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Compassion, collaboration & commitment needed to end NT homelessness

Jocelyn Cull -

The Northern Territory holds the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of homelessness in Australia.

With 11 per cent of all homeless people in Australia living in the NT, it's no exaggeration to say that this has a significant impact on us all, in the cities, towns and communities.

Homelessness in the Territory isn't just about not having a roof over one's head. It's also about individuals grappling with issues such as overcrowding, social dysfunction, community displacement and economic marginalisation overlaid with cultural dichotomy (living in 'two worlds').

Often, there are added complexities such as mental health, substance abuse and addiction. Even accessing basic/essential services can be difficult, including having a wash or getting clean clothes.

People have been visiting from communities for as long as major centres like Darwin, Katherine, and Tennant Creek have existed. This practice is not going to change, and we have to do better in how we accommodate visitors who are here for business, cultural, medical, legal, family, sport, or just visiting. Many people go home, but some get stuck and can't go home.

Appropriate low-cost, supported accommodation is very much needed for these visitors.

Let's be clear, there is no silver bullet to make homelessness disappear, but the strategic integration of holistic wraparound support services will start to address the root cause of homelessness. This will be a big step in helping to alleviate the matter.

Antisocial behaviour, public safety, and crime are real issues in the Territory right now, but we need to address this with open dialogue, empathy and firm decision-making. Addressing community concerns about homelessness is important, but using law and order as the only tool to manage homelessness is an ongoing exercise in futility for the community and the homeless.

Like many jurisdictions, we haven't got it right, but doing the same old thing we have been doing for decades isn't going to fix anything.

To make real change, we need to look beyond temporary fixes and address the root causes of homelessness.

It's time for policymakers to adopt evidence-based strategies and prioritise funding for integrated support services specific to our needs in the Territory, including culturally appropriate housing to get people off the streets, enhanced social services to deal with causes of homelessness, and expanded outreach programs to support people where they are.

This is the only way to make real change, and sometimes, it means asking hard, uncomfortable questions.

Pleasingly, the Lawler Government is taking steps in the right direction and engaging broadly and working towards solutions, rather than kicking the can down the road. We also need appropriate and fair needs-based funding from the Commonwealth to deal with our specific set of circumstances – our issues are not the same as they are down south.

We need to ensure that we deal with homelessness in a way that supports all Territorians and reflects the type of society we want to live in. There is no point in building facilities that are in the wrong place, far away from what people need or where they need to be. Effective strategies must acknowledge and address the systemic factors contributing to this disparity, ensuring both Indigenous and non-indigenous voices are heard and are part of the solution.

This is why Vinnies is working with the Lawler Government to identify a permanent site in Darwin for expanded day support services, which include short-stay accommodation, wrap-around support services, and opportunities for integration into the local community.

This facility will be somewhere that homeless people can go to get access to critical services, engage with others through sports and cultural activities, gain employment and skills development and stay in culturally appropriate accommodation at an affordable price.

At the heart of our efforts must be compassion. Every person facing homelessness has their own story. A person may be a long-term rough sleeper, be temporarily down on their luck, or have to relocate for a variety of reasons. Instead of stigmatising and marginalising them, it's crucial to treat these people with dignity, providing support and pathways to stability.

These are not new concepts, and there is certainly scope for greater coordination, collaboration and accountability by service providers, including Government and non-government sectors.

The fight against homelessness in the NT requires a collective effort. By adopting a compassionate approach, respecting cultural differences, and working to close the gap in intergenerational disadvantage, we can tackle this issue head-on. Let's unite to ensure everyone in the Territory has a place to call home and a place where they can thrive in our society.

Jocelyn Cull, President, St Vincent de Paul Society (NT).

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