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Effectiveness of state, territory and Commonwealth government policies on regional and remote Indigenous communities

CHAIR —Welcome and thank you for your attendance this afternoon. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. I now invite you to make a short opening statement or statements and then I will put it to questions from the committee.

Ms Eldridge —The Larrakia Nation has been in operation for 10 years this year. It was originally formed to represent the Larrakia community, the descendents of the original inhabitants of the Darwin region. It is the peak representative body of the majority of the Larrakia community. It has represented people on matters pertaining to land rights and continues to operate effectively as the cultural authority on country. We currently have 89 staff, 80 of whom are Indigenous. Of those 80 Indigenous staff, half are Larrakia people.

The organisation effectively runs 13 specific programs. Four of those programs focus on service delivery to the Larrakia people and the rest of them, nine or so, are mainstream. They are programs that provide critical care services to Indigenous people throughout the Northern Territory and largely those who are experiencing homelessness, the majority of whom are from the remote regions and live rough on the streets of Darwin and Palmerston.

Specifically the programs we provide include an outreach model of service delivery, with the additional focus from the Northern Territory government’s perspective who fund the majority of those programs, of addressing antisocial behaviour. That is not how we see it, but that is a policy area which attracts the funding to run the programs that we provide. Of those programs and services we have the intervention and transport service, which has seven staff and all day drives around assisting people who are living rough in Darwin. It links them up to the various services available to them in the Darwin area, including some of our own services, such as a Return to Country program, which provides user pays one-way travel from Darwin back to the remote communities. We also have a proof of ID service, which provides high integrity photographic identification for Indigenous people and this is what enables them access to all Centrelink services, financial services and any other sort of service, commercial travel, for example, that you need ID for. This was a significant gap for a long time contributing to disadvantage. We would estimate that roughly 60 per cent of the adult population of the Northern Territory are in receipt of the Larrakia Nation’s ID card.

We also have a night patrol service which effectively picks up people around the Darwin and Palmerston area who are intoxicated and at risk of hurting either themselves or others. We take these people to either a place to stay or the sobering up shelter, or as a last resort, and not very often, the watch-house if there is a violence issue. More than 90 per cent of the clients that we are dealing with on any given night are taken to public housing tenancies, and the vast majority of those tenancies are not their own tenancies but the tenancies of family who are living in Darwin.

We also have a program called HEAL, Healthy Engagement and Assistance in the Long-grass. This addresses the adverse impacts of stigma on health and wellbeing. It does it with a two-pronged approach, by raising awareness of the issue of homelessness amongst the broader community and also providing practical assistance to link people to medical services. On any given night in Darwin there would be 2,000 people classified as primary homeless, living rough in Darwin, and you could estimate up to another 3,000 who would be classified secondary or tertiary homeless.

In around August 2007, soon after the Northern Territory emergency response was announced, our staff noticed a dramatic increase in the number of people in Darwin. This prompted us to seek some funds to do a research project. Oxfam funded a small preliminary research to look into unintended consequences of the Northern Territory’s emergency response. That research found that primary Aboriginal homelessness in Darwin increased definitely as a consequence of the emergency response by a minimum of 20 per cent. That is a 20 per cent increase in people who determined that they were here to live in Darwin and never to go back to their community of origin. This research was provided in full, along with orally delivered evidence to the review into the NTER, and I think it was quoted in their findings.

This research also led us to the establishment of a research division, which has dramatically enhanced the intellectual capacity across the program areas of the Larrakia Nation and also enabled us to take on a much larger study. The present research, which has just finished, was handed to the funding agencies three days ago. Because of contractual obligations with the funders, we are not able to give you the results today. However, I would like to request that this inquiry write to NDLERF, the National Drug Law Enforcement Research Fund, a major funder of the research, to access a confidential copy, because the findings are quite stark and shocking. I think it would be useful for you to read them.

Senator SIEWERT —Will that be publicly released at some stage?

Ms Eldridge —Yes.

Dr Holmes —They want to publish it. They do not want that document released before they launch and publish it.

Senator SIEWERT —When is that likely to be?

Dr Holmes —They are in a review process at the moment. Once they finish doing that they will then publish it. They have indicated that, if they were to receive a letter from this inquiry, that might make that review process go a little quicker.

CHAIR —We are always reluctant to accept confidential information, because effectively we cannot use it. It will inform ourselves, but it will not allow us to make a recommendation based on that or to really utilise it to its fullest extent. We will obviously ask in the letter if that is possible. We will certainly send a letter and do our best.

