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Is there a homeless problem in Canberra?

The St Vincent de Paul Society headquarters in Phillip

In a ‘liveable city‘ such as Canberra, you wouldn’t think there would be a homeless problem. However, statistics suggest that homelessness is an ongoing issue not only in the Canberra region but across Australia.

From 2007 to 2012, the number of people declaring homelessness in the ACT increased by 70 per cent.

Data from the 2011 census also showed that homeless figures in Canberra jumped from 29.3 persons per 10,000 in 2006 to 50 persons per 10,000 in 2011, meaning the ACT has the second-highest rate of homelessness in Australia.

Many people have certain perceptions of what homeless individuals are meant to look like. If someone does not fit this ‘cookie cutter’ description, they are likely to be overlooked by the general population.

Andrew Barron has worked in and around the Civic area for the duration of this apparent increase in homelessness. He frequents the areas where homeless individuals are said to congregate, but doesn’t tend to notice them. These areas include outside the Canberra Centre and Garema Place.

Sleeping bag of a 'rough sleeper' in Glebe Park
Sleeping bag of a ‘rough sleeper’ in Glebe Park

“When someone says ‘homeless’ I think of someone sitting there in tattered clothes with a hat or a box to collect donations and a sign saying how they became homeless and why,” Barron says. “I’m sure Canberra has a homeless population, it’s just that I rarely see them. I think Canberra might be one of the leading cities when it comes to looking after its homeless population.”

That responsibility falls on a branch of the St Vincent de Paul Society known as Night Patrol which was established in 2001. Lesley Bonney is the primary Night Patrol Co-ordinator in Canberra.

The Night Patrol van provides refreshments and friendly conversations to people doing it rough on the streets every night of the year. Night Patrol relies heavily on volunteer participation from within the community who receive specialised training to offer support for those in need.

“People who are at risk of being homeless or ‘rough sleepers’ frequent the van on a nightly basis,” says Bonney.

“We do get a lot of people who are legitimately homeless, or from a low socio-economic background. Generally these people can’t afford to pay rent in Canberra, which is why they are effectively homeless.”

In the Canberra region Night Patrol services around 1,100 people every month. This equates to an estimate of 13,200 people per year.

Charity bin located outside of St Vincent de Paul
Charity bin located outside of St Vincent de Paul

In 2013 Australia was named the second wealthiest country in the world behind Switzerland on an average basis. However, people still manage to slip through the cracks.

Considering the facts, even if the population of ‘rough sleepers’ in Canberra is a small one, that is still one too many. Homelessness should not be present in modern society, but even in a supposedly ‘liveable city’ like Canberra a homeless problem still exists no matter how hard people try to shove it from their consciousness.

Anyone interested in volunteering with Night Patrol should contact the St Vincent de Paul Society on: (02) 6282 2722.

Text and images by Leanne Duck.

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