Please note: This story contains reference to someone who has died.
The death of Noongar woman Alana Garlett on the cold streets of Perth has driven home the urgency of the Indigenous homelessness crisis.
At a press conference last Thursday, Ms Garlett’s family called for answers over her death and for more housing for people sleeping rough in Perth.
“Our family would like my sister’s death to be the last homeless person on the streets,” said Ms Garlett’s sister, Michelle Garlett.
“Family hurts too when things like this happen. And it hurts here. I’d never walked past a person who’s homeless, because I know that … they need help.”
Research by the University of Western Australia (UWA) released this week found that of the at least 56 people who died homeless on the streets of Perth in 2020, 28 per cent were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
The head of UWA’s Home 2 Health research team, Dr Lisa Wood, said the State Government needs to start providing accurate data on homeless deaths to the public.
“It’s a terrible stat but it’s not surprising, because we know that homelessness is hugely overrepresented amongst Aboriginal people … I think the issue of homeless death is hidden around the country, there just isn’t the data,” she told WAMN News.
“What we’re trying to do is to bring it to light in the same way there is public awareness of deaths in custody, [and] public awareness of deaths from family, domestic violence.
“When we look at the circumstances of death … we would argue that we need to look at the circumstances of these really premature young deaths amongst people who are homeless.”
Ms Garlett, a mother of six, was just 38-years-old when she was found ill opposite the Wesley Church in the city centre in the early hours of June 18. She was rushed to Royal Perth Hospital, where she later died.
Ms Garlett was having trouble breathing when she was found outside, trying to sleep in 11- degree conditions.
After she lost her home in Huntingdale, Ms Garlett’s family offered for her to stay with them. Her sister Michelle said she “she entertained [the idea] for a while and then … she’s gone the next day”.
She said Ms Garlett’s death “made us sick in the stomach”. A cause of death is yet to be established and a vigil was held for the young woman on Tuesday.
“We are waiting for answers off the coroner. But they’re saying to Mum it’s a cardiac [arrest],” she said.
“My sister was left out in the cold.”
Michelle Garlett urged more action to house the homeless — Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike.
“People [who have] the pull, please pull harder … Build units … people are waiting for houses and they want to be housed. You’ll see all these people coming off the streets, you wouldn’t have to worry about them,” she said.
Community Services Minister Simone McGurk told NIT the State Government “invests more than $100 million in specialist services and programs for people experiencing homelessness each year”.
“These funded services range from emergency accommodation, free meals and other life essentials, to health and mental health supports, legal advice, financial counselling and advocacy,” Minister McGurk said.
“Our 10-year strategy to address homelessness across the State, All Paths Lead to a Home, was developed in partnership with the sector and is centred on a housing first approach.”
The Minister also pointed to the Department’s new three-year lease for a homelessness facility that will “provide immediate and culturally appropriate responses to rough sleeping in the Perth CBD and surrounds”. She said it is scheduled to open its doors this month.
Minister McGurk acknowledged that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are “overrepresented among chronic rough sleepers” and said this is why the new facility was developed in consultation with Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations Wungening Aboriginal Corporation and Noongar Mia Mia.
“These organisations have been awarded $6.7 million to deliver the service, which includes culturally informed responses, tenancy management and lodging support to residents.”
The Minister also said the Government is rolling out a $34.5 million Housing First Homelessness Initiative, which couples stable accommodation with supports to help keep chronic rough sleepers in that accommodation.
Former coordinator of the National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project, Gerry Georgatos, told NIT that, on average, over the last seven years one homeless person had died on the streets of Perth every week.
“It’s in the 30s now, this year … The research and surveys over the years have shown the proportion of street-present homeless in Western Australia that is Indigenous has ranged from 25 to 41 per cent. Only 2.2 per cent of Western Australians are First Nations people. It is similar to incarceration. The worst thing is the majority of the children living on the streets are First Nations,” he said.
“We have seen the number of people living on the streets in Perth climb from 600 to 1,200.”
“Of the 56 deaths of homeless people on the streets last year, some were suicides, some were organ failure, infections — treatable and preventable deaths.”
Georgatos said Australia, and WA in particular, could solve homelessness, noting that building a home for every homeless person in Australia would cost significantly less than the Federal Government’s submarine program.
“The death rate for homeless people in this country is 10 times the average for the population … We could end all forms of homelessness but there is no political will.”
By Giovanni Torre