Council adviser warns: Too many homeless people are dying

Lisa Peterson says too many homeless people are dying. Picture: Christiane Barro

By CHRISTIANE BARRO

Melbourne City Council has been turning a blind eye to the number of rough sleepers who have died by suicide, drug overdose and murder, a council adviser has claimed.

So far this year Lisa Peterson – a member of the City of Melbourne’s homelessness advisory committee – said she had been notified of seven homeless people who had been murdered, including three squatters and one person in transitional housing.

Ms Peterson’s role in the committee is to advise the City of Melbourne from the perspective of someone who has had first-hand experience of homelessness.

She said she had stopped tallying the drug overdoses and suicide deaths in Victoria because “there’s just been so many”, she said.

Ms Peterson said the council was refusing to take into consideration the concerns raised by the council’s homelessness advisory board.

“We cannot get our minister to listen to us, we cannot get our peak body to listen to us. We cannot get our most supportive council to listen to us,” Ms Peterson said.

“I’m sick of blood. I just want my friends to stop dying.”

One suicide victim last year was Correy Browning, a homeless man who used to sit outside a Catholic bookshop near Melbourne Central.

Homeless support group Christmas on the Streets founder Roseanne Rofaeel said she had often chatted to Mr Correy on her way home from the CBD.

She said the City of Melbourne could have better helped him and could still help people who were in situations similar to his.

A memorial to Correy Browning,a homeless man who used to regularly sit outside a Catholic bookshop in the city. Picture: Roseanne Rofaeel.

“Even if we can’t house everyone right away, sending people to check up on them to make sure they’re safe by the end of the day… Inform them on where they’re currently at on the waiting list. Reassure them that something was in fact being done. The bare minimum could’ve been showing him that they cared,” Ms Rofaeel said.

Ms Peterson said some rough sleepers felt it was easier to rely on her for support than mental health hotline services.

Northwestern Mental Health Services specialists provide round the clock support to homeless people who come to the attention of police in Melbourne’s CBD.

There were 247 rough sleepers in the CBD according to a survey in July last year but following the council’s crackdown on inner-city camps, Ms Peterson said most had moved into rural and suburban areas. 

“There’s the odd person here and there, but the sector pick them up pretty quickly,” she said.

Drugs are an increasing problem. Many homeless women had taken up heroin and ice, and had trusted “junkies to shoot them up”, Ms Peterson said.  “I have some women who are switching to IV use and have no idea what they’re doing … these women need protecting.”

The spread of staph infections was also a major concern, she said. Doctors would prescribe creams and antibiotics but “they wouldn’t take them or they’d interrupt their dose”.

“Blankets get shared among the community all the time. We think that’s what has kept it going.”

Ms Peterson said she had raised all of these issues with Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle, and he told her those concerns had been shared with their Social Investment branch, which coordinates the council’s response on homelessness.

But she said nothing came of it.

“Their hearts are in the right place”, but she said she had “watched the devastating result of their good work”. 

Melbourne-based independent charity Youth Projects chair Melanie Raymond said access to healthcare needed to be re-examined as the numbers grew.

“We don’t have any new services. The service level is at the same level that it was five years ago,” Ms Raymond said. “Worsening health is part of the growing problem of homelessness. It can be deadly.”

Of the roughly 7000 people who attend The Living Room, a free health service for anyone at risk of or experiencing homelessness, up to 80 per cent have some form of mental illness, Ms Raymond said.

She said it’s “very, very prevalent on the street” that people go undiagnosed or do not receive medication or regular care around their mental health.

In Victoria, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death between 2010-2014, accounting for 2101 lives lost.

The ABS, Victoria Police, Ambulance Victoria, Coroners’ Court of Victoria and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare do not hold data specific to the number of homeless persons who die by suicide.

City of Melbourne Council declined to comment.