The human crisis we prefer not to see

The Perth CBD is a hotspot for homeless people to set up for the rough nights. Photo: Matt Robson.

A tired looking man sat on a bench inside the Rockingham Shopping Centre. He cut a lonely figure sitting by himself but had a content look on his face. At first glance he appeared sharply dressed, outfitted head to toe in neat and casual clothing with what was probably his best, cleanest pair of shoes. This is Jonathan Shapiera. A middle-aged woman approached and sat on the other end of the bench to take a break from what he can only assume must have been her weekly shop. She didn’t try to talk to Jonathan, nor did she even interact with him. She simply sat on her phone for a few moments without giving him even a glance. He paused and took a few moments to gather himself and reflect.

He asked himself, do they really know and understand that I’ve got nowhere to live tonight?

He tried to think of anything he could possibly say to get the attention of someone.

Hey, I’m homeless, can one of you guys help me he thought again.

Jonathan had been homeless for well over a year at this point. He’d lived on the streets and couldn’t think what she would have done if he wasn’t so well presented. What would she have done if he had sat down next to her dressed ragged and rough, and looked like the stereotypical homeless man? Would she get up and walk away, go find another bench or place to sit?

Jonathan Shapiera now lives in a care residence in Perth’s southern suburbs. Photo: Jonathan Shapiera.

Jonathan is one of at least 116,000 Australians who are currently classified as being homeless as per the most recently released Australian census. That total is expected to grow again next year when the results of the 2021 Australian census are publicly released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Homelessness is defined by the ABS as when a person is unable to find and remain in a dwelling that is either: inadequate, has no tenure, an initial and unextendable short tenure or does not allow them to have control of or access to space for social relations.

Homelessness is one of the most complicated and growing issues in the modern world. The global population continues to grow and the global economy is continually becoming more volatile and unstable, generating both physical housing and financial pressures.

Perth is no exception to these issues as one of the most rapidly growing cities in the country. The Future Perth report published by the City of Perth forecasts the population will grow to 2.9 million people by 2031 and 3.5 million people by 2050. This estimate will see Perth become the third largest city in the country behind on Sydney and Melbourne. So what are we doing right now to try and limit homelessness and the threat of becoming a city at risk, with numbers like these expected to rise?

Perth will become the third largest city in the country by 2050. Photo: Matt Robson.

The current inflation rate (6.1 per cent) and cash rate (2.6 per cent) in Australia are at decade high levels which is further adding to the cost of living struggle for pay-to-pay or already at risk residents who are on the verge of going homeless.

Jonathan Shapiera, who we met earlier, is a formerly homeless man who is now an advocate and consultant for homelessness in WA. He lives in an affordable carers’ estate in Safety Bay.

His advocacy work has given him valuable opportunities to share his experiences working for government agencies and speaking on behalf of the homeless community in parliament, as well as reaching out to non-for-profit organisations such as Shelter WA.

Prior to becoming homeless Shapiera worked as an IT Project Manager for a variety of organisations including Qantas, Telstra and IBM.

He says his own experiences of homelessness were compounded by the fact he was raised in a standard middle-class setting, which meant nothing to anyone once he was on the street.

“I got beat up. I had bottles thrown at me. We got spat on and we got called every name under the sun, and I came in the same package as anyone who was brought up right,” he says.

“I was private school-educated with a university degree and became an IT Project manager by trade. I was in the Royal Australian Navy and I’m a veteran.”

“Yet people treated me as if I was absolute scum and I didn’t understand and couldn’t say why. Now I’ve been a homeless bum.”

Shapiera has been interviewed by local and metro newspapers about his journey, and keeps all articles. Photo: Matt Robson.

Due to his lack of job security and finances Shapiera became homeless while he was living with his son in Darwin in 2013. A long battle with diabetes and a diagnosis of high-grade dysplasia of the oesophagus, in addition to a failed work contract, eventually left him with nowhere to turn.

“We became homeless in Darwin and that’s where everything sort of fell in the mud and problems actually started to happen,” he says.

“Being a single father on the street was probably one of the worst things I’ve ever experienced in my life.”

“We came down here south because I had to get out of Darwin, that was it.”

Shapiera rose to local and national prominence in the advocacy realm when he was invited to speak to Federal parliament in 2013 to offer his own lived experiences for a document the Senate was looking to put together.  

“My entry into it was that I found online while I was in the library that the Federal government was actually looking for people to put in reports to do with housing and being homeless.

“I got all the guys together in here in WA and said ‘look, this is our opportunity to put it forward what it’s like to live on the street itself,” he says.

“It became a 27-page document on what it’s like to live on the streets, covering different boundaries and the economics of what it’s like.”

Many homeless people struggle to keep essential belongings safe while sleeping rough. Photo: Matt Robson.

Suitable accommodation is fast becoming a struggle for many people who are living on a week-to-week basis and consider themselves at risk according to Shapiera, as he did for several years.

This has led to a number of new initiatives to try and keep people off the street for as long and effectively as possible, such as Sleepbus.

Sleepbus was founded in 2016 as a temporary and emergency accommodation service. The specially designed buses are built in house which provide individual and private pods for people who are sleeping rough or end up homeless to utilise.

