Saturday, April 9, 2016

On homelessness - and a blanket, under the stars.

I know what it is to sleep rough.

I lived in the city, with other young people.  I was only fourteen, and the streets were the safest place for me. 

It was safer living under a bridge than it was living at home, because there was nobody on the streets who had ever tried to hurt me.

In the eyes of the law, I would not have been regarded as a 'genuine homeless' person.  I had a home, with a bed, with a blanket.  In the eyes of the law, I would have been seen as a runaway.  In the eyes of someone like the Lord Mayor of Perth, I would have been seen as someone who was 'not actually homeless'.  In the eyes of the City of Perth, I would have been regarded as someone who should be 'moved on'.

That's what happened last week to more than 100 mostly Aboriginal people living at Matagarup, a registered heritage site and Aboriginal meeting, camp site and hunting ground.

Homeless folk were forced to leave by police and council rangers, who arrested at least one man, issued two move on notices and seized personal property. 

What does that actually mean?

Here's a picture of Kirsty Oehlers from the First Nations Homelessness Project, assisting homeless Koori children during a police backed City of Perth raid aimed to move on the homeless from the Heirisson Island Matargarup First Nations Refugee Camp. These children and their parents were subsequently police escorted to a carpark at the Burswood casino (the next Shire), and just left there.

'I can explain what happened here,' says Kirsty.

'We were given a short reprieve to get things out of this family's tent before they started dismantling it and throwing things into bags (probably later to be binned).

The kids' father and I went to their tent and I asked the kids to collect the things they wanted. They took their favourite blankets, soft toys and books. Too sad for words to see them quickly taking their treasured things...beautiful kids and family.'

I know this child.  She sat on my knee once, and told me that she had a blanket with stars on it.  She told me that princesses lived in castles.

That family has travelled around Australia.  'I was in Shark Bay,' the child told me.  Her mother absentmindedly tucked her hair behind her ear so that it wouldn't fall in her eyes as she was talking to me.  Her little sister, the baby you see in the photograph behind the shopping cart, fell over and was picked up by a community member with the kind of practised ease you see when others are taking care of children in their care, in their community. 

Those children are included in the comments by well meaning white folk who argue that there are criteria for 'genuine homelessness', that perhaps they should not get involved.  Perhaps they shouldn't be there, they say.  Why won't they go?  Why are they there?

The City of Perth is doing a great job of painting the issue of homelessness as an issue of criminality.  Over 80 percent of tents removed on Tuesday were vacant, they say.  Vehicles were unregistered.  A media statement was issued saying that the raids were carried out 'in line with community and ratepayers expectations'.  The Lord Mayor of Perth, Lisa Scaffidi, has previously stated that she is in possession 'of strong anecdotal evidence' that 'professional beggars were potentially earning hundreds of dollars a day.'

They are the same agency that, according to a member of the WA Police force, that have told WA police to continue to raid the island until the people no longer return.

They are the same agency that tipped out food, poured out water in raids.  Illegally destroyed people's property or took it, telling people they could pick it up if they could pay the 'costs of removing, impounding and storing the item'. 

They are the same agency that ticketed journalists for parking their cars during the raid - $75, then another $100 for not moving.  Shortly after 6PR tweeted about the fines, two rangers removed the tickets and cancelled them. 

They are the same agency who slapped a $500 fine on a broken down car parked at the Island.  The car is owned by a homeless family with five children who cannot afford to pay it. Senator Sue Lines created a go fund me account to pay the fine, which was raised by the public in under six hours.

Inside Cover journalist Ben O'Shea says that people had returned to the island within a few hours, and wondered out loud why people were being moved on - yet again, for the ninth or tenth time.

'If something didn't work after the third go, you'd do something different, wouldn't you?' he asked. 

There's also the issue of cost.  Homelessness activist Jennifer Kaeshagen says that the heavily financed, police escorted City of Perth raids are estimated in the mainstream media as costing about 20 grand.  That's for planning, conducting and enforcing each raid, not working with the homelessness community or linking with agencies.  During last week's raid, no assistance from homelessness agencies could be arranged, except for the Aboriginal Health Service and Nyoongar Patrol (who attended of their own accord).

