As Western Australia posts a budget surplus of $5 billion, figures show more than one person a week is dying on the streets of Perth. By Giovanni Torre.

Homeless deaths in Australia’s richest state

Noelene (left) and Kelly Garlett.
Noelene (left) and Kelly Garlett.
Credit: Giovanni Torre

Content warning: This piece contains the name of an Aboriginal person who is deceased.

Overnight on Thursday, August 12, a woman was found dead at Perth train station. She was 34.

Her death, the third of a homeless woman in the heart of the city in just two weeks, sparked a protest the following day. People blocked the street outside the station, desperate to draw focus to an unfolding crisis.

Friends, family and supporters say eight homeless Indigenous women have died in the city this winter, including six on the streets. Figures made public last month show at least 56 homeless people died in Perth in 2020.

While most of the families have not publicly named their lost loved ones, the family of Alana Garlett, who died on June 18, has spoken out, calling for action.

Alana, the mother of six children, was homeless and sleeping rough when found opposite Wesley Church in the city centre at night, suffering breathing difficulties. She was rushed to Royal Perth Hospital where she died, aged 38.

Western Australia has been largely unscathed by the pandemic. It is resource-rich and last week posted a budget surplus of $5 billion. The recent deaths, however, reveal a crisis under the surface.

Associate Professor Lisa Wood, who leads the Home2Health team within the University of Western Australia’s school of population and global health, says the death toll of more than one homeless person each week in 2020 is “a conservative figure”. The records come from public hospitals only – “not every hospital in Western Australia, not even every hospital in Perth”.

The average age of death was 47, and 28 per cent of those who lost their lives on the streets were Indigenous.

“Over the last few years in Perth it is consistently around that age,” Wood says. “No one is getting anywhere near the life expectancy for Australia.”

Wood says it is harder to provide a toll for 2021 so far, as a number of street deaths are under investigation. “We do have hospital notification data for quite a few deaths this year … and I have heard there has sadly been a spate of deaths on the street among Aboriginal people, which is terrible.”

Alana Garlett’s cousins, Noelene Garlett and Kelly Garlett, have both experienced long-term homelessness.

“I was homeless for 10 years, I brought my son up on the streets as well…” Noelene says. “That made me feel bad as a mother. I was couch-surfing, staying at families’ houses, car parks in the city. Up on Bulwer Street there was a squat. The police chucked us out.”

Her eyes fill with tears as she talks about her cousin, and others who have died.

“All these women dying on the streets… A lot of women out from Kalgoorlie way, a lot of them come up here for doctors, and they end up dying on the streets.”

Kelly Garlett has been staying at a women’s refuge for two years. She is on the priority waitlist for public housing, but expects to be waiting “for another two years”.

She mentions a homeless friend who took his own life last year. “And there are a lot we don’t know about.”

Noelene suffered from pneumonia in 2020. “When they figured out I didn’t have Covid … they sent me back to my tent. It was at tent city. Now I have emphysema, they found a house for me. After all these years they gave me a house I can die in.”

Wood notes the overwhelming evidence demonstrates the severe impact of homelessness on people’s health and life expectancy. Illness goes untreated and people die from underlying conditions.

“We know the cause of death in about half of the 56 cases: cancers detected late; chronic health conditions; sadly there are overdoses and suicides, which goes hand in hand with the fact most people on the street have experienced trauma.

“We see it all the time … people have a chronic health condition but their medication is stolen, or they need a fridge in which to keep their insulin, or they have a respiratory condition and are sleeping out in the cold. There are conditions people normally might get in their 60s and 70s, and homeless people get them in their 40s … sleeping on cold cement, being awake half the night being frightened of what could happen to you.”

Dr Amanda Stafford, clinical lead for the Royal Perth Hospital Homeless Team, says homeless people often arrive at the hospital with trimorbidity: physical health problems, mental health problems and drug problems.

“Rough sleepers present at the emergency department with injuries from assaults and from falls, and acute problems such as infections like pneumonia, skin infections, infections from intravenous drug use,” she says. “The other major group would be those with complications from chronic illnesses like heart disease, asthma, smoking related lung disease which are undertreated or not treated at all on the streets.”

