In all the talk about the Western Australian government closing remote Aboriginal communities, there has been little said about these places and the people who live there. The federal government has committed to the “Close the Gap” initiative, but until decisions and policies are based on harsh realities, nothing will improve.

I wore a few different hats while working in an incredible part of the world, the East Kimberley, in Western Australia. In my professional role, I was charged with the responsibility of defining the nature and extent of homelessness in the East Kimberley and coming up with solutions and recommendations as part of the East Kimberley Homelessness Project. My colleague and I sat down with a couple of hundred Aboriginal people from around the region from 2012-13 to ask them about their experience of homelessness. It was immediately clear that “homelessness” in these parts is concealed through overcrowding, the level of which is incomprehensible. The research revealed that on average, seven people live in every house, with the majority experiencing a number of issues including social disadvantage, grief, loss and trauma.

Of the people we interviewed, 41% indicated they did not drink at all. Of the 59% who do drink, many drink more than 40 standard drinks per week, on one or more days. The majority of respondents who drink consume at least 8.4 standard drinks per day, and often this pattern is repeated several days per week. What isn’t spoken about is that although close to half the population don’t drink, they are deeply negatively affected by the alcohol consumption due to the violence and other social issues such as humbugging and having to look after children, the sick and elderly.

The median age of respondents was 40, with 56.5% males and 43.5% females. Some 68% of respondents are currently in receipt of some form of unemployment, Community Development Employment Projects, disability or other government benefit. Almost half of the cohort indicated they had health or medical problems, with many indicating they had multiple health issues. Almost two-thirds (62%) have prescribed medication, although less than half (40.3%) are compliant.

My other role in the East Kimberley was as a volunteer ambulance officer with St John’s Ambulance. Western Australia has only limited paid ambulance and paramedic personnel, with the majority of ambulance services throughout WA provided by volunteers. Alcohol was present in close to 100% of patients that I attended, with the majority of those being intoxicated. It was not unusual to transport patients to the hospital with BAC readings of between four and seven times the legal limit. What was surprising was the level of physical and cognitive functioning patients had when so heavily under the influence of alcohol. This speaks to the level of tolerance that comes from consistent daily intoxication. What I saw when dispatched to houses to provide treatment to people was the reinforcement of the data collected during the Homelessness Project.

Walking into the majority of houses I was confronted with this scene ad infinitum: a three-bedroom basic government-owned/leased house with a large number of people present. Yards littered with empty cans and a stench that permeated the air, consisting of stale beer, disregarded rubbish and food scraps. Sitting among this were family groups often competing to be heard amid the yelling and general chaos that was taking place.

Walking into the houses the sight was more sombre, with the patient usually lying on a mattress which was heavily stained with blood and other secretions. There was little to no furniture in these houses. As soon as kids are old enough to walk and get away they do. It is safer to be on the streets at night than to remain at home in a volatile alcohol-fuelled environment where everything is unpredictable. It is little wonder that so few go to school, let alone perform — it would be hard to do so when constantly tired from lack of sleep or appropriate nutrition.

Where do policy-makers start with bringing Aboriginal people back to any level of social and emotional well-being or functioning? Spending time inside these communities, it is easy to understand why so many, ranging from the precious young to the invaluable old, reach breaking point and decide that suicide is the only answer.

In my most recent role I worked for the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and was responsible for much of the funding of small remote communities including Balgo, Mulan and Billiluna located in the Tanami Desert in the East Kimberley. The artists of the so-called Kutjungka region are internationally renowned for their incredible skill on canvas and other mediums such as glass. Sadly these communities are also known for their high levels of unemployment, gambling and poor school attendance. In this position I had carriage of the Remote Schools Attendance Strategy (RSAS) in Balgo — which was part of a $100 million-plus program aimed at getting kids from schools with the lowest attendance rates in Australia to school. Not surprisingly, the majority of these are from remote Aboriginal communities. The project was funded out of the Remote Jobs and Communities Programme (RJCP) — aimed at getting the long-term unemployed skilled and working. When Tony Abbott became Prime Minister he declared he had three priorities in remote Aboriginal communities: to get kids to school, “if you can work you will work”, and to restore social order.

“A simple solution does not exist for a community where the majority of its members are traumatised beyond comprehension.”

The aim was to achieve the first two with the one (RSAS) program. This meant that the long-term unemployed (previously CDEP participants) were employed as “school attendance officers” and were expected to get children to school. The reasons this cannot work are numerous, but what was most alarming was the risk of harm and further trauma being placed upon both young people and the “attendance officers” — later renamed as the more palatable “engagement officers”. My question is how a person with little to no education and little to no employment history can be expected to suddenly work full time and understand the social and emotional needs of young children who have not been attending school regularly, if ever. As long as they passed their Working With Children check and were unemployed, they were deemed eligible.

A simple solution does not exist for a community where the majority of its members are traumatised beyond comprehension. To make an 11-year-old child go to school when they have not done so for more than a few days over the past few years cannot end well for anyone. With no additional support teachers had to cope with a sudden influx of students without additional resources. Suddenly the few students who had previously been regular attenders had lost their own learning environment due to the large number of disruptive children in the classroom who didn’t want to be there. The solution was to get the “engagement officers” to come and deal with the problem children. They didn’t really have a choice — if they didn’t come to work in this role that they had been so ill-prepared for, they would lose their own Centrelink benefits.

This program, like so many before, has been thrust upon communities like Balgo based on decisions made in Canberra by those who think they know best. There are strong men and women in these communities who have answers and want change, but unfortunately their voices are too far away to be heard in the capital. Fast forward a couple of years and hundreds of millions of dollars later and this program will be discarded to the policy graveyard.

What I realised during my time as a service provider wearing these few different caps is that communities are traumatised beyond the comprehension or recognition of any of the current government or opposition. What lies as an insidious partner with that trauma is self-medication in the form of alcohol, cannabis, amphetamines, volatile substance misuse, violence and gambling. What this leads to is a cacophony of health problems, unemployment, sexual and physical violence, foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, etc, until the circuit breaks, usually in the form of people taking their lives, ending up in prison or just surviving until they no longer do.

Now, the WA government plans to cease the delivery of essential services to many of the state’s smaller remote communities. This completely contradicts the enormous investment made over recent years to improve the education and outcomes of people living in these communities. The relatively recent closure of Oombulgurri is a good example of what happens when a community is “closed”. The problems didn’t resolve, they simply dispersed and the impact of that is continuing to be felt by those who were displaced as well as those who are living in nearby communities.

Yes, the problems at hand are incredibly challenging, but having sudden decisions cast upon communities without consultation is not the answer, and there is a couple of hundred years of evidence to support that. Positive and sustainable change will only begin when the Aboriginal people who are most affected are central to the conversation.

And make no mistake — this road will be expensive and time consuming. The solutions cannot be pre-empted, but certainly it must be recognised that until the issues of trauma and substance abuse are addressed with a long-term bipartisan commitment, the so-called gap will never be closed.

Peter Fray

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