Māori, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Homelessness

Written by Dan Laws, Aboriginal Homelessness Network Coordinator, Ngwala Willumbong Ltd. This article first appeared in the September 2016 edition of Parity. 


The statistics have been clear for decades that Aboriginal people are disproportionately over represented in homelessness in Australia. As with our Māori Brothers and Sisters, the same issues affect their communities.

It is widely believed by Australians that Aboriginal people have a cultural affinity with homelessness. It is commonly thought that Aboriginal peoples cultural norm is to live in over-crowded situations, outdoors, and that structures such as houses are not respected. These untruths go on and on, but I can tell you without a doubt that our people live in over-crowded conditions because it goes against Aboriginal culture to turn away your family. What we have, we share. That is our cultural norm. In our work at Ngwala Willumbong we have often seen a mother occupy a property and within weeks she has taken in elders, family and especially children who would be otherwise homeless and without kin.

Historical impacts reverberate today affecting our communities. It was only in the mid-1960s that Aboriginal people were recognised as citizens and were given the right to vote in Australia. The stolen generations only ended in 1970, which saw the forced removal of at least 100,000 Aboriginal children. It was in 1965 that Uncle Charlie Perkins fought to end segregation with the Freedom Ride. When you look at the consequences and impacts of the historical trauma and its ongoing effects, it puts Aboriginal homelessness in 2016 in a new perspective. Perhaps the answer to why is this still an issue for our community is simply that the same effort at destroying Aboriginal culture has not been put into reversing the damage done.

In my role as the Victorian Aboriginal Homelessness Networker, I have experienced first-hand and from community, the discrimination that exists within the homelessness sector. We are often at the mercy of organisations that, whilst having any empathy for our people and our plight, can still turn us away as they do not have Aboriginal cultural values instilled into their decision making. Aboriginal people are still put into the “too hard basket” due to so called complexity and are therefore often turned away. In a sector where there simply is not enough to go around, it leaves Aboriginal people at a greater disadvantage. We face discrimination with private rental and have been refused access to hotels for crisis accommodation.

Aboriginal people are still not prioritised across the homelessness sector, despite priority lists highlighting Aboriginal people as more vulnerable. Aboriginal organisations are not funded to a level of autonomy which leaves us reliant on non-Aboriginal organisations for funding, properties, emergency accommodation, support workers and programs.

If supply and demand is in question then being the highest number of any one race in this country experiencing homelessness should mean that we are prioritised across the sector.

When we visited Aotearoa, and met with our Māori friends, we found a kinship in our experiences, our communities being overrepresented in homelessness, incarceration, suicide, poor health, shorter life expectancy, more frequent removal of children, targeting by police. The greatest difference in our country being lack of autonomy, lack of acknowledgement for our first nations’ people and the history of genocide inflicted on us, lack of services and a lack of respect.

When we saw the acknowledgement paid to Māori culture in schools and at a government level we were in awe. When we visited Māori run and owned holistic organisations, we were in awe. Every area of Aotearoa is covered by both Māori and general electorates, a concept our people can only hope for.

Aboriginal homelessness is not a priority for Australian government because it repels voters in our country. Aboriginal people are seen as welfare recipients and often discriminated against. Despite these barriers we have worked together to try and end Aboriginal homelessness. The cycle of asking for help, relying on other organisations, being grateful for their help is ongoing. The homelessness sector does not work to the advantage of the most disadvantaged.

I manage the largest Aboriginal Homelessness team in Victoria at Ngwala. Our success is not measured by how many people we house, because we cannot house any independently, we have no properties. We have less crisis funding than other organisations and we have fewer support workers. However, we are more successful because we are Aboriginal people working in our own community.

We understand that our people need a home, to extend our life expectancy, to have our children educated, to break the cycle of trauma. We work with entire families to promote an entire generation of wellness. We assist families to keep their children in school, to engage with healthcare and to address issues affecting their wellbeing.

When we were in Aotearoa we learnt that they had success when Māori people work within their communities, and even greater success when Māori organisations are owned and run by Māori community.

*We acknowledge the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the rightful and traditional owners of this country. Our deepest respect and thanks is paid to elders who ensured the survival of Aboriginal communities and culture, and to the elders who continue to fight for equality in their own land. We acknowledge the Māori community of Aotearoa and pay our respect to their elders both past and present. It is with respect for our affinity with disproportionate representation in homelessness in both cultures that this is written.