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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 24-Mar-2011

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 11

Wordcount: 932

Once a jolly clever swagman tried in vain to help homeless


You don’t expect Australian charities to be winning international design awards. Then again, you mightn’t expect the world epicentre of supersize houses to tolerate homelessness for one in 200 of its citizens, either. The obvious design solution to an affordability crisis in one of the world’s richest cities is to make houses smaller. Much smaller, in this case, but perfectly formed.

Pitted against 4432 designs from 60 countries, Melbourne businessman Tony Clark’s emergency Backpack Bed has won ”best of the best” in the German-based Red Dot product-design awards. He doesn’t call it a swag. (Clark says he’s amazed how many people, including Australians, don’t know the word.) And it may not have four ensuites and a seven-car garage, but it does have the blinding simplicity of a really good idea.

Designed to be a handout to the 80 per cent of families and 60 per cent of individuals who are turned away from NSW shelters each night, it offers protection, territory and a degree of dignity. Waterproof, windproof, bug-proof and light, the Backpack Bed is fully ventilated, mildew-resistant, PVC-free and fire-retardant (homeless people use cigarette lighters to see by). It also has an insulated mattress, built-in zip-pocket (with padlock), ropes to guy yourself to tree or handrail and a size 13 shoe-pocket to keep your runners safe at night. It’s tough, but rolls neatly into a 2.4-kilogram backpack that can hold up to 20 kilograms of personal stuff.

Chris, a homeless man who has slept in one for months, spruiks the bed’s virtues; it is strong, warm, easily to use in the dark, doubles as a wind shelter and puts a mozzie-proof window at your feet “in case they’re smelly”. Renee, a young homeless woman from Melbourne, calls hers “a real lifesaver”.

Made and distributed by volunteers, the beds cost $68 each. Yet, in this land of plenty – apart from 60 swags commissioned by Parramatta Council – there is no money for them.

Three years ago Kevin Rudd promised $1.2 billion to “halve homelessness by 2020”. (Don’t you love how 2020 still has that never-never ring, though it’s now nine years away?) The newest official figures are from 2006, so until the 2011 census in August it’s hard to tell how much, if anything, has changed. Even after the census we may not get a true picture since there’s talk, once again, of changing the definitions, making trends impossible to plot.

But for more than a decade, about 100,000 Australians have been officially homeless. Of these, more than 16,000 sleep rough on any one night, and half sleep rough sometimes. With 3.7 million verging, after the floods, on financial collapse (according to SunCorp’s Life Confidence Index), this may well worsen.

Half of these people have a mental illness. Even in temperate Sydney, one-fifth of these outdoor sleepers suffer cold-weather injury; trenchfoot, hypothermia, even frostbite. In Sydney, more than half are “tri-morbid” – combining substance abuse with serious medical conditions and mental illness. One-fifth of our prison entrants are homeless, many committing ”desperation crimes” just to get inside.

White papers come and go. The federal Homelessness Minister, Mark Arbib, was due to launch yet another paper on homelessness prevention last night. But can he find, from his $1.2 billion, a measly $2.1 million for 20,000-odd swags? Uh, no. Homelessness, he tells Clark, is a state problem.

At state level it’s much the same. Kristina Keneally bangs on about kindness and compassion but wastes $350 million on the cancelled metro (not counting compensation claims) and $188 million on overblown, often unnecessary ”Building the Education Revolution” projects. But swags for the homeless? What, do they vote? How can we know if they’re marginal? Are they even in an electorate?

Even with a roof, I reckon life is hard enough. I try to imagine not having one. Try to picture getting the kids to school, homework done, uniforms washed and ironed. Picture keeping even one person fed and healthy, much less an entire family, in these days of biblical-type rain.

And then there’s the emotional stuff. Fear. Envy. Rage. Depression. For to be homeless is not just to be unhoused. It’s to be dispossessed. I’m always surprised by homeless people who are not entirely bitter. Me, I’d be so pissed off I’d hold a grudge like a dagger. I’d be Lady Macbeth on a very bad day.

Still more infuriating, though, are those who think more sprawl is the solution. The Greens senator Scott Ludlum wants to oppose sprawl, yet he quotes the shamelessly pro-sprawl Demographia survey. Each year Demographia, a lobby group masquerading as a scholarly institute, produces a housing affordability survey that for some reason is taken seriously. It covers only English-speaking cities. Why? Because if it included Asia, Europe, Scandinavia, the Middle East, Africa and South America, no Australian city would even make the top 50.

Never mind that sprawl, with its mammoth hidden infrastructure subsidies, is the most expensive form of housing known to man. Never mind that suburbia is not the solution but the problem.

Each year Demographia finds all Australian cities to be “severely unaffordable”, with Sydney, natch, the worst. This reliably elicits coverage for their spurious argument that the answer is more land release. More sprawl. We should emulate Houston, it insists. Phoenix. Cleveland, Detroit or – god help us – Atlanta. All of them soulless, car-choked wastelands.

But I suppose what they mean is, even if such cities make houses more expensive and inaccessible so that more of us end up homeless, at least they also make lots of nice overpasses, forecourts and concrete crannies where we can drop our swags.


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