homelessness

Yesterday, The Nine Network put a property caveat on St Kilda’s notorious Gatwick Hotel. Luke Williams spent a month living there two years ago. He wrote a piece about it for the Good Weekend. Here he reflects on his experience, the reaction to the article, housing and good taste.

Martin took a break from reading his poetry to a roll a joint on his window-side table, scraping up some buds next to an empty ibuprofen packet. “I’ve been getting headaches here too,” I said. “I wonder if it’s a mould allergy? This place is musty.”

A finger pressed into my left arm; the finger of a punky-looking girl who leaned into me with a concerned, enlightened look — “ssh shh shh, there’s fucking cameras everywhere here in place” — and pointed to the sprinkler on his ceiling. “Even in the birds in that street outside, the cops insert the cameras in their eyes.”

Two birds, one ‘’Hotel Hell’’, a few dozen syringes. A fight with my parents while on the dole, a Walkley nomination, a book deal. I was homeless. I needed money. I didn’t just move into The Gatwick, perhaps Australia’s most notorious boarding house, to write a story; the situation was too complicated to explain in the article published by Fairfax Media. I also had nowhere else to stay. Most of my friends had kids, I couldn’t afford a hotel, I was a drug-addict nutcase — oh, and there weren’t any places in crisis accommodation, the closest thing Australia has to homeless shelters.

The Gatwick looks bad. And yes, it has a putrid smell, making it, among other things, a three-level Spanish Mission-style, 96-room portal to an earlier time in Melbourne’s history. I am not just talking about the 1970s and 1980s, when Fitzroy Street was jammed with sex workers and run by the mob. Those damp musty odours are a modern incarnation of the swampy, marshy, ti-tree and mosquito-laden flatlands used for indigenous corroborees. Then came the European settlers: the scrub cleared, the swamps drained; a new holiday destination for the English gentry was born. Many moved in permanently — building big mansions along with ritzy hotels.

Then came Luna Park, the baths and the Palais. “St Kilda”, named after a Scottish shipping vessel, also became an entertainment precinct for the working class. Bars, grog, opium, crime and prostitution slowly but surely followed. Many of the rich resisted the change, most left for Brighton, Toorak and South Yarra. Mansions became rooming houses, hostels or low-end, short-term hotels. The Gatwick was built for military service personnel — by the 1970s, it became a place for people who had nowhere to stay.

Now it’s 2017, and everywhere must be nice. Fitzroy Street must be like Acland Street.

There’s no question there is a lot of violent crime at The Gatwick and the people who live in surrounding streets often bear the brunt of it. But swathes of the middle classes find The Gatwick just a bit … yucky.

I met a librarian not that long ago. He used to live at The Gatwick. He said his work colleagues were always asking him what had gone wrong in his life. He grew tired of telling people he liked living there.

“When the Gatwick is restored it will be amazing, it’s a sad state of affairs. Fitzroy Street needs to rejuvenate and become more economically viable,” one friend who lives in St Kilda said to me.

Another of my friends told me: “St Kilda has moved on from those days, I think the locals will be relieved.”

“A cluster-fuck of social policy failures,” Chris Middendorp, a social worker with 20 years’ experience working with people who are homeless, said when I asked him why Melbourne’s homelessness rates were currently so high. Among the reasons he cited were the rise of housing costs and the decline of manufacturing industry –plus the sanitisation of everything.

“Basic jobs, evening cleaning or factory-line jobs, now require everyone to be well-presented and look neat and tidy,” he told me. “So many of the old working class just don’t fit that mould.”

Victoria has the lowest rate of publicly available mental health beds in the country. Like everywhere else in Australia, prisoners don’t get housing — just a dole check — when they leave jail, and not all boarding houses will take a man fresh from prison. Rents continue to rise. There are, as you probably already know, decade-long queues for community and public housing. Crisis accommodation reached crisis levels long ago.

The reason why “Hotel Hell” is the way it is, because all the other boarding houses have strict entrance criteria and many of its residents have been kicked out of supported (community housing) accommodation. Anyone and everyone was allowed to stay there.

I had my very last crystal meth relapse and psychotic episode at The Gatwick. I believed my internet porn history was being broadcast on the news. Delusions of surveillance are common at The Gatwick. Carl Jung once said psychosis can be precognitive.

Since the property caveat, the Nine Network may now purchase The Gatwick and use it for The Block. Nine’s programs have been very interested and empathetic when it came to my own drug addiction; they have given me much publicity. The Gatwick’s owners have been searching for a buyer for years. I guess the hope is that all the publicity surrounding the sale will ensure the 41 residents are given a new home.

Readers liked my article about The Gatwick. Many journalists made it known on social media. On Twitter, journalists criticised both me as “self-centred” — as I “obviously looked down on the people who lived there” — and Fairfax (who never commissioned the piece) for “letting a drug addict reporter stay in that house”. What a shame they didn’t know I was actually homeless. What a shame my internet pornography history wasn’t actually shown on the news. I also got an email from an Adelaide media academic saying that because I used the word “indigenous” to identify the women in the article I took drugs with — the ones who said they would “look after me”, my friends — that I was a racist. She asked instead why I hadn’t written an article about a “successful indigenous person” like “someone who had finished a degree and got a good career”. I wondered if she had ever come across Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste in all her years of academia.

The Gatwick will shut in four months, and property values in the surrounding streets will grow exponentially as a result.

*Luke Williams is a journalist and author of Ice Age: A Journey into Crystal Meth Addiction. He now lives drug-free, in Indonesia in his $60-a-week apartment. You can email him if you feel like chatting.

Peter Fray

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