At 7.15 am yesterday I met a man. He was waiting outside the dental clinic at Albany Hospital — you have to get there early if you want emergency treatment. It’s not the clinic’s fault — that this is the ‘system’. Ever increasingly there are those in this town and around Australia who cannot afford medical insurance and the extreme costs of private dental care, so we queue. Think about it.
So, me, an eighty something year old senior citizen and a thirty five year old young man sat on the cold and damp veranda at the dental clinic and waited for opening time at 8.15am just an hour, only an hour away.
I was well wrapped in a coat designed for Polar Regions and my companion was shivering. He said his clothes were damp from the day before. He told me he was homeless. He had a persistent, dry, cough. He did not look well. He was at the clinic because he thought his teeth were full of holes and making him ill.
My companion for an hour or so was well spoken, clean-shaven and showed no outward signs of his homelessness. He told me he had never drunk alcohol or smoked and had never taken any prohibited drugs, he had seen people gradually die taking drugs, he said.
I did not press him as to the reason(s) for his homelessness, he said he has had good jobs, but was fired within two hours at his last job, he said he was so nervous he couldn’t swing the hammer. He said he had also run his own business at one time, and designed websites for which he was paid. I did not doubt what he said. As he talked it appeared that he was a bit confused by his current predicament.
He told me that recently he had been very sick. At the time he was living in a tent somewhere out the back of Middleton Beach. Unable to move and in a fever, another homeless person found him and called an ambulance. He was admitted to hospital where he stayed until it was decided he was fit to be homeless again.
He told me that since being discharged from hospital he had been given shelter for a few days in a motel and has since found temporary overnight shelter and some food in Albany.
When he lived in his tent, he walked every day into Albany to get food and then walked back to his tent in the bush, that was his day, every day, a 6-kilometre walk for food. He didn’t appear to be angry, just resigned that that was the way it is in Albany in 2019.
That is not the end of the story. Homeswest and other agencies have helped my dental clinic companion. He is shortly to move to a house or an apartment, he was not sure which, but he knows the name of a wheatbelt town several hundred kilometres from Albany, which is to be his new home.
Why, I asked does he have to go to a town where there is no Centre Link and where he knows nobody? He said it was the only vacancy that Homeswest had. I didn’t ask how much money he would be left with after the rent had been deducted.
He has no furniture, no kitchen utensils, no money, nothing apart from his gear from his bush camp and of course no job and as far as he was aware no prospect of one. ‘Maybe some farmer will give me a job?’ he said. He also said they, those who are helping him, are trying to find him a fridge.
It seemed to me that his worldly possessions are a mattress from his tent and the clothes, damp clothes he stands up in. He was wearing thongs on that cold wet morning. He smiled, a wan smile, at his predicament.
He was the first to see the dentist and he was assured that his teeth were not making him ill — he was told his teeth were near perfect. He shook hands with me when he left. His hand was cold and yet sweaty. So he left presumably not knowing what was making him feel and look so ill.
This is Albany today. I have a copy of and have read over and over again the ‘2018 Feasibility Study, Addressing Homelessness in the Great Southern’. It is a comprehensive and detailed report of some 172 pages. The analysis provided on the problem of homelessness in the Great Southern is in extreme detail.
On page 18 of the report it states ‘It should be noted that, anecdotally, the number of homeless is far higher, with Albany alone estimated to be 300, or 1% of the population’.
Is the answer to homelessness sending people like my companion for a few hours, to a wheatbelt town so he and his fellow travelers, the homeless, will not be seen on York Street or queuing at 7am on a cold and wet morning to get emergency dental care or even looking for food and shelter when and wherever it is available?