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Stronger together: the Homeless Persons Union

Meet Patrick “Spike” Chiappalone – activist, community worker, and co-founder of the Homeless Person’s Union of Victoria (HPUV).

What sparked the idea to form a grassroots union for homeless persons?

HPUV was started by four or five of us. I’d been doing some training with the Peer Education and Support Program (PESP), at the Council to Homeless Persons. It became obvious that people with lived experience of homelessness had a shitload to say about what’s happening in society. But they weren’t being heard, or treated fairly.

We’re supposed to live in a pluralist democracy, with a plurality of voices. But around homelessness in Melbourne, there was a deafening silence. We thought, “There are unions for workers, consumers, public transport users. Why not have a union for people with lived experience of homelessness?”

How did that first gathering unfold?

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) offered us access to Trades Hall. Our first meeting filled up a big room. A bunch of people who were sleeping rough turned up. People living in rooming houses, people from homelessness services. It was goosebumps, you know? I was blown away.

We talked about our goals, our mission, what issues were important to us. People talked about not feeling safe, women being assaulted on the streets. How people were treated in rooming houses, their experiences of using services.

HPU turns ten next year. Can you name some high points and wins along the way?

Getting established at all felt like a massive win. Creating a forum where people could talk about their lived experiences without being judged, silenced, or censored, was amazing.

And creating a forum for advocacy campaigns, too – for example, fighting the [proposed] ban rough on sleeping in the CBD. We did a protest at White Night for that.

We’d also visit drop-in services. We ran a winter breakfast program, helped someone get their teeth replaced. We’ve held public forums, written submissions to Government, made a podcast series.

In 2016 activists occupied vacant houses in Collingwood that the state had acquired for the scrapped East West Link project. What was the goal?

There’s strength in numbers. With the Bendigo Street Occupation, we showed the community: “Look, there are 300 people sleeping rough in Melbourne CBD, but we have all these empty houses. Why are there 35,000 people on the public housing waiting list when 80,000 properties are sitting vacant? You might want to blame homelessness on the individual, but this is a systemic problem.” One of our members just published a research report on the occupation. It’s a case study looking at the relationship between local councils and housing activists.

What’s it like being homeless in Melbourne?

It’s traumatising. You’re lonely. You don’t know where to go. Lots of people end up in the CBD, sleeping rough. That’s where all the services are. But you’re constantly being pushed out by police, council workers, security guards: “You can’t stay here, you need to leave.”

Only a small percentage of [homeless] people sleep rough. The overwhelming majority are couch-surfing, or squatting, living in rooming houses, or overcrowded situations.

I lived in a rooming house for seven years. It got me out of the weather. But it absolutely destroyed me. Everyone you met was in crisis. There were elderly residents who were really ill. People not managing their issues, people fighting.

The things you got exposed to… The guy next door to me was sick. He died in his room. Another guy arrived from prison, then nobody saw him. The homicide squad broke down his door. He’d overdosed. He’d been dead in his room for five days.

What are your thoughts on the housing crisis?

It’s very real for people experiencing housing insecurity or homelessness. But it’s not natural. The housing crisis is a confected crisis: it’s about keeping house prices high, rents and mortgages up. Serving the interests of a minority, at the cost of the majority.

It’s not about a lack of properties. It’s about how they’re distributed. Australia has one million empty houses. We don’t distribute them based on need – that would undermine the profit motive. But housing is a human right. How can you be a functioning human being when you have nowhere to live?

Homelessness is still shrouded in myths, stereotypes and stigma. How can we challenge this?

People who are homeless need access to their own media, so they can produce their own literature, share their stories. Tell the community what it’s like being a ward of the state, living in crisis accommodation. Put a human face on these experiences. That’s the only way to counter the myths and stigma.

What’s something you wish more people understood?

If someone’s homeless, think about what got them there. Anyone who believes the starting line is the same for everyone in society has no idea. Working in the community sector for seven years, I’ve met so many people who’ve grown up in state care, been tortured or sexually abused as kids… It breaks your heart.

An Irish academic said, “Homelessness is like a ball of wool that started unwinding the day that person was born.” It happens to people who lack the means, don’t have the support. Not everyone has the same life chances.

Interview and write-up by Meg Mundell.

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