Homeless and in Darwin – no peace in the long grass

ON LINE opinion – Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate

Posted Monday, 28 November 2005

Recently I returned to Darwin after 20 years’ absence. I had worked as a social worker with the Welfare Branch of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs until 1977 and then taught community work at the Darwin Community College until 1985. In September 2005, I came back to investigate how the Northern Territory Government was treating itinerant campers living in public places.

Most homeless people sleeping out in the greater Darwin region are Aboriginal people from settlements in Arnhemland and other Top End communities. They are colloquially called “Long Grass People”, a term many happily apply to themselves. The name arose because people attempt to camp out of the authorities’ sight in the long spear grass during the wet season or under bushes in the dry.

Over the years, many people (both Indigenous and non-Indigenous), who have made Darwin their home slept out on Lameroo Beach (just down from the centre of town), or on other foreshore reserves, when they first arrived. Before standing for public office, Tiger Brennan, the white Mayor of Darwin at the time of Cyclone Tracy, lived in a caravan on the Nightcliff foreshore for six months of the year for a decade. Since at least 1978, Darwin City Council has had officers warning people to stop camping in public spaces and seizing their property if they refuse to leave. Property not claimed within a month is destroyed. Currently, people found sleeping in a public place after 6am are fined.

My motivation to examine the situation confronting Long Grass People had several sources. I had been involved in Indigenous homelessness and land rights issues since the early 1960s. I had long been disgusted by the Northern Territory Country Liberal Party’s use of race and law and order issues to bolster its white vote. In the 2005 election they declared they would not play the race card to win, but Clare Martin’s Labor Government had no such qualms, raising the spectre of drunken itinerants disturbing the peace and good order in Darwin’s nice- white-uptight northern suburbs. In August 2005, Bill Day, the author of Bunji, who had spent many years working with the Larrakia to gain recognition of their land rights, wrote to me about an assault and arrest he had witnessed of a homeless Aboriginal person at the Parap Markets.

The first Martin Government (2001-5) had initiated a number of programs to encourage Indigenous Long Grass People to return to their home communities. Some community leaders had been flown to Darwin and other territory centres to convince their people to do so. So-called “harmony programs” sought to convince itinerant Aborigines to return home. Returnees are provided with airfares home which they have to repay by deductions from their Centrelink payments. About 70 per cent come back to Darwin within a year. In several towns Mission Australia was funded to run night patrols to keep intoxicated Indigenous people from offending. They also helped some Long Grass People recover their belongings from city councils.

Before going to Darwin, I decided not to revisit my, or other related 1980s writings, on homelessness issues until I had had seen what was happening now. I wanted to look at the situation with fresh eyes. I emailed Darwin City Council and the NT Police seeking interviews. Neither responded. I spoke with academics at Charles Darwin University, welfare agency staff, people at some of the permanent town camps, old friends interested in Indigenous homelessness, and leaders of efforts to ensure Indigenous Long Grass People’s fair treatment. Many interviewees worked for agencies reliant on NT Government grants and feared retribution if named.

On returning to Brisbane I dug out the material I had accumulated over the years including a 1978 study of Darwin town camps and City Council harassment of Indigenous itinerants conducted by Phillip Marsh, a student of mine.

In 1974 the Woodward Royal Commission, in addition to recommending unalienated crown land be restored to traditional owners, proposed Aboriginal people dislodged from their home country should be housed on a needs basis (Northern Land Council 2003). In the late 1970s several permanent town camps were established. Phillip Marsh’s report demonstrated the Territory Government and Darwin City Council believed all itinerant Indigenous people should be forced to live there. Marsh recorded one council inspector saying, “If Aboriginal people want to live in our society then they should live like the rest of us, we can’t have one rule for them and one for us. Why can’t they stay in a hostel or go and live at Bagot [an Aboriginal community]?” The mentality was: “Seen one homeless Aborigine then you’ve seen the lot.”

Marsh extensively detailed one unsuccessful attempt by Long Grass People, North Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid and the Uniting Church to progress a needs-based claim on a small portion of vacant crown land between Mindil Beach and the town centre to set up decent facilities for transient Aborigines. Within days, the Perron Country Liberal Party Government transferred the land to Darwin City Council which refused to make any of the land available.

Long Grass People sleep out for various reasons. Perhaps they have insufficient money for accommodation or are not being welcomed by motels; they want to live near hospitals to visit ill relatives; they have no one to put them up; they may want to be with others from their home communities; they are used to sleeping under the stars; or want to stay where they can drink with friends.

There are many reasons itinerant Indigenous people come to and remain in Darwin. Since at least the early 1900s, Aboriginal people have come to visit relatives who are receiving medical treatment, or are incarcerated. On release, some have not wanted to return. Some were attracted to the bright lights. Others sought employment or education. Some – who came from Arnhemland or other Aboriginal reserves – came to gain access to alcohol, to avoid overcrowded housing, or to escape disputes.

Marsh demonstrated people from specific regions lived at each of the camps, and had done so for many years. My research in the early 1980s demonstrated “there is very much a sense of our place shared by the people” in each camp, that “there is a structure and system of rules which control activities in the camp”, and that itinerant Aboriginal people had lived on Darwin’s fringes since the earliest days of settlement.

In earlier times, if Aboriginal people missed their plane or bus they were allowed to travel the next day if there were spare seats. Now airlines and bus services, preoccupied with “efficiency” or “profit maximisation”, demand they purchase new tickets, which many cannot afford. In late 2005, the Howard Government’s mutual obligation regime was extended to remote communities, requiring people to search for work (Karvelas and Taylor in The Australian October 28, 2005), hence forcing people into the bigger Territory townships.

There is an interesting European construction placed on Long Grass People – they alone are the problem. They should not be in town and should not be coming to Larrakia land. Some Larrakia people share or at least pay lip service to this.

It must be remembered that European government officials and missionaries herded people from disparate clan and language groups onto settlements and missions, creating many of today’s disputes in home communities. Governments have not provided sufficient housing on home communities, nor culturally appropriate temporary housing or camping facilities for Aboriginal visitors to Darwin. The Territory Housing Commission has, since the 1950s, consistently failed to provide Indigenous Territorians living in major towns, with culturally appropriate shelter.

The prison system has failed to ensure that Indigenous ex-prisoners have airfares provided on release, which would allow them to return home. There are many potential employment opportunities not being created in home communities. Indigenous unemployment in the cities is largely due to mainstream racism rather than Indigenous incapacity (Wright 2005, Racism no way 2005).

The Long Grass People’s real problem is that no government has adequately addressed the realistic needs of Indigenous people coming in from home communities Neither Territory nor Commonwealth Governments have set aside sufficient safe camping areas, with access to showers and toilets and opportunity to drink without harassment. No government has taken responsibility to work with the Larrakia and Indigenous itinerants to explain the real issues to the broader community.

In October 2005, the Territory Government transferred responsibility for night patrols in Darwin from Mission Australia to the police. Mission Australia officers were predominantly Indigenous and provided a range of helping services to Long Grass People. The take over of the night patrols by the police would have meant that public order, drinking and drunkenness in public places were in the box seat. But in mid-November the Territory Government announced that the Larrakia Nation would take over the night patrol from Mission Australia in Darwin. There is still a need to educate non-Indigenous Territorians about the issues or another opportunity to move towards decent solutions will evaporate.