WE were recently in a posh Civic café when a homeless woman came and took a seat.
I half expected that the staff would chase her out but instead was touched to observe them fuss over her, helping her to a more comfortable spot to sit in and making her a pot of tea.
However, last month in Civic I watched a homeless man across the road. He may have been in his 50s but looked older. He was thinly dressed in a single, cheap jumper and no coat. He was lying on a piece of cardboard on the concrete pavement outside an upmarket restaurant located in a building housing a major Federal government agency. He had a grimy blanket and a couple of small bags. He looked sick. His complexion was grey and he was coughing, hacking up phlegm. The morning rush of people heading to work rolled right past him with everyone studiously avoiding any eye contact.
I’m not sure what the official statistics show, but my strong impression is that the number of people sleeping rough in Canberra’s urban centres has grown in recent years. Last week ACT welfare organisations warned that they may be forced to turn more homeless people away from shelters due to a startling surge, a jump of 600 per cent, in demand for accommodation.
Those sleeping rough in the bleak mid-winter are just the more visible part of a bigger problem of homelessness that includes families with children living in cars because they have been evicted because they can’t pay their rent; people living with friends or relatives because they can’t afford their own accommodation, victims of domestic violence who similarly lack access to affordable housing and people with mental health problems who are unable to keep a roof over their head.
A lot of good work is done through many charities and organisations such as Safe Shelter and Samaritan House. Each morning the Uniting Church on Northbourne Avenue provides hot coffee and breakfast to people sleeping rough.
I know that homelessness is an intractable problem and I’m not an expert in this field, but it does strike me that as a wealthy, well-resourced community, Canberra should be doing much better. We are the coldest of Australia’s capital cities. Life on our streets is pretty bleak in mid-winter, and perhaps too many of us are turning a blind eye as we rush past those of our community who are much less fortunate than ourselves – whether they are seeking shelter in alleyways in Civic or living in cars a stone’s throw down the hill from the Federal Parliament.
Maybe the ACT government could make this a priority and commit to ensuring that next winter no one need endure the freezing cold by sleeping rough in Canberra. That could be a good performance indicator for our local representatives and, indeed, for our whole community.