These pods contain everyday basics that people who are doing it rough on the street desperately need. Each pod houses one single bed with a memory foam mattress, clean sheets and pillows.

It also provides them with ducted heating and cooling, a USB charger, a slide out toilet, a reading light and an iPad so they can watch TV or a services channel that lists all the services available to them within two kilometres of where the bus is parked.

CEO Simon Rowe with the first Sleepbus prototype. Photo: Sleepbus.

Founder and CEO Simon Rowe says Sleepbus says he has had many interactions with people who are struggling or out on the street but his idea bloomed from one specific incident.

“I was walking down a street in Melbourne one day and came across a homeless guy. We’ve probably all walked past thousands of them in our time as I had and for whatever reason on, that particular day at that point in my life I stopped and had a chat to this guy,” he says.

“I just remember him being the tiredest guy I’ve ever seen in my life so I went home and told my kids about it and started crying about, which is not usually my thing.”

My kids said ‘you better do something about that Dad’, so that was the catalyst for it really.”

Simon Rowe

Rowe, who was homeless himself for a few months as a 19-year-old, is aware that costs of living and housing pressures are always keeping people under the pump and says finding a solution to move homeless people to safer living is always an uphill battle.

Simon Rowe has had his own experiences with homelessness. Photo: Sleepbus

“I was okay because I was young enough and had a job and could get out of it, but so many people in Australia even now are on bill away from being homeless.

“We’ve been talking about affordable housing for forty-plus years,” he says.

“I don’t like that [unaffordable housing] so I wanted Sleepbus to have an end date or an end in mind. The bigger plan is to get enough buses on the road that I get a voice and a seat at the table, and then I want to push an affordable housing agenda so I can put Sleepbus out of business.”

Many homeless people often keep pets for company, which are also welcomed onboard. Photo: Sleepbus.

Although economic constraints and the availability of affordable housing are putting pressures on the population today, community and social housing have been a work in progress for several years.   

St Bartholomew’s House is a non-for-profit social services organisation based in East Perth which originally opened in 1963 as a small homeless shelter for men.

The organisation has since grown and today accommodates up to 600 people at a time. They use the model of a transitional service for men and women, which aims for three month stays to go from the streets into permanent accommodation.

St Bartholomew’s House headquarters in East Perth has provided support since 1963. Photo: Matt Robson.

St Barts General Manager of Strategic Partnerships Neil Starkie says although there’s always a demand for safe housing, more people are coming and asking for assistance who haven’t been in these situations before.

“We’ve been around for 60 years, and we’ve been around for those 60 years because there’s been a demand for that amount of time,” he says.

“The men’s transitional service is supposed to be three months. It’s because of the difficulties with access to approaching the private rental sector at the moment, I think it’s a 0.4 per cent vacancy rate.”

“It’s difficult to move people through the system and people are tending to stay for much longer than three months.”

The St Barts housing at Lime Street, East Perth, houses between 500 and 600 people at a time. Photo: Matt Robson.

Limited or delayed access to accurate numbers of people who are homelessness or at-risk also creates problems for housing arrangements and community work according to Starkie.

“It’s difficult getting really accurate data,” he says.

“The most up to date data we have on the number of homeless people is from the 2016 census and that’s telling us 9000 people are homeless in WA.”

“My sense is the current number has gone up and gone up by how much I don’t know. If you look at the trend over the last 20 years it’s always been at least eight to ten thousand people who have been homeless.”

“Everything to do with cost of living issues at the moment and lack of affordable rental accomodation, these things are coming to worry people who haven’t faced homelessness before which is worrying.”

Neil Starkie

However, St Bart’s is currently one of the only providers of housing for both homeless men requiring residential aged care and younger people with other issues in WA.

Simon Rowe is determined to bring a Sleepbus to Perth sometime next year to help alleviate this issue, especially considering the most money he fundraises from Australia comes from WA.

“I don’t know why, that’s just how it worked out. So there’s always been a push to get Sleepbus there, it’s just been that fundraising has never been able to get off the ground.”

“We’re too small to just say we’ll just build on and get it over there. I’m hoping next year we can get a bus into Perth. I’ve got some plans that we’re working on.”

Homeless people in Perth are often forced to sleep in awful places. Photo: Matt Robson.

There is no obvious answer to the question, how are we going to deal with a population boom in a city like Perth when current stocks of affordable housing and the cost of living already keeps people on the street today?

The issue of homelessness and people being put at risk has been present for generations and rather than trying to eradicate and solve such an issue, experts suggest the next step is to identify how to help those in need.

Jonathan Shapiera says there is more support out there than most people realise.

“They need to understand as far as things like their budget and everything are concerned, that it is not a case of waving your hand up saying ‘I’m drowning, I need help!”

“The community out there needs to understand that there is help. They can stay where they are with the right help. Understanding that it is not necessary to wait until the very last minute as far as their rental aspects are concerned or mortgage problems are.”

St Bart’s offer support for struggling people of all ages who struggle to hold regular housing. Photo: Matt Robson.

If you or someone you know is concerned about homelessness or is in an at-risk situation, please contact St Bart’s at 9323 5100 or Shelter WA at 9325 6660.