'And as for the the City of Perth welfare officer,' says another activist,

'She considered that she was doing her job by simply giving me brochures to hand out to the homeless.'

Jennifer believes that it is 'a budgeted war on Black poor'. And it's being waged on a (Federal and State recognised) Registered Aboriginal (Sacred) Site.

Nine young women who had previously sheltered at Matagarup under the care of the Aboriginal people at the site are now sleeping rough under bridges.  The others have scattered, are missing.  The community are dispersed.  The children were dumped in a car park. 

I will not be sleeping outside tonight.  There is a storm brewing over the city - I can see lightning flashes from outside my window.  Inside my home, the temperature is set to a cosy 21 degrees.

My bed is warm.  

Water comes from the tap.  

I can cook without searching for gas or wood, keep my food cold without ice.  

I do not have to dig a hole or go far to find a toilet.  

My children are safe. 

I am safe.

That wasn't the case all those years ago.  When the police brought me home that last time, my father grabbed me by the neck of my shirt, smashed the back of my head against the hallway wall.

You won't do that again, he said.  Embarrass me like that.  He rubbed with his sleeve at the smear of blood my head had left on the plaster, and arranged for me to be sent away to live with a distant relative in a third world country, eight and a half thousand kilometres away.

Nobody sees the reasons for homelessness.  They are invisible, as invisible as a child with a shopping trolley in a casino car park, as invisible as the faint smear of blood on a hallway wall.  The seven year waiting list for social housing, the 'too-big' families, the intergenerational disadvantage, the intersectional issues like violence and racism and ableism and bigotry.

And in the end, it is not up to you or I to judge how or why we should offer assistance, whether or not people are the 'deserving homeless'.

I have a bed, not just a blanket.

There is a roof between my blanket and the stars.
I am not in danger, or sleeping on the streets. 

Most likely, neither are you. 

Here's what you can do to help - from Jennifer.

'What I would advise supporters at this point in time, further to visiting the island and building relationships with individuals there in need of support who can best let you know what they need at this mad time and how, would be to contribute to the strategic campaign of pushing back against such draconian measures as practiced by the City of Perth just to 'move on', criminalise, punish the homeless.'
Write to politicians you think may engage in the bigger picture, respectfully, in terms of the homeless at Matagarup.

Write to the media.

Write to the Perth City Council members.  Educate them as to the reality of the people, and call them to account.

Here are their email contact details.

Lord Mayor Lisa Scaffidi
Deputy Lord Mayor James Limns
Janet Davidson, OAM JP (Councillor)
Jim Adamos (Councillor)
Lily Chen (Councillor)
Jemma Green (Councillor)
Judy McEvoy (Councillor)
Reece Harley (Councillor)
Keith Yong (Councillor)

I wonder where that child's blanket is right now.  You know, the one with the stars on it.

Image description - a woman pushes a shopping cart loaded with clothes.

A police van is in the background.  

Three small children are carrying their belongings, including toys. 

Monday, April 4, 2016

Petition - We Went To Lunch

Yesterday, people with disability got mad.

They got mad because they were asked to use an unsafe, terrible ramp (at a brand new restaurant called 'Petition') to get to the accessible toilet.

You can read about that here.

Petition has been built as part of a larger refurbishment, one that cost 108 million dollars.  After the blog was published, a City of Perth Councillor told us that actually, there was an accessible toilet.

It just wasn't easy to get to, and it was a shame nobody was directed there, he said.

He pointed out that it was a heritage listed building, that getting upset was a bit 'silly' and that the developers had gone to great expense to install lifts. 

We thought we'd go and see for ourselves.

Jackie, Tom and I set out for lunch at Petition.  This what happened.

11.45am:  We arrive at the Kings car park and make our way down to St George's Terrace.  The City of Perth councillor has told us that there are lifts on the Terrace, and we're keen to check them out for ourselves.  

We get to the building.  There are shop signs that advertise the shops that are presumably accessible below, but the railing is at exactly at my eye height - I can't see them at all.  There's nothing else to tell me that this isn't just any old government building.

