of neighbouring Dumas House and displayed a banner that read: “housing crisis, human crisis”. Earlier in the day, several Aboriginal activists addressed a vigil mourning the death of Alana Garlett.
“In the twelfth richest country in the world, we have this. Homeless people are dying on the streets”, Noongar man Mervyn Eades told the mourners. “They have mainstreamed us to die in the cold, in the streets. They have sold off state houses to make a profit. We have whole families evicted from their homes. No-one should die on the streets to coldness or to the heat. Nobody.”
Yet the deaths go on. On 13 August, another Noongar woman, just 34 years old, was found dead at Perth train station. A dozen people gathered outside, venting their anger at police before being moved on.
When the COVID rental moratorium ended in March, landlords issued hundreds of eviction notices. More than 540 applicants have since joined the state’s social housing waiting list, which now numbers more than 17,000. The average wait time is nearly two years.
According to advocacy group Shelter WA, between 2017 and 2020, the number of social housing properties fell by 1,155, to fewer than 43,000. Over the same period, 726 social housing homes were sold, bringing in a windfall $190 million for the government. But only 224 new social housing homes were made available—a net loss of 502 homes.
Shelter WA estimates that 98 percent of market rentals are not affordable for people on the minimum wage. Indigenous people face the added burden of racism from landlords and real estate agents, according to both Tenancy WA and Western Australia Equal Opportunity Commissioner John Byrne.
The state government has pledged $100 million towards homeless services and programs, and recently it opened a homeless facility with 100 beds at the old Perth City YHA building. However, homelessness advocates argue that this falls well short of what is needed. It is also a pittance when measured against the state’s $5 billion budget surplus.
Criminally, one-fifth of Perth’s commercial buildings are vacant. These could be acquired by the government to provide emergency accommodation for those waiting for social housing.
The social housing system itself has flaws. Many cash-strapped tenants find it difficult to maintain even a social housing lease. Last year the Department of Communities evicted around 300 tenants, many of them Aboriginal, due to rent arrears or the department’s “three strikes” policy (three complaints from neighbours and you’re out). Western Australia’s social housing system has the highest eviction rate of any Australian state.
The problems faced by Aboriginal tenants are compounded by state policies of child removal, both past and present. According to the Family Matters Report 2020, Aboriginal children make up 55 percent of all children in out-of-home care in Western Australia and are seventeen times more likely to be removed from their families by child protection services than non-Indigenous children—the highest rate in the country.
The same government agency responsible for social housing—the Department of Communities—is also responsible for removing Aboriginal children from their families.
Jennifer Kaeshagen founded the First Nations Homelessness Project (FNHP) to keep Aboriginal children in Perth out of state care by preventing evictions. Kaeshagen estimates that Indigenous people account for around one in five public housing rentals but more than half of evictions.
Over the last four years, a team of FNHP volunteers has worked with 344 Indigenous social housing families to clean and repair properties ahead of inspections. Their work has prevented all but eleven of those households being evicted, according to Kaeshagen.
Operating under the auspices of Aboriginal not-for-profit organisation Ngalla Maya, the FNHP received $1 million in federal government funding each year until the money ran out on 30 June. The FNHP has unsuccessfully sought alternative funding from the state government. For now, it continues to operate with volunteers.
In an interview with ABC news on 13 June, Community Services Minister Simone McGurk defended the evictions of social housing tenants. “We’ve got some tenancies that are very difficult, and the neighbours basically have had enough”, she said. “There will be times when the behaviour doesn't change. And there needs to be a point where the tenancy does have to end.”
Yet the consequences of such decisions may very well be homelessness for the tenants. And, tragically, some of those made homeless die on the streets.
Perth’s Noongar community and their supporters will continue to fight for their right to affordable public housing and an end to Aboriginal homelessness. Their fight is our fight: Black lives matter!