Politics

Public Housing Residents Are Being Punished For The Victorian Government’s Mistakes

The hard-lockdown targets some of Australia's most marginalised communities.

public housing victoria

The headlines are about to shift from the hard lockdown of nine public housing estates in Melbourne, but this is the problem. We are too willing to forget that these places are people’s homes.

Those of us living in public homes are being punished worse than anyone else in Australia, with the strictest lockdowns imposed on any community. As the Victorian Government orders all of Melbourne back into lockdown, the media will shift focus away from what’s happening in these towers, and on to stories about who can make the best iso sourdough.

Our attention will shift because it always does — and the Victorian Government for one will be glad of it. That way we will not hold them accountable for punishing people caught up in a mess of the government’s own doing.

I have lived in public homes, in fact, I owe my life to them. I remember the exact moment my mum opened the letter which told us we had been accepted. This meant six of us wouldn’t have to be shoehorned into an expensive and tiny two-bedroom unit. Fast forward some years, after finding myself homeless as a teenager, it was another public home that allowed me to have a place of my own, so I could finish high school.

Public homes change lives, I know.

We are in a public health emergency, and those of us that live in public homes understand this well. Communities in public housing mobilised early to get information to their elders and most vulnerable, well before the government. Residents have been pleading for weeks for better cleaning in common spaces and more resources to contain the spread.

True to form, the government ignored them because it always does, and it is counting on us to do the same.

Every single person living in these homes is doing their absolute best to contain the spread of COVID. However, it is impossible to socially distance in crowded spaces. Many of these residents are deemed essential workers: cashiers, couriers, guards, and early childhood educators, but they are treated and paid like they are disposable. Many are in insecure jobs that do not pay a living wage — staying home is not an option if you want to eat.

These people did not cause the overcrowding in their homes — the Victorian government has known about overcrowding for decades. As a lawyer and an advocate, I’ve worked with the very people who today have to put up with having 500 police officers intimidating them into imprisonment. The Department of Housing would often tell them that if they didn’t like the conditions they could rent privately.

There is a severe shortage of public homes in Victoria. If you apply today you will be at the end of a list that is over 100,000 people long and growing by 500 new applications each month.

Instead of prioritising homes for people, politicians have allowed private developers to construct shoddy apartments for profit instead. Just recently, the Victorian government sold public housing land for private, while also palming off existing public homes for private organisations to manage.

What the headlines don’t understand is that the people in public housing are communities, and we need to have a better appreciation for how important public homes are in giving people with low incomes a safe place to live.

Yes, there are problems in these communities, like there are in any place where people who would not choose to be together, find themselves being together. The people that live in these communities know what the problems are, but the government hasn’t acted on the solutions residents have been calling for. They would rather keep people impoverished, and then punish them for it.

I once worked with a family who needed modifications made to their home so that their elderly grandfather with disability could shower. Without an accessible shower, the whole family had to bathe him at a public swimming pool. The department denied their request for modifications because it would have been too costly, and told them they would be waiting ten years to be transferred to a home that was accessible enough to allow them to shower.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that that our social safety net can be strengthened quickly if governments choose to prioritise it. The pandemic has also taught us that we are all, without exception, just one unpredictable moment away from needing that safety net.

Do not be fooled — the Victorian Government is publicly punishing those of us that live in public homes, because of its own failures to prioritise homes for people. The government didn’t lock down Toorak, Malvern, or Portsea when people there risked everyone’s health by happily disregarding isolation after returning from skiing in Aspen.

The difference is that those suburbs are wealthy and white.

We need to celebrate and welcome the contribution that people who live in public homes make to our city. It’s the government that must be held accountable for failing in its duty to look out for all of us. Do not let the outrage of this moment pass.

In the short term, these communities need a public health response — not more punishing, or racist over-policing. Listen to their demands by following #Freethe9Blocks.

In the long term they, and every single one of us, needs our governments to prioritise affordable, accessible homes for all of us. If they don’t then they are the ones that need punishment at the ballot box.


David Mejia-Canales is a human rights lawyer in Melbourne and a proud houso.