The gap grows wider for remote communities struggling with severe overcrowding

The gap grows wider for remote communities struggling with severe overcrowding

This piece was first published in the The Sydney Morning Herald.

If home is where the heart is, then Aboriginal people are at breaking point.

This week, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull delivered his Close the Gap report to Parliament. Meanwhile housing shortages in remote NT Aboriginal communities have reached critical levels – homelessness in the territory is 15 times the national average. For Aboriginal people on the ground, this means children living in houses with 20 other people, elderly men and women sleeping on kitchen floors, tents pitched on verandahs during monsoon rains, and women who are experiencing violence with nowhere safe to go.

In 2006, the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous rights described the housing situation in remote Aboriginal communities in Australia as a "humanitarian tragedy". In 2007, the Little Children are Sacred report, which led to the Northern Territory Intervention, described the lack of proper housing for Aboriginal people as "nothing short of disastrous and desperate". It estimated that some 4000 additional houses were needed immediately, and another 400 each year until 2027. Fast-forwarding to 2017, that means 8000 more houses.

Over the past eight years, under the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing (NPARIH), there has been investment in remote housing, but it is a drop in the ocean compared to the need.

The Close the Gap campaign was launched to address the glaring disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous life expectancy. Aboriginal people experience the highest rates of chronic disease in Australia, and the nation's highest rates of family and domestic violence. Health is a major hurdle for Aboriginal people, but the heart of the problem is the home.

Proper housing is vital for physical and mental health. Having somewhere safe and secure to live allows people to participate and contribute to society. But above all, it is a fundamental human right.

Severe overcrowding falls within the Australian Bureau of Statistics' definition of homelessness. Sleeping in rooms with several other people, or in the kitchen, or on the verandah makes it near impossible to have a good night's sleep. Overcrowding increases tension, affects school performance, increases health risks and makes it harder to prepare food hygienically.

A lack of safe alternatives leaves people with no option but to remain in households beset by drugs, alcohol and violence. It also affects court decisions about sentencing and bail, which means Aboriginal people don't have the same options as others.

This is the daily reality for our First Australians.

For those living with a disability the impacts are acute. Imagine being confined to a wheelchair and your only option is to stay with family in an overcrowded house, with a bathroom door too narrow for your wheelchair. Imagine the pain of applying, year after year, for a house with an accessible toilet and shower, only to die before you get it.

The overcrowding in remote communities has a profound impact on every one of the Close the Gap targets, including health, employment and education. This is why housing forms a fundamental pillar of the Close the Gap campaign.

The failure to invest in high-quality and sustainable building materials and methods in the past has meant housing too often succumbs to the harsh territory climate, exacerbating the pressure of having so many people in one house. Over-reliance on outside contractors sees people waiting months, sometimes years, for repairs.

Overcrowding is not a feature of Aboriginal culture or a "lifestyle choice"; it is a consequence of a critical shortage of houses for a rapidly growing population. This shortage is not new. It is the result of chronic underfunding, and a legacy of a time when Aboriginal people were rounded up and forced to live on missions.

To achieve the Close the Gap measures, the federal and territory governments need to engage in genuine dialogue with Aboriginal people. The chronic crisis of overcrowding can only be addressed through a collaborative approach, with a view to ultimately giving control back to Aboriginal communities.

The Australian government has made no commitment to remote Indigenous housing beyond June 2018.

For the first time though, the Northern Territory government has committed serious funds – $1.1 billion over 10 years – to address the housing shortfall. The need is urgent and requires greater investment by the federal government.

Without it, the gap may forever remain an unbreachable abyss.

David Ross is Director of the Central Land Council and a CEO of the Aboriginal Peak Organisations NT. Adrianne Walters is Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre.