Overseeing the operations of The Salvation Army in Melbourne’s CBD, Major Brendan Nottle’s work with society’s vulnerable has been recognised with several community awards. But, as Brendan tells Jen Vuk, homelessness prevention* can use all our help.
I hear that homelessness in Melbourne’s CBD has more than doubled this year. Is this true?
Well, yes. The City of Melbourne has done something called a ‘street count’ of homeless people since 2009, and in the first year they counted 75 people sleeping rough in the city of Melbourne. Two years ago it was 142 and this year 247, so it’s an incredible increase.
It’s really a combination of factors; one thing that’s been happening is that the police and council had serious concerns about a place where some were sleeping rough. There were syringes found there, people had used garden beds as toilets and there were serious public health concerns.
For a long time much of the rough sleeping occurred around the outskirts of the city and it was hidden, and then you had those two triggers that caused people to go into areas that are deemed safer and more public.
How has the conversation around homelessness changed over the years?
I’ve been working in the city for 13 years and back then it was really hard to get a conversation going with anyone about rough sleepers. Now—without exaggeration— everywhere I go people want to talk about the increase in rough sleepers in the city.
A couple of years ago particularly around Mouse’s death (Ed. note: homeless man Morgan Wayne ‘Mouse’ Perry was stabbed to death in 2014), people were shocked by that and there was a sense that something had to be done.
Now it’s top of mind for a lot of people from all walks of life and there are people talking about it as a crisis. Yet homelessness wasn’t mentioned once in this last federal election campaign. What we really need is to understand that knee jerk responses to this are not going to address the problem.
Homelessness very rarely starts in the city of Melbourne. It often starts many years ago in the suburbs or regional, rural areas. I think what really needs to happen is a bipartisan federal approach, where experts around the table work out a strategic plan and there’s an agreement among all political parties that no matter who’s in power they’ll adhere to this plan.
The plan has to address the issue of affordable housing, trauma that occurs in young children (often because of physical or sexual abuse), and there have to be issues addressed around mental health and addiction and around family violence. And it needs to be a long-term plan.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
When something falls through; like someone’s housing falls through, or for whatever reason you can’t get them into detox or rehab, or a program gets blocked or it doesn’t come off. That’s a pretty ordinary day.
Sometimes a terrible time is when it’s a really cold Melbourne winter’s night and you see that your team is working flat out to make a difference and yet the numbers aren’t diminishing, they’re increasing. Every now and again that becomes a dark night of the soul. When you think, am I doing something wrong? Am I missing something?
You’re often the go-to person on homelessness.
Is that a comfortable fit for you?
To be honest, I’d rather just put my head down and get on with addressing the issues. The need at the moment is so great I think all my time and then some could be spent on trying to get more funding and trying to establish more housing and develop more programs.
At the same time I see it’s an important responsibility to uphold, because it keeps the public informed and that’s a good thing. Honestly, I’ve got a great team and they’re the people on the frontline doing the hard work day and night and through the media chasing funding. Hopefully this makes some kind of difference to them and also to those doing it tough.
*Homelessness Prevention Week is 1–7 August