“I’m here to learn English because I need it back home in Colombia, and it’s cheaper to learn a language in a new country than to study it in a school. When I can speak and write well in English, I can study back home. But it’s hard to speak to people around here. When I’m working, people don’t speak to me a lot. They just take their food, say thank you, and that’s all. And I’m working a lot because we need the money. There’s very little time to go out to speak to people.”
It’s been four months since 200 residents of Fitzroy’s Atherton Gardens, a housing estate located at 125 Napier Street, were forced to flee their beds in the early hours of March 29 when the sixth floor of the high-rise housing estate was set ablaze.
Now residents are seeking justice for a catastrophe that they say could have been avoided and are seeking legal advice in an attempt to resolve issues with the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
Following the fire, the Melbourne Fire Brigade (MFB) released a report damning the Fitzroy Housing Office, citing a lack of duty of care and mentioning several faults. These included a lack of smoke alarms and sprinklers and the build-up of combustible items – like a mattress that started the blaze, that had lain for weeks on the building’s sixth floor, despite residents’ complaints.
The Fitzroy Housing Office has announced they will be accepting all of the MFB’s recommendations, and Minister for Housing, Disability and Ageing Martin Foley has announced the changes will be applied to all 44 public estates across Melbourne.
But according to one resident, the fire is just one in a series of incidents that Minister Foley and the Department of Health and Human Services, of which Fitzroy Housing Office are a branch of, have to answer for.
Ranko Cosic has been a resident of Atherton Gardens since 2001, and is fed up with what he describes as a “pattern of negligence” on the part of the DHHS and the Fitzroy Office of Housing.
He says that in the 16 years he has lived in the building, there have been no fire drills or inspections to ensure all smoke alarms were in working order, but he says this is just the tip of the iceberg.
A terrorist threat, rampant drug use in common areas and instances where the DHHS had taken nine months to address complaints regarding unstable or unsafe tenants are just some of the issues Mr Cosic has brought to the attention of the DHHS and Fitzroy Housing Office. His appeals went as far as the Premier himself, but he says his complaints fell upon deaf ears, and that the neglect goes further than just the Fitzroy Housing Office landing at the doorstep of Minister Foley himself.
“Since his election, the Minister did not come to our estate until the day of the fire,” Mr Cosic says of Minister Foley, who he believes to be uninterested in his position as housing Minister and unwilling to police the performance of his subordinates.
“Everything rots from the top; it starts at the head and transfers through the whole body. I have reported very serious matters to Minister Foley and it all gets ignored,” Mr Cosic says.
He also recalls personal experiences of harassment and attempted character assassination at the hands of the department, which he feels came about in an attempt to silence his efforts to improve living conditions for himself and fellow residents.
Mr Cosic remains defiant however, declaring he’s “not going to lay down”.
Fed up, Mr Cosic reached out to Yarra City Councillor Stephen Jolly, whom he describes as an ‘integral part’ of the legal battle: “I’m fortunate Steve is there, because who else would fight? I haven’t seen anyone else.”
Like Mr Cosic, Cr Jolly is tired of the pattern of neglect shown by the DHHS and Fitzroy Housing Office, who he says have ignored their residents for years, “and it’s taken a fire and media publicity [and the] threat of legal action for them to do anything”.
While Mr Cosic rallied 30 fellow Atherton residents, Cr Jolly recruited key stakeholders and legal counsel.
He hopes the class action will lead to changes within the department, whose behaviour he labels “dangerously incompetent.”
“It’s outrageous the way the residents are treated … the only time the Department is efficient is when you fail to meet your rent,” he says.
Residents of 125 Napier St are seeking a formal inquest of the fire, along with achieving a successful means of communicating their issues with the Department and working towards having these issues addressed.
Mr Cosic admits his hopes for the outcome of the legal proceedings are “lofty” and go beyond monetary compensation. He says he would like to see the Fitzroy Housing Office “purged”, and Minister Foley, whom he describes as “inept” removed from his position and replaced with “a minister who does care about private housing, who will go to the estate”.
Cr Jolly agrees with Mr Cosic, saying of Minister Foley, “I think he needs to go”.
Mr Cosic says for him, it’s not about the money, but social justice, and with the aid of Cr Jolly, he will continue to fight his cause until he sees justice done.
In the fading afternoon sun, a young man stands on a basketball court with four young children excitedly running around him.
Minutes pass and the four children multiply until more than 30 are bouncing around his ankles with endless energy, seemingly immune to the day’s freezing conditions.
The man unzips the bag at his feet, pulls out a basketball and says: “Okay guys it’s time to start! Split up into two groups and form a line at half court.”
The children sprint off down the court and the young man draws an old silver whistle to his mouth.
His name is Steve Bacash, the head coach at Helping Hoops Richmond.
He gives his whistle a soft toot capturing the children’s attention and yells “okay guys let’s start off with a little warm up, give me two suicides!”
Helping Hoops is a charity dedicated to running free basketball programs for underprivileged children.
What started in 2009 as a single program in Footscray now delivers more than 450 free basketball sessions to more than 1000 children of all abilities, ages 7 to 21.
Steve first became interested in helping underprivileged youths while volunteering with The Big Issue.
“I was helping out with a street soccer program, which I had heard about through my days playing street basketball in high school, but felt like I couldn’t really help the kids out because I never played soccer.”
“So, when I heard about the opportunity to actually coach basketball and teach kids a sport that I knew the fundamentals in, I jumped at the chance.”
Steve started volunteering in 2013 and was promoted to head coach in 2015.
“I first started volunteering with Helping Hoops six years ago and then two years ago an opportunity came up to coach but our executive director Adam McKay was a bit reluctant to give me the role.”
