‘Dying on the streets’: at least 44 homeless people have died in Perth this year

Exclusive: As homelessness rises in Western Australia the community has been confronted by the rate of deaths

At least 44 people known to homelessness services died in Perth in the first nine months of 2021, researchers have found.

Assoc Prof Lisa Wood of the University of Western Australia said hospital records matched with client lists from service providers confirmed all had experienced homelessness in the past four years.

About 30 were known to have had no fixed address or had been rough sleeping when they died, Wood said, while other cases were still being assessed.

Wood said the average age was 49 (53 for men; 41 for women) and 32% of those who died identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. The research team was still working to determine the causes of death. Some cases were with the coroner.

“It’s a blight on our society that’s not going to go away unless people are housed and supported more rapidly,” Wood said.

Western Australia has been confronted by the rate of deaths among homeless people in Perth’s central business district over the past years.

An investigation by the West Australian newspaper in September last year first revealed that Wood had identified at least 30 people experiencing homelessness in Perth who had died in 2020.

In August, Wood published a final count that found the 2020 number was 56.

There have been protests over the death of Alana Garlett, a Noongar mother of six who was suffering breathing difficulties when she died on the streets in July. Garlett was 38. Her death is being investigated by the coroner.

In the weeks after Garlett’s death, three other homeless women, two confirmed to be in their 30s, were found dead in the CBD, one of whom was discovered hours after advocates held a vigil for Garlett nearby. Both were treated as non-suspicious.

“It’s tragic that our people are dying on the streets,” said Ballardong Noongar man Desmond Blurton Cuiamara, a housing advocate who has spent recent months rough sleeping and couch surfing with family.

“You’ve got all these things that make it hard for us to get a house … They are breaking our spirits.”

Desmond Blurton Cuiamara at his sister’s home
‘It’s tragic that our people are dying on the streets’: Ballardong Noongar man Desmond Blurton Cuiamara at his sister’s home. Photograph: Duncan Wright/The Guardian

In the lead-up to the March state election, the McGowan government faced criticism over Perth’s growing homelessness crisis, an issue brought into focus with the emergence of tent cities and a grassroots campaign demanding more public housing.

Last month, the government pledged to spend an extra $884m to build 3,300 social housing properties.

A government spokeswoman said the “death of any person, no matter the circumstances, is tragic and upsetting for those around them”.

“People who suffer from chronic homelessness often have complex needs relating to health, mental health, disabilities, abuse and addiction,” she said.

“The McGowan government’s focus is on improving outcomes for vulnerable Western Australians, including those sleeping rough.”

‘Deaths of despair’

In other countries, such as the UK, data is collected on homelessness deaths, but no official records are kept in Australia.

However, since mid-2016 the Home2Health team has been tracking outcomes for Perth’s homeless population.

Matching data from homelessness and health services with hospital records, Wood said 255 people known to those services had died in Perth since 2017. The average age of death was 47.

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The research uses the Australian Bureau of Statistics definition of homelessness, which includes those in overcrowded dwellings and sub-standard accommodation.

However, Wood said those identified were generally rough sleeping, or “in and out of crisis accommodation, they’re living in backpackers, couch-surfing, tents, their cars”.

She expected the figures were an underestimate because they did not cover outer areas of Perth or people not known to health services.

Associate prof Lisa Wood of the University of Western Australia
‘It’s a blight on our society that’s not going to go away unless people are housed and supported more rapidly’: Associate prof Lisa Wood. Photograph: Supplied

Most people died from what researchers call “deaths of despair”, including suicide, drug overdoses and alcohol-related conditions. But last year there were also five people who died from cancer, Wood said.

She said homelessness itself led to poorer health outcomes and its effects often remained with people even after they were housed.

Dr Andrew Davies, the chief executive of Perth-based Homeless Healthcare, said many of those identified in Wood’s research were known to his organisation.

Dr Andrew Davies with Neil, who died of cancer in September 2020, and another staff member
Dr Andrew Davies with Neil, who died of cancer in September 2020, and another staff member. Photograph: Tony McDonough/Homeless Healthcare

The charity provides outreach healthcare to people on the streets, at clinics and through an in-reach service at Royal Perth hospital.

Davies said most clients battled drug and alcohol addictions, mental health conditions and other chronic health conditions.

“The usual thing is all three of them together, which they call tri-morbidity,” he said.

Neil died of cancer in September 2020 after 10 years living on the streets
Neil died of cancer in September 2020 after 10 years living on the streets. Photograph: Tony McDonough/Homeless Healthcare

While overdoses were still the most common cause of death, Davies said many were increasingly presenting with cancer.

“By the time they actually collapse in the street and someone calls an ambulance, if it’s cancer driving that, it’s too far advanced,” he said. “It’s a really big problem.”

Homelessness up as economy booms

In August, the Zero Project’s by-name list, which records individuals connected with community services around Perth, found the number of homeless had risen to about 995, including 426 rough sleepers. That was up from 628 homeless people in November 2020.

At last count, there were 17,320 households on the public housing list, an estimated 30,000 people. That’s an increase from 14,000 households at the start of last year.

Of those, 3,488 households are on the priority waitlist due to “urgent need”.

In August, only eight people on the database received a housing placement.

“It’s distressing there are people that are passing away on the streets,” said the Shelter WA chief executive, Michelle Mackenzie, who welcomed the government’s commitments.

“That’s illustrative of a system that’s broken. Unfortunately, successive governments have underinvested in social housing, so we’re playing catch-up.”

Betsy Buchanan, a housing advocate of more than four decades, said racism was also a factor, aside from the shortage of rental properties, including a private market with vacancy rates at a 40-year low.

Research has suggested Aboriginal applicants in WA wait longer on the priority public housing wait list and are more likely to be evicted.

Buchanan said the state’s controversial “three-strikes” evictions policy had disproportionately affected First Nations people. “That has increased the homelessness incredibly,” she said.

Mackenzie said the government needed to adjust policies that meant people were released from its own institutions – such as hospitals or prisons – into homelessness.

“The most depressing thing that this nation can do for its people is not give us homes,” said Blurton, who was released from prison into homelessness. “This is the paramount thing about Aboriginality, it’s our home. Where we belong. We’re on our own land and we don’t have a home.”

The homelessness crisis in Perth has played out against the backdrop of a booming economy.

“When you talk to any of the guys in homeless health services overseas, they always say it does the reverse of what the economy is doing,” Davies said. “It’s largely because of the cost of rentals.”

Housing advocate Jesse Noakes, who was involved in the successful campaign for more social housing, pointed to the recent deaths of four Indigenous women on the streets.

“The fact that young marginalised women are passing away with such frequency in such a small area, it ought to be a national scandal,” he said. “It’s a searing indictment on this state and this government.”

Mackenzie said a new 100-bed homelessness service, funded by the government and to be run by an Aboriginal-controlled organisation, suggested the government was now listening.

It is also opening the state’s first 24/7 medical recovery centre for homeless people, and a new “common ground” housing complex that will include 70 self-contained apartments linked to wraparound services.

A government spokeswoman said it had developed the state’s first homelessness strategy in its first term and had committed to spending more on social housing than any previous government.

She said the government had funded the By-Name List to improve data collection and service delivery to people experiencing homelessness.

The spokeswoman said the government had not been able to verify the figures of deaths among people experiencing homelessness.

Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78; Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636

Contributor

Luke Henriques-Gomes Social affairs and inequality editor

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