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Death on our streets

Giovanni Torre -

Please note: This story contains reference to people who have died.

At least eight Noongar women have died homeless in Perth this winter, including six on the streets, sparking renewed calls for action to address the homelessness crisis.

In 2020, 56 homeless people died on the streets, 28 per cent of them Indigenous. Another homeless man was found dead in the Perth CBD last week.

There are more than 1000 people sleeping rough on the streets of Perth each night, with 40 per cent Indigenous.

Across WA, out of 10,000 homeless people, 30 per cent are Indigenous. In total, 14,000 households are on the public housing waitlist.

Protests have been held to urge action, including the establishment of "tent cities" near Parliament House.

Since the early August vigil for Alana Garlett, who died after being found ill while trying to sleep in the city in June, another three young Aboriginal women have been found dead within 250m of where Ms Garlett was found.

Noongar Elder Vanessa Culbong said the crisis is "a product of a system that's failed us and continues to fail us".

"We can't see a light at the end of the tunnel when women and birth-givers are dying in front of us."

"We bring these people into the world and we have to watch them die with no one being held accountable and no justice being given to us. We feel like we are digging our own graves, and the homelessness sector have to be held accountable too," she said.

"We present ourselves at services and we face an obstacle course with no end in sight. People are getting desperate and talking about doing things that shouldn't be spoken about in one of the richest countries in the world. How can we deal with any of our social issues if we don't have the foundation first â€" housing?"

WA Community Services Minister Simone McGurk claimed that the state government has been "unable to verify the figure regarding deaths among street-present people experiencing homelessness, despite attempts to do so".

"Until recently, the national census conducted every five years was the only source of quality and verifiable data on homelessness. The state government recently provided funding to a project called the By-Name List to change this, and provide appropriate resources to overcome counting challenges posed by the transient nature and complex needs of many people experiencing homelessness," she said.

However, Associate Professor Lisa Wood of the University of Western Australia's Home2Health team said the 2020 death toll of 56 is "a conservative figure" based on the records of public hospitals only.

Ms McGurk said the government "invests more than $100 million in services and programs for people experiencing homelessness each year".

"These funded services range from emergency accommodation, free meals and other life essentials, to health and mental health supports, legal advice, financial counselling and advocacy," she said.

The state government announced on Sunday it will allocate an extra $875m towards social housing, with $750m to be dedicated specifically to a social housing investment fund.

Speaking before Sunday's announcement, Mervyn Eades, CEO of Ngalla Maya Aboriginal Corporation, emphasised the need for major investment into public housing.

"This is Perth's own pandemic, claiming the lives of at least one of our people every week this winter."

"Meanwhile, the WA Premier has a Budget surplus of $5 billion and destroyed 1300 public houses since he came to power. At the Budget in two weeks, anything less than thousands of new public houses a year is an insult and a disgrace. Our people are still dying on the street and it is shameful."

A state government spokesperson said the government was investing "around $1 billion towards expanding and upgrading social housing and other homeless initiatives".

"This investment will deliver maintenance and refurbishments on thousands of properties and deliver hundreds of new homes. There are currently around 380 new social housing properties under construction and hundreds more in the planning stage."

The spokesperson acknowledged there have been "significant challenges in managing the state's social housing stock in recent years" with more than 20 per cent of the state's social housing stock more than 40 years old and that homes "have been lost from their system due to their age and condition".

He noted the government's North West Aboriginal Housing Fund has invested $81.3m in increasing the affordable rental supply and $77m has been invested in creating three new Aboriginal Short Stay Accommodation facilities over the next four years.

Dr Betsy Buchanan OAM, from House the Homeless WA, said the group has been "completely overwhelmed" with families calling "all day from early in the morning".

"So many of these destitute families are calling for help burying their children, which costs thousands of dollars that we don't have," she said.

"Others are demanding accommodation before they become the next death, desperately ill people discharged from ICUs and hospitals straight back to the street ... People are terrified that they will be next."

Homeless Helpline 1800 065 892

By Giovanni Torre

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