Interview with Pacific Beat, Radio Australia
REPORTER: For over 25 years Melbourne youth and street worker Les Twentyman’s been dealing with those people society ignores: the homeless, the addicted and the mentally ill.
But in recent years that’s meant dealing more and more with those people who’ve chosen to call Australia their new home. Amongst his clients now are a growing number of Pacific Islanders and their children, mostly taking the move from New Zealand after opportunities dried up there.
LES TWENTYMAN: They think that they’re leaving problems back there to find a better life here and, in fact, it’s just jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.
REPORTER: In his foundation’s office in Footscray though, this time Les is hosting Australia’s Federal Minister for Homelessness, Brendan O’Connor, introducing him to his workers.
SOCIAL WORKER: Yes, whatever book that we have in the library we’ll give them. We’ll buy them a voucher, give them a voucher for a book that we don’t have. They can pick it up…
REPORTER: But in the office as well are many of those seeking help and one of them, a Sudanese rapper with the street name of RNB, wants attention and he doesn’t care how important Les Twentyman’s guest is.
RNB: I’m here to talk to you right now.
LES TWENTYMAN: RNB, how are you, son?
RNB: I’m good, Bro, yourself?
LES TWENTYMAN: Good, mate. Good.
So, RNB, this is the Minister, the Federal Minister, Brendan O’Connor.
RNB: I’m sorry, Bro.
BRENDAN O’CONNOR: How are you going?
RNB: How are you doing, man?
BRENDAN O’CONNOR: I’m good. How are you going?
RNB: I’m good, Bro.
BRENDAN O’CONNOR: That’s good.
REPORTER: In recent months Melbourne’s western suburbs have been the centre of increasing reports of violent attacks and robberies on pedestrians, public transport passengers and taxi drivers by immigrant Africans and Islanders, some as young as 14.
LES TWENTYMAN: Get together, do some work.
BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Yes.
LES TWENTYMAN: And we want to do it around the arts.
REPORTER: And as part of his visit Minister O’Connor’s been given a driving tour of some of the worst affected areas with a running commentary from Les.
LES TWENTYMAN: The drug-dealing in Footscray there is just unbelievable because it’s a network of all, the hub of all – you know, it’s all the trains to Werribee, Williamstown, Sydenham, all go through the Footscray hub so that’s what makes it such a honeypot, you know what I mean?
BRENDAN O’CONNOR: Yes.
LES TWENTYMAN: The two major ones we’re having issues with are the Africans and the Islanders. The Islanders, they go to church on Sundays, you know, and then the other six days they’re sort of, you know, all sort of going on like suburban terrorists.
REPORTER: As the Minister for Homelessness, Brendan O’Connor’s been given the task of finding ways of getting those affected off the streets, off addiction, and hopefully back into society, right around Australia.
BRENDAN O’CONNOR: I think there are pockets in Melbourne and other parts of Australia where we see some, I guess, issues that are more confronting. There’ll always be situations where people congregate in large urban centres so we shouldn’t overstate the problem. I mean, I’m not trying to understate it either. I think we need to get this right.
We should identify it for what it is. Too many young people that are not being provided the right services and too many people young people not being either in training, education or employment and, therefore, if we can find more sustainable accommodation, find the right services for them, we can support them back into education or employment and get their lives back on track.
REPORTER: But this part of Melbourne is of particular interest.
LES TWENTYMAN: There was a gang running around bashing kids within the school and they finally found out who the leader was and it was a year 10 boy and when they called him in to expel him, as he was walking out the door the principal opened the door and he turned around and knocked the principal out cold, you know. So that’s the…
REPORTER: Mr O’Connor’s electorate of Gorton includes many of the current trouble areas in Melbourne’s west but the area which is the centre of attacks by young Pacific Islanders is the suburb of Sunshine and that’s where this trip’s headed.
LES TWENTYMAN: This was all temporary houses going back – way back in the ’60s.
Sunshine’s always been an area that, in my day as a kid, you know, everyone had jobs and a lot of it was in the manufacturing industry and sadly over the last two decades all that sort of has gone and so that’s created massive problems with unemployment.
This particular area at the moment’s having significant problems with Islander and African sort of issues. I find from going into the children’s court at Sunshine, you know, it’s a very big population of Islander kids. There was a terrible incident a few weeks ago where eight of them, very young, 14 and that, did some terrible crimes with armed robberies with baseball bats and weapons. So, yes, it’s very significant that they are becoming somewhat lost but of course it comes down to, in the end, jobs. If you’ve got a job you’ve got disposable income, you’ve got independence and all that.
When you’re on welfare it’s degrading and if drugs and things like that are a means to wealth, then sadly kids are taking that avenue.
REPORTER: Part of the problem for affected communities here is the relative stability of the Australian economy combined with Melbourne’s growing population. More and more Melbourne’s western suburbs have become the property buying destination for young families looking for their first home.
LES TWENTYMAN: Yes, the rates go up. Williamstown’s a good example of that, where people who have lived there for generations had to move out because it had become a yuppie area. Yarraville, which is a bit further up, that’s becoming very gentrified and West Footscray, that is more and more shops, coffee shops and that.
REPORTER: While that influx might eventually lead to a drop in violence and gang issue in areas like Footscray and Sunshine, for people like Les Twentyman and other civil society groups, it doesn’t end it, it just transplants it to an even more marginal part of the city.
LES TWENTYMAN: It’s already happened in, say, inner Melbourne with the Carltons and Fitzroys and that and that’s now coming west and so it moves families further out which creates another problem because they’re isolated.
REPORTER: Right now though the problem is Sunshine and that’s where Les Twentyman’s trying to get community leaders to play an active role.
LES TWENTYMAN: We need their community leaders and particularly around the church – churches because they’re very much into that sort of stuff.
REPORTER: It’s an approach which has the endorsement of the Minister for Homelessness, Brendan O’Connor.
BRENDAN O’CONNOR: You talk to the community leaders. It’s not right to do otherwise and there are always people willing to take responsibility, to represent their communities. I think it’s true to say that from time to time certain ethnicities have had challenges and therefore government’s role is to make sure that we create an opportunity for them to be able to work those things through with government, with government agencies.
I’m confident that we can do that and I’ve seen some very strong leadership amongst Pacific Islanders and others, in the North African communities, who want to make sure that their kids have a great future. I mean, they want to – they’re here, you know, many of these people have confronted some terrible things, they’ve survived, they want to be successful, like most migrants and most people who’ve come to this country, and we need to afford them that opportunity.