Homeless Kiwis live under a Sydney bridge
At the seafront end of Bourke St, Woolloomooloo, is the actor Russell Crowe's $14 million Finger Wharf apartment. Go 500 metres up the street and you reach Bourke St Park - or, as everyone seems to know it, Kiwi Park.
Kiwi Park, because traditionally this is where homeless New Zealanders in Sydney gather and sleep: the most obvious face of the estimated nearly 150,000 Kiwis living in what one advocacy group calls "precarious situations" in Australia.
It is encircled by homelessness support services, but they can't offer much help to New Zealanders, because Kiwis who arrived in Australia after February 2001 aren't eligible for the most basic of state benefits - unemployment, healthcare, and housing.
So those who find their Australian dream has its flaws can become stuck on the streets. Some of the local homeless have been here for years. "And I guess that's because there is nowhere to go," says New Zealander Hemi, who has been living under a nearby bridge for over two years.
Australia has little intention of changing these rules. At a summit with John Key at Queenstown in February, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the rules for expat Kiwis wouldn't change, saying they were already generous. Despite that, she described Australia and New Zealand as "family".
The choice of words angers Grant Poulton, who emigrated from New Zealand to Australia in
1987 and took up citizenship. Poulton ran a volunteer book group for the homeless men of Woolloomooloo, many of them Kiwis. "If we are family, then treat us like family," he says. "You wouldn't treat a friend this way, but I guess you might get away with treating family like this."
It's a situation, says Marie O'Halloran, director of the Welfare Rights Centre, which routinely deals with pleas from unfortunate New Zealanders shut out of Australia's state benefits, that's simply "inhumane and inexcusable".
Flanked by the Eastern Distributor motorway, and given rough shelter by the Eastern Suburbs railway line to Bondi striding overhead, the City of Sydney council has optimistically renovated Bourke St Park with historical panels about local Aboriginal tribesmen and outdoor fitness equipment. But, despite a prominent "no camping" sign, come nightfall, the "humpies" appear - mounds of bedding and clothing, each disguising a street sleeper.
Kiwi Park retains its name, and another clearing in nearby Palmer St is called Aussie Park, but the delineation is no longer by ethnicity, but by vice: the drinkers and druggies are exiled to Kiwi Park, while the more sober sleepers congregate across the street beside the police station.
At 7am, heavy rain waterfalls off the railway bridge and two cheerful council "public space liaison officers" - a former first-grade footballer and a former senior police detective - rouse the street sleepers, check they are all right, and encourage them to store their swags in specially provided green storage bins before a street-cleaning crew do their daily rounds. Dispersed by the rain, about 30 homeless are here today, although up to 90 regularly sleep here, drawn by the proximity of a day centre, a food van, and Matthew Talbot Hostel, which serves three free meals a day.
Hemi is considered a leader and advocate among Woolloomooloo's homeless community. He admits he is unusual: he doesn't drink, smoke or take drugs, runs every day, holds a double degree and was head of IT for a government department. His homelessness, he says, was caused by deep depression, and he expects it will be another six months before he rejoins society.
"People like myself don't qualify [for support], therefore we rely on the goodness of charities like Vinnie's," says Hemi, who is writing a book about his life on the street. "I know there is a lot of resentment from Kiwis that they don't get the dole, or medicare or educational scholarships. Many of them come over for labouring-type work which doesn't qualify you for Australian citizenship. I guess it comes down to skills and, from what I can see, those who don't have them fall into labouring jobs and are seen as third-class citizens."
Hemi has been in Australia for four years but doesn't want to go home. "I am still working on the reasons why I am on the streets," he says. "I think I would find the pace too slow when I get back."
His depression affected his career but he only realised he suffered from it when he hit the streets. "It has made me see what the hell is wrong with me, because I had a lot of ups and downs in my career; I got to the top, blew it all away and got to the top again and, after a while, I couldn't cope with it. I guess the impression of a homeless guy is a guy with a big beard, an alcoholic type of a guy, which is true, there are those guys, but there's also a larger number who aren't like that. They are square pegs trying to fit into a round hole. They don't fit society's mould."
He's sanguine about his lack of support but, when asked what he would do if he fell ill, he is nonplussed. He doesn't know. "I haven't really thought about it . . . I guess I should. I don't think those on the street think about those sort of things until they happen." He shows me a fading scar on his hand where he was struck with a bottle by a drunk rough sleeper; he's due in court next week to give evidence against his attacker.
A few feet away, Tongan-New Zealander Tom broods solemnly under his hoodie, and doesn't want to chat. But others are happy to tell me his story: how enraged he becomes when he sees other rough sleepers being offered homes when he's not permitted one. "If he sees someone getting housed, he gets jealous, because he can't get a house and so he tries to sabotage it," says one outreach worker. "You can see why he is frustrated."
'THEY CAN"T HELP US'
Outreach workers feel exactly the same. The Way2Home service helps homeless people into permanent accommodation - but they can't help New Zealanders.
"Often they say ‘I know I am not entitled to anything'; it's their first response," says community rehabilitation support worker Vicci Goodwin. "There is one guy who won't even speak to us [because he knows they can't help]."
The nearby Matthew Talbot House, owned by the Catholic society St Vincent De Paul and named for an Irish saint, has been on the same site for 49 years. It offers three free meals a day, and serves about 650 of them, and has an almost always-full 98-bed hostel, a medical clinic, free showers, clothing store and case workers.
