• Biripai man Jason Russell (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Aboriginal people experiencing homelessness in Victoria are resorting to extremes to keep warm during winter, with a Biripi man saying he once slept next to a stray dog just to keep warm.
Madeline Hayman-Reber

13 Aug 2019 - 10:03 AM  UPDATED 13 Aug 2019 - 10:46 AM

As freezing temperatures continue across the eastern side of the country, people who are sleeping rough have to resort to extreme measures just to keep warm.

In Victoria, one of the coldest states in the country, up to 16 per cent of Aboriginal people who are experiencing homelessness will be sleeping rough at any given time.

Biripi man Jason Russell knows the struggles all too well - not only does he work as a volunteer advocate in Melbourne at the Council to Homeless Persons, but he has his own lived experience of homelessness.

“Well, number one, you've got to get out of the wind. That windchill factor, it kills. I mean winters in Melbourne, without a doubt beyond my mind, I've seen it with my own eyes, is a death sentence,” Mr Russell told NITV News.

“If you're on the streets of Melbourne in winter and you're ailing or you're old, even if you're fit, it'll buck you. But if you're old and ill, it'll kill you.

“It's a sad fact, but these deaths, and there's a lot of them every month, never make the newspapers. People aren't aware that each winter we lose a lot of people, a lot of good people.”

Mr Russell had been a firefighter with the Newcastle City Fire Department when an underlying mental health condition meant he received an honourable discharge from service. That was when his life fell apart.

"I didn't realise it hit me as hard as it did. It was when I failed as a first responder – I felt like I failed as a man, husband, father, son. And it was a shocking part of my life," Mr Russell said.

"Slowly but surely my life unraveled in the space of 30 days. Jason Russell, respected firefighter, pillar of the community was scared for the first time in his life and I really didn't know how to deal with it... So I just disappeared in reality."

Mr Russell said he arrived in Melbourne on what was one of the coldest days on record and headed to Collingwood's Smith Street - an area that reminded him of Sydney's inner-city suburb of Newtown. He said he couldn't find accommodation and was too ashamed to ask, so he resorted to sleeping rough.

"So it was three o'clock in the afternoon and I kind of didn't nowhere to go, and I didn't know what to do, so I went back to what I learnt as a young Aboriginal child - if you're lost and confused, just follow the critters," Mr Russell said.

In the end he found an old ticket box with a crawl space that he had seen a stray dog coming and going from and climbed inside.

"So me and this mutt spend the night together, and he bit me the next morning when I tried to escape. But hey, you know," Mr Russell said.

"I see this dog from time to time, and we give each other that look. But hey, I suppose we were kindred spirits. We were both homeless and we were both warmblooded, so."

Disproportionately affected  

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are six times more likely to experience homelessness compared to other Australians. In Victoria, that number jumps to 10 times more likely.

Some of the predetermining factors of homelessness for Indigenous people include poor health outcomes, over-incarceration, parent and child separations and family violence.

"When these factors intersect with poverty, which is also prevalent in Aboriginal communities, the inevitable outcome is people left without a home," Council for Homeless persons CEO Jenny Smith said.

"Cultural obligations to take care of extended family can also lead to severe over-crowding, which is experienced at much higher rates by Aboriginal people.

"Older women are put in the vulnerable position of having to choose between being evicted and asking loved ones to leave – an impossible decision they should never be forced to make."

Those sleeping rough seek shelter away from the elements, often in hide-away places just as Mr Russell did. This puts them at further risk of not receiving the support they need.

“Through desperate attempts to find somewhere safe, sheltered and warm to sleep where they won’t be ‘moved on’, people who are rough sleeping can put themselves at further risk by bedding down in less visible locations with less lighting, fewer people around and no CCTV," Ms Smith said.

"Outreach workers are less likely to be able to locate people and offer them help when they are hidden away.

"It’s getting more difficult to secure crisis accommodation, with bottlenecks in the system due to severe shortages in social housing."

Ms Smith said that cycle results in people being stuck for months, or years, in accommodation only ever intended to be short term. Besides this, she says, there are few places that rough sleepers can go to, with legal restrictions making it almost impossible for organisations to give shelter to those who need it.

"They can do everything up to give bedding. So they give people cushions and lots of blankets, but the second they say they're letting people stay there they have become a boarding house, and then insurance doesn't cover them and policy won't fund them. So, there's old people sleeping on concrete," Mr Russell said.

Safe sleeping

In Melbourne's CBD, an organisation run by the Salvation Army called SafeSpace provides a safe sleeping space to those in need, along with warm blankets - but underneath those is cold, hard cement.

"I wish I could wrap my arms around the whole state of Victoria and keep all the homeless warm, but that's just unreal," Mr Russell said.

"I wish government policy would let organisations like the SafeSpace program have people bed down, instead of people sleeping on concrete even though they've got blankets, but sleeping on concrete. And remove these outdated rules and regulations that just are just painful to witness."

Mr Russell said that a practical way people can help those sleeping rough is to provide blankets to organisations, or to volunteer their time at somewhere like SafeSpace.

"Your time is so valuable. Your warm heart, your getting down on one knee and looking these people in the eye," he said.

Finding answers to Victoria's rising Indigenous homeless numbers
It is estimated that one in 12 Indigenous Australians experienced homelessness last year but the figures are even higher in Victoria.