By Fr. Matthew Digges (Administrator of the Broome Diocese)
HOMELESSNESS in the West Australian resort town of Broome is at crisis point, as unprecedented numbers of people from across the Kimberley drift to the coastal town and either cannot get home or decide to stay.
More than 1400 homeless and at-risk adults and children are on the books of Broome’s outreach centre, which was established last year in response to the growing number of Aborigines sleeping rough and going hungry in the town of 12,700 permanent residents.
The Father McMahon Place, established by Catholic community service agency Centacare, served 7631 meals to people deemed homeless between January 1 and November 30.
The centre now feeds an average 50 homeless people at each sitting and numbers are growing. Each month, up to 87 people who come for food there have never been before.
Demand for emergency relief in the form of food and clothing vouchers has grown so sharply that Centacare has been forced to abandon a program designed to help itinerant and homeless people return to their remote communities so the centre can respond to the immediate needs of Broome’s homeless.
Matt Digges, administrator of Broome’s Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish and a priest in the Kimberley for 23 years, said he was aware of a widely held view that indigenous people from across the Kimberley were shifting to Broome in greater numbers because alcohol was relatively easy to buy there. Since 2007, severe restrictions on the sale of takeaway alcohol have been rolled out in the inland towns of Fitzroy Crossing and Halls Creek.
Father Digges said those who sought to blame Broome’s homelessness crisis on alcohol ignored the fact that Broome was undergoing a transformation into a regional centre. Government services were now heavily concentrated in Broome and people from remote communities had no choice but to travel there for a variety of reasons including to attend court, for surgery, dialysis and mental health services.
“People have always come to Broome from the desert and other remote communities — that is not new,” he said.
“But we haven’t seen people come in these numbers before. There has been a marked increase over the past 10 years, but particularly over the past five years, and it is far too easy to say they are coming here to drink.”
Father Digges said that, once in Broome, many had nowhere to stay and were drawn into a cycle of drinking, violence and poor health that was very hard to escape.
Broome shire president Graeme Campbell said the regionalisation had brought serious issues for everyone, especially those drawn to town to access services and visit family.
“A lot of the people arrive from as far away as the Pilbara region without jobs, without any arrangements and with huge social and mental problems,” Mr Campbell said. Life was hard and dangerous for Broome’s homeless.
Eight of the nine people murdered in Broome over the past 3 1/2 years were indigenous people who had drifted to town from outlying areas. “That is a very high number of murders when you consider the size of the town,” he said. “Alcohol was a primary factor in those eight deaths. It is a tragedy.”
Mr Campbell said it was well known that many other “rough sleepers” in Broome had died suddenly and too young.
Negotiations for a very basic “dry camp” for visitors to Broome have stalled several times, and the West Australian government now plans a hostel where visitors to Broome can stay for $25 a night.
Mr Campbell said the hostel was needed, but homeless people locked in a downward spiral of alcohol abuse would not use it.
Non-government agencies in Broome are asking the state government’s charitable organisation LotteryWest to fund research into the town’s homeless population with a view to planning and paying for an effective “return to country” program.