Centre manager Brett Macklin is conscious that he cannot help his New Zealander clients in formal, tangible ways - so he makes extra effort in other areas. He points out the gym and recording studio, both of which he says are very popular with Kiwis. "Some of these guys have beautiful voices; they are so big, then you see them in here, and it's amazing . . . even though it's not a direct response, this type of stuff is great for their sense of self and self-confidence; it's ‘I left New Zealand to make it big, I am sleeping in Kiwi Park but [I recorded a CD with my friends]'."
He also offers computer skills and worksite courses, knowing employment is even more vital for the New Zealand homeless because they can't get the dole. "A lot of the younger Kiwi guys, their education may not be so great; they worked on building sites where it [work] is pretty sporadic. If times are good, there's plenty of work, but there's nothing constant, it's all casual which makes it hard to pay Sydney rents."
Because of their inability to claim the dole and an expensive housing market - a bed at an unlicensed boarding house costs $175 to $200 a week and a basic one-bed flat, $300 to $375 - Kiwis are easy targets for black-market employers offering just $75 a day. "That's the only way they can support themselves," says Macklin. One worker has heard some job agencies are incentivised by the government to get people off the dole - so have no particular desire to give jobs to Kiwis.
Macklin says some of the Kiwis are "incredibly long-term" and come to Woolloomooloo to be around fellow countrymen. Six years ago, a tent village briefly sprung up in the laneway beside the hostel mostly populated by New Zealanders. "They look after each other, they stick up for each other." Since then, a handful of Kiwis raised their airfares home by organising a photography exhibition, the last few of their black-and-white cityscapes still hang in Talbot House.
Case workers at the hostel try to assist New Zealanders, particularly in attempting to establish some pre-2001 "history" of living in Australia to evade the new rules.
These rules are so complex that even a frontline agency like Way2Home struggles. "It's a bit of a grey area for us," says Goodwin. "We were very unsure what people were entitled to, so we looked into it because we come across so many people from different countries with different entitlements and it is so hard to get your head around."
PLEAS FOR COMPASSION REJECTED
By popular demand, a monthly homeless services hub in Woolloomooloo offers immigration-specific advice. O'Hallloran says the Welfare Rights Centre also sees a lot of New Zealanders, at least two a week, seeking advice after "falling through the cracks". They often apply to the state for "active grace", where claimants are allowed a short spell of claiming benefits in recognition of dire need. "These are routinely rejected, although we make them for extreme cases; we think that's completely inhumane. We've not had a successful one for a New Zealander in three years and that includes some very extreme cases of abuse, homelessness, violence, and some very sorry stories."
Having reluctantly accepted the law around benefit provision won't change for most Kiwis, the centre is lobbying for young people who arrived as minors and those facing sudden change beyond their control who couldn't reasonably be expected to return to New Zealand to access a discretionary payment called "Special Benefit".
To fight their corner, they've amassed some shocking case studies: a teenage boy forced into homelessness through sex abuse and another through family violence, both receiving nothing because they didn't qualify for youth allowances and couldn't get family tax benefit as they weren't at home; a builder's labourer in Australia to be near his child but couldn't work as he lost an arm in an accident, yet received no disability benefit; and a 19-year-old who had been in Australia eight years, had no family back in New Zealand and who had been diagnosed with bipolar and couldn't work. "We write up these case studies," she says, "it is all we can do, and say ‘at today's date, they remain homeless'. We hear some very shocking stories and there is often a very good reason why they get ‘stuck'. It becomes abundantly clear that it would be inhumane to leave them without any income support. It is inexcusable."
Permanent residency is usually not an escape route: it's a difficult, complex, time-consuming, expensive process and most are ineligible. And going home is rarely an option: often New Zealanders have fled bad situations at home, or lack of money or even pride stops them returning. "Quite often," says Cat Goodwin, service manager at Way2Home, "whatever is going on at home means they don't want to go back."
There appears little political will to fix the issue. Poulton conducted a letter-writing campaign some years ago, to a friend in cabinet, to the New Zealand High Commission, to Australian state and federal politicians, but with no success. He believes it is an easy issue to ignore because responsibility can be passed around, there's an in-built New Zealand prejudice to overcome, and it's not a vote-winning issue. "There is no advocacy around it," he says.
What Kiwis in Australia are entitled to
New Zealanders who arrived in Australia to live before February 26, 2001, hold "protected" special category visas and have the same state entitlements as Australian citizens. But those who arrived after that date do not, with some minor exceptions for those who managed to claim benefits during a transitional period to 2004. Post-2001 arrivals do get some minor and low-paid, add-on benefits, such as carer payments, some child benefits and the pension. But they are ineligible for the sickness and disability benefit (unless "severely disabled"), unemployment benefit, housing support or state housing. This extends to the children of these arrivals.
The only way out is to secure permanent residency, which is, says the Welfare Rights Centre, a "costly and time-consuming process, not realistic for many" who can't afford the processing costs; it also comes with a two-year wait and requires either a skills-based points qualification or, in some cases, immediate family links. There are few statistics compiled around the nationalities of homeless people, but one Australian government study from 2011 reported that 14 per cent of an estimated 91,627 who used homelessness services between July and September were New Zealanders.
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Sunday Star Times