Life in the long grass

By Sienna Merope


A couple of years ago I spent a month in Darwin, interning at the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency. In an anxious attempt to replicate my inner-city lifestyle “up north”, I took up yoga classes in a community hall in the centre of town. In the park next door, long grassers – as Darwin’s homeless population are colloquially called – would gather to socialise, drink and, I imagine, sleep.  Sometimes the drinking would turn to fighting. In our change room, I avoided the eyes of my fellow yogis as yelling and, on at least one occasion, a woman’s screams of pain drifted inside. I wondered if they felt as confused as I did about how to react, and as ashamed as I was of our capacity to ignore the suffering of human beings a few metres away. Though, perhaps, after months, years or a lifetime in Darwin they had stopped caring.

Each night, around 1000 people sleep out in the long grass around Darwin. These are the individuals behind the statistics that give the Northern Territory its staggeringly high rate of homelessness – 730.7 per 10,000 people compared to the national rate of 48.9 per 10,000. Most are originally from remote communities in the Top End. Almost all are Aboriginal.

Long grassers live in conditions that are unimaginable to most Australians. They have little or no shelter and, during the Northern Territory’s wet season, have to contend with monsoonal rains. There are no cooking or bathroom facilities around the popular campsites. Many have serious health conditions, which of course are only exacerbated by their living situation.

The threat of violence is constant. It can be inter-familial violence, grog-fuelled fights between groups of long grassers, or vicious assaults from the non-Indigenous population, like the group of white boys a few years ago who attacked long grassers around town with sticks, stones and the occasional baseball bat to the face.  For women, there is an additional vulnerability to rape and other sexual violence. Some sleep with knives to protect themselves.  Camping is also illegal in many parts of Darwin, so being moved on and harassed by police, and the powerlessness that entails, is a daily reality.  Alcohol abuse is endemic, paid for with Centrelink payments, money earned from begging, busking or painting and, for many women, “selly welly” – sex with white men in exchange for about $40, grog and cigarettes.

When you start looking into what lies behind Darwin’s homelessness crisis, the first thing that comes up is alcohol abuse. In many ways the two issues are impossible to disassociate.  A recent study by Larrakia Nation suggests that nearly 50 per cent of long grassers drink six or more days a week, and that the median weekly consumption is 75 standard drinks. Many long grassers have lost accommodation in public housing because of destructive behaviour when drunk, and alcoholism can present an almost insurmountable barrier to new housing. Alcohol is one of the factors drawing Aboriginal people from remote “dry” communities to Darwin and to the long grass in the first place, and stopping them putting together enough cash to get back home. Alcohol contributes to violence, to crime, to poverty, to atrocious illness.

However, to blame alcohol in isolation is also to vastly oversimplify the situation of long grassers. First, it overlooks approximately 20 per cent of the long grass population, who are not high-risk drinkers. Second, it tends to obscure both why long grassers drink and the other structural drivers of homelessness. For example, a 2008 study into the influx of people from remote communities to the long grass, following the NT Intervention, found that escaping “family problems” was by far the most common explanation for people leaving home. Women often cited domestic violence, while older people commonly reported being threatened by younger family members, who took their money. In the context of those problems, accessing alcohol was a motivating factor for coming to Darwin, but it was not the primary reason.

In addition people often drink precisely because of these family issues and traumas. Most long grassers have not only lost loved ones through death and family breakdowns, but have experienced multiple other “trauma events”, including the murder of a family member or friend, being adopted or fostered out and losing their traditional language or ceremonies. Alcohol is a form of self-medication, and instances of post-traumatic stress disorder  are common.

Access to appropriate housing in Darwin is also a critical problem.  Most of the Indigenous homeless population is transient. They are in the long grass to “have a rest” from family issues, but also to visit family incarcerated or living in Darwin, to have a holiday, or to access medical treatment. However there is very little affordable short and medium term accommodation available; still less that will accommodate the specific needs of Aboriginal people. For the approximately 13 per cent who have been living in the long grass for six months or more and are at risk of chronic homelessness, the situation is equally difficult. The waiting list for public housing in Darwin can be five years or more and, while the NT’s Department of Housing constructs accommodation specifically targeted to meeting the needs of seniors and disabled persons, the cultural needs of Aboriginal people, particularly the obligation to welcome extended family, do not get the same consideration.

This is only to scratch the surface of what leads and keeps people in the long grass. To say it is complex is a laughable understatement. The broader community’s failure to grapple with this complexity is, however, anything but funny. In Darwin, there is a tendency amongst the non-indigenous population to either see living in the long grass as a cultural or lifestyle “choice” (that’s just their way) or the result of a character flaw in long grassers themselves – to brand them as “drunk bludgers” whose lack of respect for themselves or others has led them into a desperate situation.

We should also remember that, living in Melbourne or Sydney, we have never had to confront the scale and visibility of homelessness that exists in Darwin.

“Controlling the problem”

Unsurprisingly there is little patience for what people perceive as the problems associated with Aboriginal homelessness. Long grassers are often treated with outright hostility. They are seen as repugnant; human rubbish who smell, piss in public, are loud and anti-social and ruin the amenity of the city. Even amongst those who do show compassion, the population is seen as undesirable. Almost invariably, the non-indigenous population see long grassers as a “problem”, whose behaviour they want controlled and out of their sight.

A similar desire to “control the problem” is evident in policy making. At least since the Intervention in 2007, the dominant strategy has been to withdraw access to alcohol, through increasingly heavy-handed, race-specific mechanisms of control. While the impulse to get rid of the grog is understandable, these policies are largely ineffective – not to mention overtly racist. Five years into the Intervention, not only have “alcohol-related incidents” not decreased in the Territory, they have more than doubled. Prohibitions on purchasing alcohol with a Basics card are easily avoided by going to stores that ignore the restriction. Problem drinkers who are banned from purchasing alcohol simply buy it on the black market (“sly grog”) or get a friend or family member to purchase it for them.

Yet still policy makers persist along the same lines. The latest initiative of the NT Government is mandatory rehabilitation, where problem drinkers who are considered a threat to themselves and others can be compulsorily placed in 12-week treatment. If they walk out three times, they will face criminal charges, including the possibility of prison. The Government also plans to introduce Alcohol Protection Orders – orders banning people who have committed an alcohol-related crime from drinking, which it will then be a criminal offence to breach. As opponents of these plans point out, the policies criminalise a health problem and risk further increasing the already astronomical rates of Indigenous incarceration.

It would be easy, tempting even, to slip into a comfortable superiority when considering these attitudes and policies. But we should also remember that, living in Melbourne or Sydney, we have never had to confront the scale and visibility of homelessness that exists in Darwin. In our own communities, the homeless are invisible – begging silently on street corners, faces downcast, easy for our eyes to slide over. We do not know how we would react if that easy status quo was challenged.

Nor are our intellectual responses to the intractable complexities of Indigenous disadvantage necessarily more sophisticated than those of Territorians. Many of us are happy to formulaically adopt the prescriptions of Noel Pearson, or to make a general argument against the Intervention, without really engaging in the complexities of our position. Still more of us, overwhelmed by how difficult it all seems and worried that anything we say will be wrong, give up in bewilderment. I did this, leaving Darwin burnt out after only four weeks, more grateful than I have ever been to arrive back in Melbourne. To go back to working with refugees, where what I did seemed to have a sense of order and usefulness.  These responses are not something to be proud of, although they are to some degree understandable.

It is all too hard, and so we look away, hoping that someone else will “solve the problem”. Meanwhile in Darwin, long grassers roll with the policy punches, and life goes on much as before.