Kelly Garlett says that people coming out of hospital are sent straight back to the streets. “It is the same when they get out of prison. Where are they going to go? That’s why a lot of them end up going back in.”

Desmond Blurton, who was homeless for a decade after coming out of prison, puts it another way: “Down here on the streets our people are dying at an alarming rate. If it were non-Indigenous women dying on the streets there would be a taskforce set up. Are we always going to be third-class citizens in our own country?”

Anselm Taylor spent seven years homeless before getting a home last December, after being a leader of a protest campaign by homeless people that saw tent cities established across the city, including outside Parliament House.

“I had a heart attack on the streets last year,” says Taylor, a Noongar elder. “There were no doctors around, no street doctor at the time. It took me two weeks to go to see a street doctor and to go to hospital to get my heart checked. I nearly lost my life at tent city.

“These houses we are getting – that won’t bring back what we lost to the streets. All those girls we lost, they are part of our people, our culture. It’s not going to be the same without them. Give them places families with children can go, when they’ve got nowhere to go. I would especially like to see the ladies off the streets … They are the backbone of our lives, and so many of them are not with us anymore.

“I’ve lost people to the streets, and people who have died in custody. I lost my baby brother, my nephew … We need a place where people can be safe and secure when they come out of prison, so they don’t go back in. When is enough enough? When we are wiped out?”

Lisa Wood says there are about 600 people sleeping rough in Perth. The numbers are rising. “We do a lot of work with the Royal Perth Hospital Homeless Team and the homeless healthcare GP practice ... Both of them have seen an increase in people who are street present.”

Stafford says the homelessness data base is recording about 100 new people becoming homeless in Perth each month. “We have the group of chronically homeless rough sleepers who have not been able to obtain housing. Added to that is the increasing precarity of current times, in which people who were just hanging on with part-time or gig work and now their rent has increased or they can’t find their type of work. These people who were not previously homeless are falling into homelessness.”

Michelle Mackenzie, chief executive of Shelter WA, says the pandemic drove an increase in street homelessness, as well as an increase in fear and anxiety among homeless people. When the moratorium on rent increases and evictions ended in March, she saw an immediate increase in homelessness.

Mackenzie says the number of deaths of homeless people reinforces the need for the state to invest in social housing. “The front-line services are still really stretched,” she says. “The new investment in social housing is fantastic but we need more of it. The services don’t have the staff or housing to provide the immediate housing-first response that is needed.”

There are more than 17,300 households on Western Australia’s housing waitlist, with that figure jumping by several hundred since the rental moratorium ended. A total of about 30,000 people are waiting, including about 6000 on the priority waitlist, many of whom are women escaping domestic violence.

This month, the state government announced $875 million in funding for social housing, with a planned $2.1 billion over four years to build about 3300 new properties. People working in the sector worry it will only touch the surface of the problem.

Wood says: “We often hear the women’s refuges are full, the crisis accommodation is full. Housing is the critical first step, but often they need wraparound support, health services and social support … Some of the people that died last year had been rough sleeping for more than 10 years. Think about what that would do to your health.”

Minister for Community Services Simone McGurk said the government will open the state’s first 24/7 medical recovery centre for homeless people, near the city centre, next month.

She said that in addition to $108 million each year provided to community organisations for homelessness services, the government’s Boorloo Bidee Mia facility, which opened in August, provides “culturally responsive accommodation ” for people experiencing rough sleeping in the Perth CBD.

Dr Betsy Buchanan, who has worked with Aboriginal people as an advocate since 1978, says the housing system is “diabolical”.

“I know of dozens of families who have lost someone to the streets,” she says. “Thousands of Aboriginal children have been evicted … These are people I have known since I started working in advocacy over 40 years ago. I know their history. The trauma and humiliation of eviction makes them relive the worst moments of their lives. How could they treat someone like that? It implies a deep-seated racism.”

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 18, 2021 as "Homeless deaths in Australia’s richest state".

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Giovanni Torre is a freelance journalist based in Perth.

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