Ms Eldridge —Today we are only able to comment on the Larrakia Nation service delivery. Effectively, all of our services had steady growth in usage. We had quite a steep growth since July 2007. For example, with our proof of ID service, from July to September 2006, 400 proof of ID cards were issued, over that six-month period, compared with January to March 2009, when over 1,000 proof of ID cards were issued. With our night patrol service, in July 2008, 650 clients were assisted, yet in February, March and April this year between 1,500 and 1,900 clients were being assisted each month.

I just want to reiterate the point that I made earlier about the impact that has on public housing tenancies, which are Indigenous tenancies. The majority of the clients of the night patrol service are Indigenous. It is something like 98 per cent. A family member who is an Indigenous person may have been living in a public housing tenancy for some years and their tenancy is most definitely put at risk with the rising levels of visitation from bush relatives.

Our HEAL program cannot keep up with demand for existing activities, so we are not able to expand on existing services or fulfil the planned services that we intended to incorporate, and our Return to Country program has seen a sharp upward trend, which equals increased Aboriginal mobility. The Return to Country has at least doubled, if not trebled, in output over the past three years.

We recognise that there is a range of possible explanations for this growth in usage patterns across our service areas. As such, we cannot be definitive about the conclusions that we draw from this data alone. However, the increased service usage definitely suggests a sustained growth in the number of internally displaced people from the Northern Territory here in Darwin. Our outreach and field staff observed an increased number of internally displaced individuals and people staying in the long grass, and consistently so. There is really nowhere for this population to go. Private rental is not an option at all. The public housing waiting list is roughly three years. Mostly these clients are unlikely to meet the requirements of public housing or have the capacity, currently, to sustain a tenancy. All of the hostels are consistently full. We have our staff ring every Aboriginal hostel every day to see if there are places available and they are consistently full. Even marginal housing in caravan parks is not able to be accessed by individuals who are receiving Centrelink payments as their primary source of income, which excludes Indigenous people and is now excluding white homeless people also. We are more and more starting to service non-Indigenous clients, by the way, who also live in the long grass.

The issue of housing and lack of accommodation is the critical and overriding gap in service delivery that we consistently face, coupled with increased mobility leading to long-term homelessness and the commensurate breakdown in health and wellbeing for large numbers of the Indigenous population. That is what is occurring and it is a chronic situation.

The other issue is that the current housing policy prohibits Indigenous employment in many ways. For example, it would be fair to say that the majority of Territory housing clients would be single mothers with children. When the children are at an age, even if they can secure a childcare place, for the mother to go back to work the amount of money that they are able to earn dramatically impacts the rent that they pay and also their ability to get any subsidised childcare. We have staff at the Larrakia Nation requesting a cut in pay so that they can continue to access childcare and also so that the rent does not become too high in their public housing tenancy. Effectively you do not have a flow through of public housing tenancies moving into a private rental situation, thereby freeing up public housing stock for the rising numbers of public housing tenants coming into Darwin. I think that is probably a policy area that deserves some attention.

To sum up before you ask me questions, the Northern Territory emergency response is not the only structural driver of Aboriginal homelessness in Darwin. However, it appears to have had a very significant impact on Aboriginal homelessness and is contrary to the stated goals of the national homeless strategy, the Road Home, and the Closing the Gap strategies on Aboriginal disadvantage.

CHAIR —I understand from our previous conversation that you are not able to divulge any particular details of the survey, but if you are able to generally then you will soon tell me. You have made the connection between the intervention and homelessness. I am assuming it is simply because people are escaping the new rules that exist where they previously resided. Is that why there is now an increase in homelessness in Darwin or is it simply people in Darwin who have shifted for whatever the aspect of the intervention or the consequences of that from homes into homelessness?

Ms Eldridge —I do not think that it is fair to say that the key reason is people escaping the rules of the intervention. That may be the case for some. Some would be here definitely to access alcohol, because they no longer can in some of the communities. The impact of the emergency response has created a whole new level of stress, fear and worry in people’s lives and that is one factor leading to increased mobility.

CHAIR —So, because of these feelings of stress they leave their communities to go to somewhere where they have no support? Perhaps you could explain to us why that would be the motive to leave a community and go somewhere there is no support and you do not even have a home? I am sorry, I am trying to make that connection. You might be able to help me with that.

Ms Eldridge —I can give you a broad picture of some of the results of the research. Increasing numbers of new arrivals into homelessness in Darwin are people who would be classified as aged Indigenous people. They are over the age of 45, and a key contributor to leaving is to escape violence in their home communities. When they come to Darwin it might initially be to come for a short period of respite—a short time—but research shows that after a certain period, around three months, the possibility of getting out of a system of entrenched homelessness diminishes very quickly, so people quickly fall into a cycle of permanent homelessness where their life quality and opportunity for health and wellbeing is dramatically reduced. Given that Indigenous life expectancy, particularly Indigenous men, currently sits at 47, many of these people will not reach aged pension age. I have to say that in the situation for large numbers of Indigenous Territorians that is an issue of a great lack of equality. These people, effectively, should be offered or eligible for service delivery for the rest of their lives. Because of the state of their health, if they were housed and assessed, they would qualify for aged care, CACP or HACC based services.

