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The painful truth of homelessness

Thursday, 24 January 2013
Author: David Washington, Indaily

Prematurely aged, chronically ill, scared, disconnected and alone - Adelaide's rough sleepers are not who, or where, we think they are. David Washington reports.

The 17 case managers at the service try to build relationships of trust with the people they find - currently about 120 of them - most of whom suffering from multiple health problems, including mental health issues.

Contrary to popular perception, not all of the homeless sleep in the parks, lanes and hideaways of the city centre.

Many can be found in the suburbs where they try to remain hidden from view. Frightened or ashamed, most pack up their 'camp' early in the morning and move on before the rest of the suburb awakes.

This climate of fear is one reason why the Adelaide City Council's new policy of 'evicting' rough sleepers from the park lands is putting homeless people at risk, according to those who work with the homeless.

Street to Home says its one guarantee of success is the ability of case managers to maintain consistent contact with their homeless clients.

Street to Home manager Scott Kerdel says the council's new policy, introduced last December and involving handing out seven-day 'eviction' notices to rough sleepers, has meant that some of his homeless clients have scattered - whereabouts now unknown.

They're still homeless - but now they are separated from the people trying to help them.

"If people are being told to move on within X amount of days, it's definitely led to people's situations deteriorating in terms of people struggling with mental health," Kerdel says.

"People have moved on, people have moved into areas that are more isolated or out of contact with services and it's been harder for the worker to follow through."

The quietly spoken Kerdel talked to Indaily in his city office about the myths of homelessness, how people find themselves on the street, and the terrible toll that rough sleeping takes on people.

Q: How do you practically connect with homeless people?

A: We operate seven days a week. One part of our service is called the 'street work service' where two staff members head out early in the morning, around 7.30, to try and seek out people who are sleeping rough. So we patrol through the parklands and the inner city streets and go out to other areas in the metro area where we may be aware of people sleeping rough. We try to build up really good networks with the local councils, businesses, mainstream services, so they'll let us know - hold on, there's someone sleeping behind our building in this street here, or someone in this park.

Q: You try to create a relationship with these people?

A: Yes. We build a relationship up with time. Most of the time we allocate them a case manager here who will work with them on a one-to-one basis over as long as needed to make sure they get stable health, accommodation, and other issues in their lives addressed.

Q: How does the case manager maintain contact? I imagine they won't necessarily have a mobile phone.

A: Some do. It's surprising, but we continue to go out. If someone's sleeping under a bush in the park, for example, we'll go out and see them where they're at, or maybe meet them at a particular location arranged, or if they're coming into one of the day centres for a meal, we might arrange to meet them there. We'll see them wherever it is, provided it's safe and reasonable.

Q: Is the bulk of your clients in the city area?

A: They're all over the metro area, but we still get the majority of our clients presenting in the inner city. In saying that, we get plenty of people out in the suburban areas.

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