Homelessness in Australia at the close of the twentieth century is arguably becoming more visible, with a number of media reports during the 1990s highlighting the situation of homeless people living in public spaces in inner city areas around Australia. The key literature, while noting the connections between homelessness and public space has generally not explored the apparent significance of these spaces to people experiencing long-term homelessness.
Inner city public spaces have long provided places for homeless people, and other socially excluded people, to be. In Australia, these inner city areas have recently become the focus of attention from developers, investors and governments, all of whom have an interest in renewing and redeveloping inner city areas. In Brisbane, Fortitude Valley, an inner city area traditionally home to the poor and disadvantaged, was targeted in the early 1990s for urban renewal. Subsequent changes in the area have had a significant impact on the way public spaces in the area are defined and used, and on the groups using and accessing these public spaces.
This research attempts to uncover the meaning long-term homeless people in the area give to the Fortitude Valley public spaces they use and share with other community members, and how changes in the area have impacted on them. Multi-method fieldwork was used to explore the way that people experiencing long-term homelessness understand the public spaces they use and rely on. The discrete phases of the research were linked to and built upon one another, and included observation, active engagement with a range of people and opinions, and in-depth interviews with ten people from the Fortitude Valley community experiencing long-term homelessness.
The findings of this research show that to people experiencing long-term homelessness in Fortitude Valley public spaces are both spaces for all the public, and places of intense (but frequently invisible) significance. Events and life histories and community rituals are situated and maintained in these spaces. People experiencing long-term homelessness in Fortitude Valley are also uniquely dependent on public space. From the perspective of long-term homeless people in Fortitude Valley, homelessness has little to do with lack of accommodation, and much to do with recognition and acceptance at the local community level. The findings show that the changing inner city context has had a significant impact on homeless people's access to space in Fortitude Valley, and on their integration into the local community.
The findings of the research are applied to identify the gaps and barriers which occur at the policy, service delivery, and streets levels, and which impede the ability of people experiencing long-term homelessness from accessing public space, public sphere discourses and policy processes.