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City residents' lack of empathy harms everyone

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The worst-suffering victims of poverty in Adelaide’s Park lands are not those who monitor it from inside their comfortable apartments, and pretending otherwise only causes harm, writes Bension Siebert.

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A disturbing email chain has been circulating among state and local politicians, Adelaide city residents, public servants and journalists over the past 12 months.

The exchange has demonstrated, and continues to demonstrate, a lack of empathy on the part of some of Adelaide’s more privileged residents.

The email that started it all, addressed to more than 70 reasonably high-profile South Australian recipients (and myself) early last year, was a city resident’s response to an article that I wrote. The article quoted welfare agency representatives warning that the park lands trial dry zone was relocating, not addressing, violence and substance abuse among some of Adelaide’s most vulnerable people.

The director of the state’s Aboriginal Drug and Alcohol Council, Scott Wilson, suggested in the article that the dry zone was making it harder for support services to find those people that needed help.

In response, a city resident and “Dry Zone Lobby Group” spokesperson dispatched an email to a good chunk of South Australia’s political class, warning that the article was “ramping up the belief that there will be displacement problems”.

(In Adelaide City Council’s Final Evaluation Report into the trial dry zone six months later, social services reported having “lost contact with a number of clients who have been displaced through the Dry Area, or engagement has become more difficult and less regular”. “The anecdotal information provided by services,” the report continued, “suggests that the opportunities for vulnerable people to access services have actually been reduced since the Dry Area was implemented,” and SA Police “noted the displacement of public drinkers to other areas of the park lands and CBD”.)

Sceptical as they may be about the existence or significance of “displacement problems”, advocates of the dry zone policy seem unmoved by the potential human catastrophe of disconnecting vulnerable people from vital services.

That same liberally distributed email stated that if vulnerable people were, in fact, relocating because of the dry zone, then that “seems fair” anyway, because “residents and businesses on and around South Terrace have had to tolerate it for years”.

Some advocates appear to imply that the men and women whose property acquisitions have exposed them to the unpleasantness of poverty are the real victims here.

City councillor Anne Moran was also quoted in my article, suggesting that the dry zone trial had been a success precisely because “we’ve shifted the problem somewhere else”, and imploring some other authority to “solve it somewhere else”.

“The problem is too big for us,” she argued. And since people had successfully been “shifted”, in some cases beyond the reach of poorly-funded social services, the State Government “has to get off its arse and provide adequate housing”.

Yet Moran has also claimed that “the vulnerable people of the park lands are the most important consideration” in her approach.

Contributing to the email trail later in the year, the councillor wrote that the dry zone had “worked well and not caused any hardships, so I don’t get why we would fiddle with it”.

Never mind that the sufferers of mental illness, homelessness, addiction, family violence and multi-generational disadvantage had apparently fallen out of contact with the services designed to help them escape these woes, with likely negative effects on their health and wellbeing.

Some advocates appear to imply that the men and women whose property acquisitions have exposed them to the unpleasantness of poverty are the real victims here.

It is true that serious incidents of violence and intimidation have occurred repeatedly in the park lands.

The victims of these incidents deserve to have their voices heard in the discussion of the dry zone policy. But a disturbing undertone is festering within the discourse of those committed to its continuation.

“The settlement on the north bank of the Park lands Creek has grown,” reports one city resident to the email group. “I didn’t go up to the group to see if they were drinking, etc. but they were certainly very Aboriginal looking and seemed to be actively walking about and possibly playing.”

“Hope they stay sober and pleasant.”

The use of dehumanised references to “itinerants”, “drunk(s)”, “offenders” and “would-be offenders” is the norm in this discussion.

“Forget camping homeless in the park lands (drinking the money that could make them un-homeless),” one helpfully advises. Another resident comments, unsympathetically: “Life in the eastern part of the South park has been peaceful since the cold weather … It took three or so weeks and the cold weather to actually move these people”.

A handful of these emails do acknowledge that a “complex social problem” and “underlying issues” contribute to the behaviour of some park lands users.

But any indication of empathy is overwhelmed throughout by a pervasive us-versus-them attitude.

“Just who is the victim in this situation,” one interlocutor asks rhetorically – “it is the law abiding residents and no one else”.

Simplistic thinking of this sort helps no-one.

Attempts to move “the problem” elsewhere – if that is, seriously, the aim – can hardly be considered effective, either.

Residents concerned by the behaviour of marginalised park lands users must first abandon all appeals to the lowest common denominator in their rhetoric, and make some attempt at empathy, before the rational debate required to find effective, nuanced public policy solutions to the social problems that exist in the area, and beyond, can emerge.

Bension Siebert is an InDaily reporter.

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