We reach the first lift, and after much pressing of buttons (there are only three, but it's not clear how they work) the lift starts rising to the street level. 

There's a small, weird little sign that neither of us have ever seen before.  It says, 'limited mobility access'.  We're not sure what that means - I'm guessing that they don't want to use the word 'disability'. 

 Image description - Lift buttons which direct people up and down.  The third is a red knob.  Beneath the knob are the words 'limited mobility access' with an image of a wheelchair (universal access symbol).   Second image - a glass door beside the lift buttons.  The lift is a platform lift that is open to the elements. 

11.50am:  Jackie wanders down the stairs and says that the shops are shut.  She points out the writing on the door - small, all in capitals, black.  Hard to read.  I peer over the edge and notice that there are no tactile ground surface indicators on the top of the stairs - the stairs are steep and a little roll over the edge would not be fun.  Fortunately, the blind people will be able to notice that there's an impending hazard AFTER they've fallen down the stairs, because there is a neat, compliant row at the bottom.

We notice that someone has gone to the trouble to 'antique' the down pipe.  And the non compliant handrails.

Image description - A steep flight of stairs.  At the bottom is a row of shiny TGSIs.  At the top, there is nothing. 

The shops are shut downstairs, and the second lift doesn't work at all.  We don't know if it is broken or turned off.  I look at the small catchment down the bottom and wonder if I would ever use this lift.  Clearly, I'm not going to be using it on a Sunday.

Second image - Stencilled letters which read 'opening hours, Monday to Friday, 10am to 5pm.  Saturday 10am to 4pm. 

Image description:  The second lift has a 'limited mobility access' sticker on it.  The first has been peeled off.  

- We get to Petition and are confronted by an imposing flight of stairs.  Fortunately, there is a small, easily recognisable blue sign with a wheelchair and an arrow.  We follow it.

When we get to the next arrow, we gasp.

Now we know why there were no TGSIs at the top of the frighteningly steep staircase.  They'd used them all on the bizarre feature pictured - a strange, graduating, double step that is confusingly lined with double roles of TGSIs.  At the bottom, at the top almost everywhere.  It is a glorious TGSI overdose.  It looks like the architect has eaten TGSIs and vomited them over the oddly shaped steps.


The steps, which terminate near the rise, do not comply with the access regulations about minimum luminous contrast.  That is a technical terms that means, 'Paint that dangerous edge shit in different colours so that the folks with low vision, the drunk folks and the old folks can see it and so that they don't break their necks'.  It's a rule, and it wasn't followed - there is a clear trip hazard that's going to make someone's life interesting when they file the first law suit.

Here's a picture from another angle.  It clearly shows how dangerous this two step access nightmare is. 

Here are Tom and I.  The top 'path' is where I've wandered along in my wheelchair.  TGSIs are hated but tolerated by most wheelchair users, but we usually just encounter small rows of them before hazards and we know that the blind folk need them.  This - well, in order to access the restaurant, I can either find out that there's a long way, or go down along the TGSIs in a bumpy three metre ride to the restaurant, castors turning, voice bouncing like it did when we were little kids going down a gravel road in the car.

The edge is frighteningly close to the edge of my chair and I wonder how close it would be for a person with a big, electric wheelchair.

We enter, and the staff rush to the door to open it.  We kind of suspect that after the flurry of social media the night before, they've been expecting a call. 

12.10pm - We enjoy a leisurely lunch and enjoy the great peach bellinis.  What Petition lack in access, they make up for in food - Jackie has something with eleventy billion shades of mushroom, and Tom and I feast on the very good cheeseburgers.  The wine list is a bit overpriced, but it's not the house red, so bellinis it is.

We notice that the good customer service extends to Tom, who doesn't use a lot of spoken language and who has Down syndrome.  He's offered a menu, called sir, and generally treated as you'd expect to be treated.  This is part of good access, so we mentally note it.

When it's time to go, we wonder whether to casually ask to use the toilet or call over the staff member and let him know why we are there.  We're pretty sure they already know, so we decide on the second.  The staff member is personable, friendly and truthful - all qualities we very much appreciate. 

