To sin by silence….

There are some words that get me going and 'liveability' is one of them; it's such a patently phony PR idea.   Melbourne is constantly being described as one of the worlds most liveable cities, but liveable for whom one might ask?  Someone living out the back of Sunbury or Dandenong would surely have quite different views about liveability to a resident of South Yarra or Carlton. 

And I also react to talk about Melbourne being described as a 'Design City', what is the agenda for this and where's the evidence?  Tell that to someone living in Docklands, they might have a few sharp words to say about the liveability of that 'designed' part of Marvellous Melbourne! At least the name can be easily changed to Ducklands when the water rises.

And jokey, tongue in cheek titles like Marvellous Melbourne, which are sometimes NOT so tongue in cheek, also put my teeth on edge. 
If there is no public transport or services and you are trying to eke out an existence on an old age pension might it not be Mean Melbourne.   Or Muddle-headed Melbourne if the Baillieu government has its way about poorly paid teachers, fewer TAFE courses, unchecked growth and more freeways!

But hey, I'm being perverse of course.  For some people liveability is a synonym for desirable things like clean streets with trees and enough parking, elegant shops with designer clothes, the Paris end of Collins Street, good restaurants with personality chefs, smart phones and credit cards, fashionable coffee shops to be seen with your Apple toys.  For others it might mean walking on St Kilda Pier in the late afternoon with the setting sun lighting the fabled towers of the city, visiting the old familiar paintings in the National Gallery of Victoria, going to Luna Park with your grandchildren, browsing at Readings in Lygon Street and weekend movies at the Astor. 

In Tokagawa times there was a famous series of experiential sights near the old capital Kyoto on a circuit where traditionally pilgrims had one natural experience each day.  Nothing monumental,  small things like the ducks rising off a particular lake in the early morning, a certain temple in the mist, the cherry blossom in a special garden, the reeds on a specific lake in the moonlight and so on; it's a lovely concept and very Japanese but we don't seem to have anything quite like those evanescent, reflective pleasures in our liveability calculus.  Most of our livability quotient is more urban and most of them certainly require being able to afford them.

And all of our various livabilities of course, go hand-in-hand with the homeless well out of sight and out of mind.  The 2011 Census revealed that homelessness has risen 8% in the five years since 2006 and that on census night there were over 105,000 people in Australia classified as homeless, that is either sleeping rough, or staying in cramped impersonal crisis accommodation, or crowding in and imposing on friends or relatives every night. That's a lot of homeless people unless you are living in an ivory tower; we are not quite in 'the place to be' that we might like to think we are, living in Marvellous Melbourne!

Estimates show that over 3,500 people are homeless just in the Port Phillip and Prahran area alone and over half of them are under twenty-five.  I live in St Kilda and there are three local things that serve to remind me that this desirable area is not a paradise for everyone.  First, the Sacred Heart Mission in Grey Street with a small patient crowd always waiting for help.   Second, the soup kitchen most nights near the Gatwick rooming house in Fitzroy Street, and lastly, a shelter shed in the Catani Gardens that is colonised every night, and their meagre belongings left neatly stacked up in the corner during the day.  It pleases me that both the Police and the Council appear to have accepted this quite sensible situation.

What can we do?  Give financial assistance to your favourite charity, the Sallies, Sacred Heart and the others, they all need funds to operate, but that's too easily conscience salving, what else?  It's a complex problem with homelessness compounded by the related problem of an enormous shortage of affordable rental housing, and it's not as though Victorians don't care, a council survey showed that 89% believed that tackling homelessness and access to affordable rental housing was considered very important.

Architect's thinking always run to building solutions, and there is no doubt that more hostels for single people on cold wet nights are desirable, but alas, all those billions are bespoke for an enormously expensive magic pudding car tunnel, and it's hard to see any funds being allocated to the homeless by the current government.  

As well as new hostels when they can be afforded, perhaps we should also be looking for more economic dual-use solutions.  For example, could it not be accepted that shelter sheds in school playgrounds could be designated as places where the homeless could sleep. There are always toilets nearby, and it would suit the proportion of the homeless also have pets which are very important to them. There is no provision for pets at most hostels, but school playgrounds would would be fine.  The campers would have to leave well before the kids arrive and in any case, it mightn't be a bad thing for children to appreciate that not everyone is as well off as they are.  The only cost would be a part-time caretaker to make sure they've all left and everything is OK before the kids arrive.  (It's a side argument, but schools are only occupied from say 8 till 4 for five days a week and 40 weeks a year; they are an expensive community resource that is currently grossly underused!) 

Or what about using some of those empty-except-for-an-hour-on-Sunday churches as dormitories?  All that would be needed is a stack of mattresses and it would seem to fit their mission statement?  And I'm sure there are many other palliative measures that should be explored by the community considering the Pontius Pilate attitude of the State government that 'it's their own fault', or more commonly these days, that 'it's their own choice'.

The architect grand-daughter of the hapless hero of my novel 'The Architecture People' developed a possible solution of very low cost, fold up cardboard boxes for homeless people.  She apologized that it wasn't in any way a real answer to homelessness, but she thought emergency help was better than nothing in the face of society's inability to face up to the bigger picture.  We have to start thinking more laterally she said….go to chapter 66.

 I understand there is a hard core of mostly older men who have more or less accepted their lot and prefer to be independent and sleep rough, and who will probably always remain outside normal society. And there's the people with pets who also probably prefer to sleep rough in the absence of any provision that accepts both of them. But a much higher proportion are younger homeless people under 25 (mostly men) who with a little help could get jobs, a place to live and start being part of society.  Samaritain morality aside, it even makes hard-headed economic sense to help them; the sooner we can stop paying them benefits and they start paying their own way and taxes the better!  It's all part of making our society more sustainable in every way.

 Abraham Lincoln once said that'to sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.'  So should we redesign Swanston Street for pedestrians, absolutely, Christmas decorations in Bourke Street, of course, carols in Fed Square, for sure, but in the absence of any state action what else can we do to ameliorate the plight of the homeless in Marvellous Melbourne? 

 I'm like everyone else, I have lots of excuses; I'm busy and fighting on many other fronts and at 83 I'm slowing down a bit.  But I also have a comfortable roof over my head and enough to eat, so I'm prepared to donate my profession-al services to alter existing buildings, or whatever else falls within my compet-ence, if someone younger does the political legwork and gets the idea adopted in specific places.   

Or are we all going to sin by silence?

Don Gazzard
December 2012