One of Melbourne’s most powerful institutions has been waging war against the city’s rough-sleeping homeless population. For weeks, News Limited’s Herald Sun has turned the routine struggles of Melbourne’s homeless into a vicious and slanderous tabloid spectacle. The paper demanded that the mayor, the premier and the chief of police cleanse the streets. Reeshan Zakiyya and Jess Lenehan write that the paper is getting what it wants.
It’s Monday. Fifteen or so people lounge around outside Flinders Street Station. Some people prefer it here because they feel safer. “There’s a certain safety in numbers, and you know, the street lights – it kinda feels better”, we’re told.
People are cheerful enough when we arrive, but the atmosphere is strained when a woman walks up in a bad state. She is agitated, yelling. Two things happen. Six police officers swoop in to grab her, and a Channel Seven camera guy appears. Someone at the camp tells us that police watch constantly via the Flinders CCTV. The reporters – who knows? Maybe the police call them.
A couple of people ask for her to be let go. Her problems are psychological, not criminal. She tries to free herself, but two cops swing her small frame around and slam her face-down onto the pavement. One of her pink wedge sandals is flung into the street by the impact. They throw her into a van and take off. The next day, almost a full page of the Herald Sun is devoted to the arrest of one of the “ferals” and “vagrants” living high on the hog in their “grand slum”.
By Wednesday, the camp is tense. Council officers have promised to evict people some time today. Smirking journalists wait for the show while protesters and campers steel for a forcible removal. Two protesters hold up a sign, “Herald Scum. Parasites of Human Misery”.
People here hate the Sun. The paper has been campaigning against them for weeks. Journalists hang around Flinders Street with their cameras, hoping to capture some small humiliation or transgression and blow it up into a high-selling poverty porn piece. Amanda, a student of community service and counselling, is disgusted: “They’re vultures, waiting to attack”.
The paper gloats about its role leading the campaign to “clean up” the city. But the constant attention of the press has led to greater street level hostility toward and abuse of the homeless. A bypassing man yells from behind sunglasses: “Why don’t you get off your asses? Get off your booze, get off your cigarettes, make some sacrifices … that’s what I fucking did! There’s homeless shelters all around this joint, everyone’s here to help you guys.”
“Get a heart!”, someone shoots back. “We’re all two pay cheques away from homelessness. Even working people are out of their houses! Rents are out of control, mortgages are out of control.”
Journalists press in, cameras at the ready. They’re hoping for some drama, praying for an escalation. Two women, perhaps tourists, perhaps voyeuristic locals, lean against the century-old station walls, phone cameras aloft to record the tense volley.
In mid-January, chief commissioner Graham Ashton intervened in the campaign, announcing at a press conference that rough sleepers are “choosing to camp” because, at this time of year, there are “more people to shake down for money. There’s more than enough beds and accommodation for people to access”, he said.
This is a lie. Boarding houses are often not an option for people sleeping rough in Melbourne’s CBD. A 2016 Tenants Union of Victoria investigation into more than 100 rooming houses found that only two offered rates affordable to someone on a low income. And almost half were unregistered.
A record 279,000 people attempted to access homelessness services in 2015-16, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Every day hundreds of these requests are not met. The mid-winter biennial street count, when council workers walk streets at 4am, indicates that rough sleeping is up 74 percent from 2014.
A number of rooming houses and caravan parks in Victoria have closed, and there is a wait time of six months to 15 years for public housing.
It’s true that there are other spaces, such as the 80,000 empty housing units in Melbourne. But most of those are the investment properties or spare lodgings of people with money, not abodes that will be put to use for real human needs.
Ashton is pushing for a change to council by-laws to give police more power to move on the homeless – i.e. to make poverty an offence.
It’s less than 10 minutes’ walk from Flinders Street Station to the swish “Paris end” of Collins Street. Here we meet Barry. He likes to chat. We are parked next to Rutherford Pearls and a restaurant peddling Gippsland grass-fed eye-fillet with red wine jus. Leaning back into an orange folding chair at a mobile laundry van, Barry explains his situation: “I used to own a house but now I don’t have anything much. So I’m on Centrelink and I just try to live within my means”.
He laughs as he recalls former federal treasurer Joe Hockey’s old advice. “Oh yeah, ‘If you’re not happy with the cost of living, get a better job!’ ... A couple of years ago, when you were on Centrelink you could afford to pay for a decent life. Now it’s impossible. Also the way the government is pushing people off the dole.”
The Herald Sun makes good money demonising people like Barry. He and other homeless people have been dragged through the gutter for the sake of a cheap story and harsher laws. The paper and its campaign are an utter disgrace.