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Drug Arm Interview - Chris Summerfield

The street van has now been in operation for about 20 years. It really came about because we saw that there were services available for people that were on the street who perhaps didn’t know about those services and it was really about making a bridge to connect people to them, the ethos behind it all.

I started five years ago because my wife used to be a volunteer with Drug Arm and then a job came up and I thought that sounded great. Between the two of us, we’ve been around for 10 years.

One common request is for people to have someone to talk to. All the other services have really focused, targeted programs which is good but I think one of the things that we can offer that’s a bit unique, is for someone to be able to talk life through about relationships, drug and alcohol or families and that gives them a chance to really work on the whole issue that they’re struggling with or that they need to work on. In another sense, housing is a big request we get and in the last 4 to 5 years, we’ve seen an increase in the need but also similarly, a decrease in people coming and asking for it because 9/10 times when someone asks if we’ve got any place that we can house them in, we say no because there’s nothing available as there’s a chronic shortage of housing.

I think one of the reasons is that the level of funding for emergency accommodation is in part based on the amount of homelessness, which is recorded in the census statistics. The census before the most recent one really got the stats wrong and really underestimated the level of homelessness and then because of that, when the new census came out, they worked really hard at getting it right and it’s only been a few months ago that they’ve released what they think is the right data so it’s only until now that they’re started to work on that and hopefully it will change.

If we have someone who’s looking for accommodation, you can’t be intoxicated so if someone is not intoxicated, then the homeless hotline or Salvation Army Care Line after hours will have a list of places that are available and we’ll call them. If they’re intoxicated it’s a slightly different story, they go to Bridge House, which is a sobering up facility. Mission Australia have had a place for people to chill out for a while or if we’re really stuck with someone, Crisis Care is a bit of a fall back, we ask them what’s available. If we’ve got someone who looks like they’ve got no options in the way of official services, we‘ll usually ask them questions like what they’ve done when they’ve been in this situation. If they’ve got money, we’ll try and get them into a backpackers, which is an alternative or we’ll think laterally about what further things we can do.

We do see a lot of homeless people and one good thing to be aware of is that there’s different levels of homelessness. Often when people think of homelessness, they think of people sleeping on a cardboard box in an alleyway. In between all of that, you’ve got someone who might have a home to go to but there’s domestic violence or it might not be a safe place so hanging around the streets is a lot better than the home they have. Then there might be people who are couch surfing between different friends or relatives.

I think part of the change that Northbridge needs, is a change of culture in Australia particularly around drinking and alcohol. A lot of the aggressive behaviour from the people who are heavily intoxicated is more likely to be people who have regular 9-5 respectable jobs and are usually the ones that end up having too much to drink get a bit of Dutch courage and pick a fight with someone. One of the difficulties with Northbridge particularly later at night is the times when the nightclubs close and the trains stop running.

I think the Northbridge Curfew is one of those things where young people who are out on the streets late at night, is a problem and how you deal with that has to be done in a number of ways. I think perhaps the perception that is portrayed particularly in commercial media, is that you’ve got these young people running away from nice, safe families and causing trouble in Northbridge and why can’t we get their families to lock them up? Although there might be the occasional person who’s come from a nice, safe, loving family who’s running amok in Northbridge, for the most part, the young people are in Northbridge because it’s a safer and a nicer place, compared to what home is like. I think those issues need to be addressed as well for those people, which is far more complex than just putting someone on the train and telling them that it’s time to go home.

We’re in Northbridge from 8 pm to 1 am Fridays and Saturdays in James Street near the Library Car Park.