'What would happen, then, if I wanted to go to the toilet now?' I asked after our conversation about the ramp finished.

He hesitated.  'I would have to take you.'  I make a face and ask him when the last time it was that HE was taken to the toilet.

I often ask, he tells us, but that's different from being 'taken'.  He gets it.  'I should have said 'escorted',' he says, and I launch into a completely unnecessary discussion about how it feels to be 'taken' or 'escorted' to a toilet and to know that you have to hurry up and not pee loudly.  Poor guy. 

We thank him, because Petition's access aside, it was a good experience.  As tenants, they have specific restrictions - for example, they cannot hang anything on the wall.

2.30pm - We decide to wander through the rest of the State Buildings, curious to see if the dodgy access extends to the rest of the place - and interested to know how easy the toilet was to find without being 'escorted'.

And this is what we found.

Here's the - I am assuming - Chinese restaurant, which is inaccessible to me on a Sunday because the lift is not in use and the outside doors are locked.

 Image description - a flight of stairs lead to a lit up sign that reads, 'Long Chim'.

Here's the toilet?  See it?  No?  Neither could we.  That tiny light box on the right hand side was a clever interior designer's idea of wayfaring - it's a backlit laser etched piece of metal with a discreet 'restrooms' embossed upon it.  To the right, in that little alcove, is the actual toilet.  There's no way to find it or see it unless you're directed there - 'taken to the toilet', I guess.

The accessible toilet had a staff member in it, getting changed.  We'll assume that in four years time, it will be filled with cleaning products because it is 'never used'.

Image description - a long hallway with a flight of stairs at the end.  Women stand at the top of the stairs.  A sign that says 'Petition' stands in the hallway.  Some entries branch off the hallway.  A small light box is visible.

Here's a closer view of the laser etched light box.  The only way you can read it, really, is by standing in front of it.  And to do that, you'll first need to know that it's a sign - not a light - and you'll, secondly, have to be able to find it. 

We stumbled across the lift to the hotel completely by accident.  Despite the plethora of 'other kit' that was printed in vinyl on the walls - those 'essential' items like fire extinguisher signs - and lights and fire sprinklers and fittings that were fitted to the new ceilings, it seemed that the designers were loathe to install anything that could actually be used to find your way around the building.  In, or in case of a fire, out - something you'd think would be a fairly obvious consideration.

2.50pm - Before leaving, we bought some products from some of the lovely little shops in the building.  Not the shop that Jackie described caustically as providing 'white dresses for thin people', nor the Argyle diamond shop.  But upon chatting with one of the vendors, we realised that the issues of lack of universal access were not restricted to being a disability issue.  'I have to bring stock in,' said one vendor, 'And I am by myself and often have to leave it outside on the pavement, because I have to lug it up the stairs.'

How to solve these issues?  Well, they're pretty obvious.  Involve disabled people at all stages of a building or refit.  It's far, far cheaper to get us involved as access auditors and/or advisory group members or as folks who have both lived and professional expertise than have some disabled person die in a fire, crash off an inaccessible step or sue a business for poor access.  It's also cheaper than than trying to stock an empty white elephant of a building with viable businesses - on the day that we visited, the place should have been a hive of activity, not a ghost town.

Ensure that those 'last minute' access modifications are actually checked during big fitouts and constructs - the installations of TGSIs, for example, are rarely checked.  The accessibility flaws to these premises should never have been approved.

The many wheelchair users who were directed to use an unsafe ramp were just as discriminated against as if there had been no accessible bathroom at all, and this is important to note.  If the end result is that you are treated less favourably than your able bodied equivalent - in this case, that you cannot piss - then you've been discriminated against, unless the discriminator can prove that they couldn't afford to treat you equitably. 

The questions to be answered in finding whether there is indirect discrimination are:
  • was a condition or requirement imposed;
  • was the person with a disability able to comply with it; and
  • was it reasonable.
Good access is good business.  And although we appreciate maintaining the heritage aspect of a historic building - you can read more here about how the DDA trumps heritage legislation - the design or refurbishment should not just recognise the building's past, but should accommodate its present.  Including the citizens' who are going to shop, eat, or drink there - including citizens with a disability. 

