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Homeless people in Brisbane: What happens if you are not 'ordinary'?

By John McCulloch - posted Friday, 15 September 2000

Many people who write about homelessness appear to assume that there is somehow a level playing field, and that all homeless people are equal, and that they all want some kind of housing which provides a roof over their heads.

Let me disabuse these writers because they are completely wrong on both counts. There is no level playing field, homeless people are no more equal among themselves than are the non-homeless. What is more, many homeless people do not want a roof over their heads. They require housing appropriate to their own particular needs, and this may well be a park bench, a squat or underneath a bridge.

The groups I would not count as "ordinary" homeless are as follows:

  • Indigenous people
  • People who don’t want a roof over their heads
  • Mentally ill people
  • Young people (12-25)
  • People just released from jail
  • Women

Indigenous homeless people, for example, should not be expected to move into our European-style housing and be grateful just because we offer it to them. Many of them would rather sleep out, while others may well be happy to move into housing appropriate to their needs. However, it would be very arrogant indeed to assume that non-Indigenous architects and builders are capable of designing and building such culturally appropriate housing without considerable input from the Indigenous people themselves.

There is currently a trial project in place in New Farm Park, whereby a section of public space, which had been used for many years by mainly Indigenous homeless people, was provided with toilets, showers, a barbecue, some shelter and some privacy screening by the Brisbane City Council. Needless to say the NIMBY (not in my backyard) syndrome was alive and well, with quite a few local residents complaining that the new initiative spoiled the area’s ambience! Other residents, however, were very supportive.

Clearly then, Indigenous, and other people who wish to live in public spaces, are not "ordinary" homeless people. Nevertheless, they have a right to put their point of view and be listened to. The whole question of the use of public space for this purpose needs to be addressed in a full and frank manner, and appropriate initiatives put in place. In the meantime the Brisbane City Council’s initiative spearheaded by the local councillor, David Hinchliffe, and the lord mayor, Jim Soorley, in New farm Park is a bold attempt to confront the issue head-on. It may not be the perfect solution, but at least something has been done. Pause a moment to consider other alternatives:

  • Offer them European-style housing? They just don’t want it.
  • Sit down with them and design housing appropriate to their needs? It wouldn’t do any harm.
  • Forcibly remove them from the park and relocate them? This is not an option in a democracy.

Now YOU try to think of a few options and see how far you get!!!


Another population of homeless people (perhaps as high as 40 percent of the total) have a mental illness of some sort or another. Many of them will have been discharged from an institution in the past without being given sufficient support to acquire the necessary life skills. Often the cause of the mental illness is not known, nor in many cases is the fact of whether their homelessness was caused by their mental illness, or because of their mental illness, they were unable to access accommodation.

Clearly this population must also be described as non-"ordinary", and therefore will require special support regarding accommodation and life skills. Most hostels will not accept an obviously mentally ill person as this would be likely to disrupt the other residents.

However, there is often difficulty in providing them with accommodation where they have to look after themselves, particularly if they have been discharged from an institution. They may have absolutely no knowledge about budgeting, shopping, cooking, personal hygiene, their entitlements, how to fill in forms, how to catch public transport, communication skills, other general social skills, etc.

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About the Author

John McCulloch AO is the convenor of the Homelessness Taskforce 99. He is a part-time researcher for St Vincent de Paul and a tutor in the School of Management at QUT.

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Related Links
Brisbane City Council
Homelessness and housing website
St Vincent de Paul homepage
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