People from some of the Northern Territory’s most remote communities who are forced to travel hours to access critical hospital treatment and surgery in Katherine are sleeping rough in parks and on the banks of the river, NT Shelter executive officer Peter McMillan says.
- People from remote communities are sleeping rough or missing medical appointments because there is no short-term accommodation in Katherine
- NT Shelter and another 18 organizations are asking the NT government ahead of the budget to commit to a visitor accommodation center
- Katherine is the only major jurisdiction without a crisis center
“It’s outrageous that if you’re coming to town to see a doctor or go to hospital that you have to sleep on concrete or sleep in an abandoned building or down by the river because there is now safe, or affordable or appropriate to stay, “Mr McMillan said.
All major jurisdictions in the Northern Territory have established short-stay accommodation centers for remote visitors to stay at times of need.
Yet Katherine, which has a small hospital, one supermarket and some justice services that serve a region almost the size of Japan, remains without one.
“Katherine has 31 times the national rate of homelessness across Australia, it’s quite a staggering figure,” Mr McMillan said.
‘We can do better’
Every morning some of the town’s homeless population visit Katherine’s only drop-in center, the Doorways Hub, for breakfast, a cup of tea, a shower and to wash their clothes.
But after lunch, when the hub’s doors are close, options for a safe place to go are limited, and dinner for those who cannot afford it is off the table.
In a place where support services are almost always at capacity – the Doorways Hub is a lifeline, and the morning queue usually snakes out the door.
A 2020 survey of that queue found that of those visiting from a remote community for medical help, 94 per cent did not have a place to stay that night, Mr McMillan said.
“Katherine is such an important regional hub for people coming to town from outlying communities,” he said.
“Can you imagine if you were taking your family to Katherine to see the doctor, but you had to sleep on the ground?
“We can do better.”
Dialysis patients sleeping in tents
Long-term Northern Territory doctor and Australian National University (ANU) academic Simon Quilty said Katherine’s accommodation crisis had become well known and people were missing critical appointments to avoid facing a night’s sleep rough.
“It’s so much worse than anywhere else in Australia,” Dr Quilty said.
“There are people with severe health problems like kidney failure sleeping in tents, young people with palliative care needs with no chance of finding a safe place to call home before their short lives come to an end.”
NT Shelter and 18 organizations are jointly calling on the NT government ahead of its 2022-23 budget to commit funding to the development of a visitor accommodation center in Katherine.
They are also asking all major parties contesting the 2022 federal election to step up.
In a submission to an Inquiry into Homelessness in Australia in 2020, the NT government acknowledged overcrowding and homelessness “severely and detrimentally impact[s] social and economic outcomes, especially for children “.
In that same year, via correspondence made public by NT Shelter, a spokesman for the NT government said: “Labor has committed to additional short-stay accommodation in Katherine and Tennant Creek and will work to secure funding from the Commonwealth to deliver more.”
However, in response to questions from the ABC this week on whether the government would commit to funding a short-stay accommodation center in Katherine in this budget, Urban Housing Minister Kate Worden said the government had already allocated money.
“In 2021-2022, the Labor Government territory allocated $ 31.93 million in grant funding for homelessness services across the Northern Territory with $ 2.7 million per year dedicated specifically to homelessness service delivery in Katherine,” she said.
Ms Worden said the funding supports housing programs, outreach services and the Katherine Doorways Hub, and highlighted a recent $ 4 million investment to build 16 new social and affordable homes in Katherine.
Hospital used as crisis accommodation
Northern Territory Legal Aid senior solicitor Harley Dannatt played a key role in getting the Katherine Doorways Hub off the ground in 2017 and now works alongside organizations addressing homelessness.
He said despite a collaborative and innovative network of health, justice and social services working together, the issues were overwhelming.
“Katherine’s housing needs are complex and in crisis… Ultimately there just simply isn’t enough to meet the need,” Mr Dannatt said.
“We have not enough long-term housing and the short-term and crisis housing we have has filled with people waiting for long-term housing.
“So, we have short-term accommodation doing the job of long-term accommodation, and we have the hospital sometimes acting as crisis accommodation.”
Safe housing would reduce crime
The North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) managing solicitor Beth Wild said a safe center for people to sleep in Katherine was a matter of emergency.
Amid an all-time high prison population and a record-breaking rate of people on remand, she said crisis accommodation could provide a bail address and a respite for women and children escaping violence.
For people trying to survive on the outside after a prison sentence, Ms Wild said short-term accommodation was essential in reducing recidivism.
NAAJA is one of the 19 organizations calling on the government to provide vital funding.
“It can’t be underestimated how important this funding is, at this time, when we’ve got a huge prison population and some sectors of the community are concerned about anti-social behavior and crime,” Ms Wild said.
“Ensuring that people have a safe place to live is one of the most important parts of crime prevention.
“We have multiple families living in houses with people living in living rooms… these houses aren’t always safe and that can be a real problem for leading into offending criminogenic behavior.
“NAAJA is not calling for this so that our lawyers have less work to do. We’re calling for it because it’s an obvious need and it would, in our view, have a direct link to reducing crime.”
The ABC contacted federal CLP candidate Damien Ryan and Labor candidate Marion Scrymgour but did not receive responses.
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