Good as the peach bellinis were - I won't be going back.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Petition – The 108 Million Dollar Redevelopment WIth No Disability Access

Their website proudly boasts, ‘Over 100 years ago, petitioners would gather in the centre of Perth to lobby for causes they believed in. They would march down the terrace, lining the building where Petition now stands; on the Barrack St. side of the State Buildings. Here sits Petition Beer Corner, Petition Kitchen and Petition Wine Bar & Merchant. Three spaces that offer an 18-tap craft beer bar, a bistro and an inner city wine bar. Come and add your signature.’

Such a cute idea for a brand-new eatery. I hold fond memories of the State Buildings, where, as a sixteen year old outside clerk, I traipsed up and down stairs or into rickety lifts to deliver documents or have titles searched or stamped. Back then, I was not yet a wheelchair user. As a disability activist, it thrilled me that the old buildings held a history of social activism, of places where people came together for a cause.

That’s why it shocked me when I spotted this post in a friend’s newsfeed on social media.
‘$100+ million on refurbishments and multiple fuckwits think this ramp is acceptable? The staff member put his foot on it to keep it stable.’

And then the picture, of a steep shard of metal with an almost 30 degree aspect, the type of adventurous activity that most wheelchair users would write off as being dangerous, impractical and downright discriminatory.

Disabled Perth lawyer Prue Hawkins also visited Petition – just yesterday, in fact. She asked where the accessible bathroom was, and was directed to a flight of stairs.

I looked at the stairs and the girl who was directing me said brightly, oh, it’s okay, we have a ramp,’ she said.

‘They brought this thing out and put it down and I said, thanks, but no thanks. First of all, that ramp is so steep it’s ridiculous. It isn’t a fixed ramp, it moves. There are no sides, and my wheelchair weighs 150 kilos. It doesn’t matter if you’re Michael Schumacher or some complete dick who can’t drive a wheelchair, it’s dangerous.

Prue, who has previously worked as a disability discrimination lawyer, says that she would have minded less if the building had not been very recently refurbished at a cost of over 100 million.

‘If it was some old building where they just couldn’t make the access work, then you tend to be a bit more forgiving,’ she said.

‘This is just straightforward discrimination.

It’s also illegal.

In Australia, the Australian Standards Council has regulations for slopes of permanent ramps into buildings. The standard gradient is one in fourteen.

We also have standards that say that you can’t NOT provide access. The relevant rule is known as ‘AS 1428.1’ and it requires new buildings to have a ramp - a ramp with a maximum incline of 1 in 14, a minimum width of 1000mm, level landings every 9 metres, safety kerb rails of at least 65mm height and handrails at heights between 865 and 1000mm. It applies to all new buildings that are used for commercial purposes, and it certainly applies to the building at Petition.

The only defence in court against a discrimination claim is that the builder, business or company couldn’t afford the access arrangement. And with a 108 million price tag, it’s pretty unlikely that this was the case – good luck to the luxury hotel chain in proving ‘unjustifiable hardship’.

The City of Perth, who approved the reburbishment that was carried out by luxury hotel chain the COMO group, disbanded their Access Advisory Committee two years ago. A disability advocate says that it just ‘fell apart’ after a change of staff and through ‘lack of interest’, despite opposition from the disability community.

'The refurbishment should never have been approved,' he said.

108 million dollars, and disabled people are still regarded as second class citizens, as an afterthought. I wonder if those Barrack Street petitioners of 100 years ago included disabled people who lobbied for better access, for the right to be able to use the toilet or eat in public like other Western Australians.

Or maybe they couldn’t get up the steps.
Footnote: A group of disability advocates 'added their signature' to the above photo, with a message of complaint on Petition’s social media wall. The post was promptly removed. Disabled patrons are now lodging disability discrimination complaints against the developers.

Image description: A steep portable ramp, made of steel, leans up across some stairs at an eatery. The sign on the wall reads, 'Petition'.