CHAIR —Thank you for that. I think you have filled a lot of gaps. As to the connection between violence in the community and escaping violence in the community and the intervention simultaneously, can you just join the dots?

Ms Eldridge —Without breaking contractual obligations, I would like to reiterate the increased stress levels that people have. Potentially the income management, while it may work for some Indigenous people—

Senator SIEWERT —Is that a stress?

Ms Eldridge —A stress.

Senator SIEWERT —People that are coming into town now, after 23 June 2006, are income quarantined anyway. They are not escaping income quarantine by coming into town, are they?

Ms Eldridge —No.

Senator SIEWERT —Are they stressed because of that?

CHAIR —When I talked about stress it was the violence that I was concerned about. I can understand many of the reasons for the mobility, and I think you have articulated those very well. I am quite happy to accept that you were simply reflecting on information you have received in the research, and no doubt we will have a look at that when it arrives. I appreciate the difficulty of prescriptively answering my question.

Ms Eldridge —I could probably add to that. There are a number of people in Aboriginal communities who are older who are under increased pressure to provide the little cash that they have to other people. That is very stressful and contributing to an increased amount of family problems, which often includes violence. People are escaping that and coming here into Darwin as a sanctuary. I think that raises as many questions about where they have come from as to where they are going.

CHAIR —Interestingly, others have told us that for the first time they can have 50 per cent of it for food to eat, because the humbug used to take 100 per cent. We have had lots of different evidence on those things. Senator Siewert, would you like to continue?

Senator SIEWERT —Yes. I would like to follow up on the demographics—I presume that is the right word—of the people moving into long grass. I understand from what you have said that it is predominantly aged people or are you noticing more aged people and there are still some younger people in there as well?

Ms Eldridge —It is predominantly aged people.

Senator SIEWERT —Just picking up on what you said, they should be able to access aged care services?

Ms Eldridge —Yes. An Indigenous person who is 45, generally.

Senator SIEWERT —If you take the 17-year age gap into account.

Dr Holmes —And add the homes to it as well. Many of these people need lifelong support. Previous research has shown, quite clearly, particularly through qualitative studies, that the exposure that individuals have in the long grass—people who are staying in the long grass now—have had a very high level of exposure to trauma prior to their homelessness and that continues on during homelessness. It is certainly an inhospitable urban environment that people are living in and the reality is that you do get raped, you do get assaulted and it is a place that you really need to be on guard. It is very difficult.

Ms Eldridge —Effectively, to be homeless in Darwin is to be fairly constantly breaching the law, council bylaws and Territory legislation about where you can or cannot sleep. There are new services that have been set up entirely devoted to moving people on. People are more and more finding out of the way places, like in the middle of mangroves, where they cannot be easily found, which further increases their vulnerability to ill health, just to get the daily needs of food and water, when you are avoiding being moved on by police or other services. Their quality of life is awful.

Senator SIEWERT —Do the increases in the call on your services directly relate to when the intervention started?

Ms Eldridge —When the intervention started there was such a stark and obvious increase in the number of people. That led us to develop a research division, which is doing careful and sound research on a population that has not been researched much before. However, it is not fair to say that it is all due to the NTER and that is why they did it. There are other impacting issues, such as the increase in the Indigenous population, in general, as well as the cumulative effects of colonisation and poverty. Every Territorian has the right to visit their capital city—and they do—but the problem is that most of them cannot afford anywhere to stay while they are here and are forced into lawlessness as a result.

Senator SIEWERT —The Return to Country sounds like it is a successful program.

Ms Eldridge —Yes. It is a very useful and very practical program. As I said, it is a program that is user pays. We are fitted into the Indigenous economy. It is a program whereby a person accesses service, we pay up front for that service and then they repay that through Centrepay deductions from their Centrelink payments. They can take as long as they need to repay it, so there is not a fixed amount of repayment. Women with children, in particular, will fit it into their budget. For example, ‘Every three months I’ve paid off my last one. I can afford now to come back to Darwin and I know that I can get home.’

Senator SIEWERT —You have people who are using that service on a regular basis to come into town and then go?

Ms Eldridge —Yes. There are others that would use it once in a five-year period.

