Residents of some of the most remote communities in the Northern Territory who are forced to travel for hours to access critical hospital and surgical treatment in Katherine are sleeping rough in parks and on the banks of the river, said Peter McMillan , Managing Director of NT Shelter.

“It’s outrageous that if you come to town to see a doctor or go to the hospital, you have to sleep on concrete or sleep in an abandoned building or by the river because there is no place safe, affordable or suitable to stay in,” Mr. McMillan said.

All major jurisdictions in the Northern Territory have established short-stay accommodation centers for remote visitors should the need arise.

Yet Katherine, who owns a small hospital, a supermarket and a few justice departments that serve an area almost the size of Japan, is left without one.

“Katherine has 31 times the national homelessness rate in Australia, that’s a pretty staggering figure,” Mr McMillan said.

“We can do better”

Every morning, some of the city’s homeless population visit Katherine’s only drop-in center, the Doorways Hub, for breakfast, a cup of tea, a shower, and to wash their clothes.

But after lunch, when the hub doors close, options for a safe place to go are limited, and dinner for those who can’t afford it isn’t offered.

In a place where help desks are almost always at capacity, the Doorways Hub is a lifesaver, and the morning queue usually winds its way out the door.

A 2020 survey of that queue found that of those who traveled from a remote community for medical help, 94% had no place to stay that night, McMillan said.

Peter McMillan says people are sleeping rough to access medical care in Katherine.(Provided)

“Katherine is such an important regional hub for people coming to town from outlying communities,” he said.

“Can you imagine if you took your family to Katherine to see the doctor, but you had to sleep on the floor?

“We can do better.

Dialysis patients sleeping in tents

Simon Quilty, a longtime Northern Territory doctor and Australian National University (ANU) scholar, said Katherine’s housing crisis had become well known and people were missing critical appointments to avoid going through sleeping on the street at night.

“It’s so much worse than anywhere else in Australia,” Dr Quilty said.

“There are people with serious health issues like kidney failure sleeping in tents, young people in need of palliative care with no chance of finding a safe place to go before their short lives are over.”

A man is sitting at a computer in his house.
Simon Quilty says people are missing critical medical appointments because they have nowhere to sleep safely.(ABC Alice Springs: Samantha Jonscher)

NT Shelter and 18 organizations are jointly calling on the Government of the Northern Territories ahead of its 2022-2023 budget to commit funds for the development of a visitor accommodation center in Katherine.

They also call on all major parties running in the 2022 federal election to step up their action.

In a submission to an inquiry into homelessness in Australia in 2020, the Government of the Northern Territories acknowledged that overcrowding and homelessness “have a serious and detrimental impact[s] social and economic outcomes, especially for children”.

In the same year, via correspondence made public by NT Shelter, a spokesperson for the Northern Territories Government said: “The Labor has undertaken to provide additional short-term accommodation at Katherine and Tennant Creek and will endeavor to secure Commonwealth funding to provide more”.

However, in response to questions from the ABC this week about whether the government would commit to funding a short-term accommodation center in Katherine in this budget, Urban Housing Minister Kate Worden said that the government had already allocated funds.

Kate Worden sits at her desk in the Northern Territory.
Kate Worden says the government is investing $4 million in more social and affordable housing in Katherine.(ABC News)

“In 2021-22, the territory’s Labor Government allocated $31.93m in grants for homeless services in the Northern Territory, with $2.7m a year dedicated specifically to service delivery to the homeless in Katherine,” she said.

Ms. Worden said the funding supports housing programs, community services and the Katherine Doorways Hub, and highlighted a recent $4 million investment to build 16 new social and affordable housing units in Katherine.

Hospital used as crisis accommodation

Northern Territory Legal Aid Senior Solicitor Harley Dannatt played a key role in launching the Katherine Doorways Hub in 2017 and now works alongside organizations tackling homelessness.

A man stands in his office looking at the camera
Harley Dannatt says Katherine is in a housing crisis. (ABC KatherineRoxanne Fitzgerald)

He said that despite a collaborative and innovative network of health, justice and social services working together, the problems were overwhelming.

“Katherine’s housing needs are complex and in crisis… At the end of the day, there just isn’t enough to meet the need,” Mr Dannatt said.

“We don’t have enough long-term housing and the short-term and crisis housing we have is full of people waiting for long-term housing.

“So we have short-term housing that does the job of long-term housing, and we have the hospital acting as crisis housing sometimes.”

Safe housing would reduce crime

North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) chief solicitor Beth Wild said a safe center for people to sleep in Katherine was a matter of urgency.

Amid a record prison population and a record rate of people on remand, she said crisis accommodation could provide a bail address and respite for women and children fleeing violence.

A woman is sitting in her office.
Beth Wild says the need for crisis accommodation in Katherine has reached emergency levels. (ABC News: Michael Franchi)

For people trying to survive on the outside after a prison sentence, Ms Wild said short-term accommodation was key to reducing recidivism.

NAAJA is one of 19 organizations calling on the government to provide vital funding.

“The importance of this funding cannot be underestimated at this time when we have a huge prison population and certain sectors of the community are concerned about anti-social behavior and crime,” Ms Wild said.

“Making sure people have a safe place to live is one of the most important parts of crime prevention.

“We have several families living in homes with people living in living rooms…these homes are not always safe and it can be a real problem to lead to offensive criminogenic behaviour.

“NAAJA is not asking this so that our attorneys have less work to do. We are asking this because it is a clear need and it would, in our view, have a direct link to reducing crime.”

The ABC contacted federal CLP candidate Damien Ryan and Labor candidate Marion Scrymgour but did not receive a response.

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