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People have camped in the long grass since colonisation. From this perspective, bans on the practice are a denial of Indigenous agency, culture and rights to country. Photo: K. Pollard

Contested spaces: the ‘long-grassers’, living private lives in public places

This is the final article in our Contested Spaces series. These pieces look at the conflicting uses, expectations and norms that people bring to public spaces, the clashes that result and how we can resolve these.

The number of people in Australia who are homeless is increasing. They lead lives that are often hidden – either hidden from view or hidden from recognition.

Looking at the places they camp and the things they use gives us insights into these private lives in public places. In Darwin, Northern Territory, more than 90% of homeless people are Aboriginal. In contrast to perceptions of other homeless people sleeping rough, these “long-grassers” are applying a long cultural tradition to deal with the situation in which they find themselves.

Two recent films, Rolf de Heer’s Charlie’s Country and Jeremy Sims’ Last Cab to Darwin, succinctly – but accurately – encapsulate the ease with which people can end up living in the long grass. Many come to the city from remote communities. They may have been visiting someone in hospital, watching friends in an AFL game, or staying with relatives in the city.

After a time, these short-term stays come to an end. Often, these visitors move into the “long grass”, urban fringe areas where tall spear grass grows.

The long grass is shared space – parks, beaches, urban bushland. However, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people behave differently in these spaces. The agency of Aboriginal people can challenge mainstream expectations about the uses of shared public space.

Laws that deny Indigenous custom

The Aboriginal use of long grass spaces contravenes NT laws. Under Darwin City Council Bylaws Regulation 103, it is an offence to camp or sleep in public places. Other bylaws regulate behaviours ranging from the consumption of alcohol to leaving food scraps in public.

People who camp in the long grass risk fines they can’t pay. Sometimes, they are jailed for non-payment. As their disadvantage becomes criminalised, their capacity to improve their lives decreases.

Successive governments and city councils have engaged in campaigns against the long-grassers. George Brown, Darwin lord mayor from 1992 to 2002, said:

… harass, harass, harass … I reckon that if you keep shifting them around, constantly harass them so they can’t settle, they will get sick and tired of it and maybe some of them will go back to their own communities.

Such attitudes fail to grapple with the realities of the situation. Unless they are assisted, how can people on low incomes return to communities hundreds of kilometres away? If no transitional or last-resort housing is available in the city, where are they expected to go?

In fact, a recent cost-benefit analysis found that providing “last resort” housing is cheaper than dealing with health care and other costs of homelessness.

A sense of community

A long-grass camp in Darwin. Photo: K. Pollard

For some, living in the long grass is a cultural choice. Many camps are designed for short-term living. They have evidence of eating and sleeping, but not of cooking.

In Aboriginal communities in remote areas, people occasionally cook on outdoor fires. Camping in the bush is a highly valued cultural activity. From this perspective, living in the long grass extends aspects of their normal lives.

For others, it is a way of escaping the pressures of contemporary life. In Last Cab to Darwin, Tilly (played by Mark Coles Smith), a young Aboriginal man from Oodnadatta, has fled the demands of professional AFL training to seek the social support of other Aboriginal people in the long grass.

Last Cab to Darwin: the trailer.

When possible, people camp near their relations or family members. The strong sense of community in the long grass is reflected in the song, I’m a Long Grass Man.

The objects around long-grass camps can offend mainstream notions of order. Those designed for long-term stays are more likely to offend. These camps have evidence of intensive usage and substantial investment in shelter and sleeping accommodation.

Occasionally, a camp is laid out like a home, with distinct sleeping, cooking and laundry areas.

Privacy in a public place

What happens when your private home is in a public place? Some people manage by hiding their camp behind the long grass – hidden in plain view.

A long-grass camp, hidden in plain view. Photo: K. Pollard

In the long grass, the private act of sleep is undertaken in the open. “Beds” are swags, sleeping bags, foam mats, ensemble mattresses, a rug, sheets, flattened plastic or cardboard materials like pizza boxes or beer cartons.

Most Australians like to have the occasional party in their home. While people in the long grass like to party, too, only 40% of camps had evidence of alcohol use. Very few had evidence of drug use.

The resourcefulness of homeless people is evident in caches of plastic bags discreetly wrapped in “discarded” clothing. These hold important belongings such as prescription medicines, identity papers and paperwork related to government welfare benefits.

Cultural menus and modern fusions

Like many Australians, people in the long grass eat takeaway foods or prepare meals. Their food remains show a fusion of traditional and contemporary economies.

Provisions at a long-grass camp, Darwin. Photo: K. Pollard

There is ample evidence of takeaway foods like KFC and Red Rooster. Shop-bought foods like tins of tuna, mussels, oysters and sardines naturally extend a bushfood menu.

This preference is part of a distinctive “cultural menu” that includes mud mussel, periwinkle, mangrove worms, crabs, fish, stingray and turtle. The frequency and variety of these foods suggests that hunting, collecting and preparing bushfoods are significant activities for Aboriginal people in the long grass.

The presence of “longbum” (Telescopium telescopium), a species of shellfish found in abundance in mangroves in Darwin, can be used to distinguish Aboriginal from non-Aboriginal camps. A majority of the long-grass camps surveyed contained this species.

Evidence of bushfoods consumed in a long-grass camp. Photo: K. Pollard

While the hunting and collecting of bushfoods is a continuation of cultural practices, it is more than this. Interviews revealed the social significance. Some people take taxis to the Elizabeth River, several kilometres from their camp, so they can collect bushfoods.

In addition, people on low incomes use their skills to collect bushfood. Aboriginal people in the long grass are simply applying their learned food-procurement skills to their situation.

The remains of a magpie goose meal at a Darwin long-grass camp. Photo: K. Pollard

Looking after their health

In Charlie’s Country we see how quickly Charlie (played by David Gulpilil), an Aboriginal man from Ramingining, joins the long-grass population when he is unable to return to his home country after being released from hospital.

The lack of emergency accommodation and public housing, as well as inadequate support to return to communities, means some Aboriginal people go directly from hospital to the long grass.

Charlie’s Country: the trailer.

Though homelessness contributes to poor health, it is clear that people in the long grass care for their health. The evidence includes medical creams, bandages, medication bottles, heart-monitor patches and cotton earbuds.

Aboriginal health is significantly poorer than that of other Australians, so it is not surprising that camps are clustered close to the hospital. This accords with a recent study that found “a very strong association” between frequent emergency department attendance, homelessness and Aboriginal identity.

People care for themselves. Evidence of hygiene products at long-grass camps included toothbrushes, combs, toilet paper, tissues, towels and deodorants. These reflect attempts to maintain their personal appearance.

It is possible that people living in the camps wish to not appear conspicuous when walking around Darwin. In their study of long-grass people in Darwin, Holmes and McRae-William recorded Aboriginal people’s sensitivities to mainstream perceptions of them as dirty and unkempt.

Aboriginal people have camped in the long grass since the first European colonisation. Their use of this public space is a continuum of cultural practice. From this perspective, the response of authorities to Aboriginal homelessness in the long grass is a denial of Indigenous agency, culture and rights to country.

You can find other pieces published in the series here.

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