Dr Holmes —The Return to Country really captures mobility. The clients that are accessing that service are clients from the long grass but also other people who are here in town staying with family and friends. It does not necessary reflect, on its own, high numbers of people that are moving in and out of the long grass.

Senator SIEWERT —Thank you.

Senator MOORE —Do the ACAT teams become involved with the older people?

Ms Eldridge —No, not yet, although I think there may be need for them to do that in the very near future, given policy change that hospitals cannot discharge people into homelessness anymore. Our Healthy Engagement and Assistance in the Long-grass program, our HEAL program, works with discharge planners at the hospital and we will provide some sort of backup/follow-up assistance for people who have been recently discharged—some wound dressing or transport to appointments and that kind of thing.

We have started discussions with both Territory and federal Department of Ageing staff to explore the possibility of providing outreach aged care services for this population. We currently have an aged care program that runs 12 HACC services and a number of CACP places, but we have 50 clients effectively. We do meals on wheels, in-home support and the whole aged care service delivery.

Senator ADAMS —What type of residential aged care for Indigenous people is available in Darwin?

Ms Eldridge —There is very limited opportunity. That, again, is one of the things that ties up public housing for a long time. There is one specialist aged care place. We try very hard to keep our clients out of there for as long as possible, because it is locally known as where you go to die. Our objective is to keep our clients in their homes for as long as possible. There are a couple of private retirement places. A new one is being built. None of them is Indigenous specific. An Indigenous aged care residential place does not exist that has the necessary cultural appropriateness as yet. There is not one.

Senator ADAMS —We are talking about people in the long grass, so they do not have homes.

Ms Eldridge —It is not just people in the long grass. Many of our existing clients in our aged care service are people from remote communities originally who have been living in Darwin for quite some time. They face a whole heap of problems with visitation from family members, and on several occasions have faced eviction because of that visitation. Culturally they cannot deny someone from their family access to their place. These people should not be in the housing that they are in. They should be in somewhere more appropriate for their needs.

Senator ADAMS —Is there any future planning other than Darwin? Have you talked to the town council about putting more public housing in for the aged to actually access?

Ms Eldridge —There is a significant amount of new funds through the recent homelessness reports. I guess the Northern Territory, like everywhere else, is eligible for one new aged care place per state and territory for the next five years. We would certainly like to see an Indigenous centre being at the top of the list, because the number of housing tenancies that would become available would be quite significant.

CHAIR —What significant differences would you see or identify? There are the cultural differences up to and including that. We have always got a challenge in aged care, but what sorts of differences? There are places like Old Timers in Alice Springs. I am not saying that is a similar demographic, but they seem to operate with both white and black people who use it and are obviously quite happy with the facility.

Ms Eldridge —From the feedback that we get from our aged care clients, an overriding issue is loneliness and access to social activities. It needs to be a place where family members and the broader community are welcome to come and visit and there is a flow through of interaction and social interaction, as well as a level of medical care on site. It is not hugely different except that people probably prefer to have an indoor-outdoor lifestyle and access to communal areas where family are welcome to come and socialise.

CHAIR —It does not sound like a great differential from how you have described it.

Ms Eldridge —Not a huge difference, no. The feedback, particularly from Larrakia elders who are saltwater people, is that they would like to have access to salt water.

CHAIR —It sounds to me like a management rather than an infrastructure. Apart from the placement and perhaps the level of amenity there it would be really not much different, but how you manage access and those sorts of things would perhaps be the critical difference?

Ms Eldridge —Yes. The aspiration should be for Indigenous to self-manage their infrastructure into the future. They have their own way of doing things. We should be facilitating that as best we can.

CHAIR —Thank you for providing your evidence today. We will be chasing up that research. Thank you for the opportunity to provide it to the committee.

Senator SIEWERT —Once we have seen the research we may want to put questions on notice to you about the research.

CHAIR —Indeed. Again, if it is provided to us in a confidential sense the responses in terms of the questions on notice would have to remain so. We acknowledge all of that and there are lots of wonderful provisions that will be provided to us and to the secretariat to maintain the confidentiality. As you have said, that will be up to those people who own the intellectual property.

Senator SIEWERT —Are we talking months before it is publicly release?

Ms Eldridge —No, a couple of weeks I think.

Dr Holmes —They will do their review and then they want to get it printed, bound and launched here in Darwin.

Senator SIEWERT —It will be a month or two?

Dr Holmes —Before it is released.

Senator SIEWERT —It is not six months down the track?

Ms Eldridge —No.

Dr Holmes —We hope not.

CHAIR —There may be other questions that will be provided to you on notice through the secretariat. Thank you, again, for the provision of your evidence today.

[5.14 pm]