“He said that he thought I would always be a bit more of a sidekick and that burned in my soul a little bit. However, I didn’t show it and I knew I had more to give.”
“They ended up giving the role to another African American dude with a lot of experience, but about six months later that didn’t work out so they gave me the job.”
“Two years on and I’m now doing four programs in Richmond, Croxton, Prahran and North Melbourne teaching the fundamentals of basketball to more than 150 kids a week.”
Steve is an easy going character and this relaxed, happy-go-lucky approach clearly comes through in the clinics with the focus on the kids having a good time rather than driving the technical development of basketball skills.
“At Helping Hoops we’re not here to turn these kids into champion basketballers, we’re here to create a feeling of community and instil values like teamwork, respect and interpersonal skills.”
“I layer the program because if it’s all basketball most of the kids won’t stay interested.”
“I try to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable to speak and be heard because a lot of these kids come from challenging families so I think it’s important to give them a space where they feel they have a voice.”
The energy and excitement on court is palpable, it’s clear the kids respond well to Steve’s approach as he orchestrates the mayhem with carefully timed bursts of his whistle.
Long-time Richmond Helping Hoops volunteer Meredith Oldhan says that Steve is an excellent mentor for the children.
“He’s a bit of a king of the kids when they are all out on court.”
“Tonight is a perfect example, we’re getting buffeted by freezing gusts, pelted with ice cold rain and it’s the first day back for lots of schools and there’s still at least 35 kids down here to shoot some hoops!”
“Steve thrives in this organised chaos and the smiles he puts on the kids’ faces at the end of each session always make it completely worthwhile,” says Meredith.
Helping Hoops executive director Adam McKay said that the work Steve does running four training sessions each week is invaluable.
“Each week Steve runs four different programs Wednesday to Saturday spread out across Richmond, North Melbourne, Prahran and Croxton, and at every one of the programs he knows every kids name and takes a genuine interest in who they are as people.”
“It’s only through the generosity of our dedicated coaches like Steve that we are able to reach as many people as we do.”
For Steve, it doesn’t feel like work anymore.
“Initially I found it difficult because you have to give so much of yourself and it can be difficult working out what kind of person these kids need you to be.”
“But after a while, you reach this level where you understand what you’re here to do and that’s when you really start to pick up on how rewarding [it is] working with these kids and watching them grow and develop into young adults.”
“At the end of the day these are great kids who just like anyone else need to be guided, nurtured and supported, and it’s an amazing feeling to be able to provide that to some of these kids.”
Helping Hoops is a not for profit orginisation dedicated to helping underprivileged children achieve their full potential through competitive sport.
More information on Helping Hoops can be found here.
From the moment you meet Judy Ryan her passion for the neighbourhood she fondly refers to as ‘my village’ is impossible to ignore. “I just love this grungy area; I love walking out of my front gate and going ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen today.'”
As it turns out, this love of spontaneity has proved a valuable asset for Judy’s involvement with her neighbourhood and has led her to become one of its most valued members.
The seventh of eight children and hailing from Wangaratta, Judy is driven by a need to feel connected to those around her.
Warm and bubbly, it’s not hard to feel connected to her. “I just love knowing people,” she says with a shrug.
“Having lived in the country, I was very involved in the community … my parents were very involved – we’ve always had a sense of getting your energy from the community.”
So when Judy and her husband John settled in Abbotsford five years ago, the first thing she did was seek out a place for herself in her new neighbourhood.
“One of the things I wanted to do was create community for myself.”
She began by volunteering as a mentor with Yarra Community Friends. Then there was a stint in the Abbotsford Convent’s choir. But Judy’s greatest act of community involvement began last year in July 2016.
It was a typical Melbourne Sunday she says; cool but clear, not a cloud in the sky. Judy was on her way out and in the laneway behind her home, a young man lay overdosed on the concrete.
This has become so common that Judy is often afraid to leave her home – not out of concern for her own safety, but for the wellbeing of those she refers to as her ‘regulars’: the individuals using her laneway as their own injecting facility.
Upon leaving to meet me, she explains, there was someone using her laneway to inject. She has become so involved in the lives of addicts her GP has advised her to be vaccinated against hepatitis.
Not one to be passive, Judy reached out to her council and after failing to get results, decided to run herself as a single-issue candidate. She received more than 600 primary votes, putting her on the map and on top of various organisations’ contact lists.
After being inundated with emails from interest groups across the Yarra, she noticed one from Victoria Street Drug Solutions.
Judy picked up the phone and arranged to meet them the next day, and became involved instantly. Her first order of business was to instil her community values into the organisation, which she did by changing the name.
Judy is now secretary of Residents for Victoria Street Drug Solutions (RVSDS) – a community-led initiative campaigning for the introduction of a supervised injecting facility into the community.
After touring Sydney’s Kings Cross injecting facility, Judy decided “I want one of these in my backyard” and began the push along with RVSDS’s other members: “I just felt the residents didn’t have a voice”.
RVSDS has become that voice and Judy is its loudest member. “We often call Judy the Erin Brockovich of North Richmond. She’s really helped bring a spotlight to what is going on here,” says Penny Francis of North Richmond Community Health.
“She is genuine, generous and has true community spirit – around her kitchen table strangers become friends,” says Kylie Troy-West, one of Judy’s fellow RVSDS members. “There’s that sense of dedication to her community and the drive to act in their benefit.”
When our conversation turns to the addicts there’s no bitterness or judgement, only maternal concern, and an empathy coming from personal experience. Having lost two nephews to heroin addiction, Judy is no stranger to the suffering families affected by drug abuse. She believes, if they had had access to a supervised injecting facility they would have been saved.
After our meeting, Judy takes me on a walk around her neighbourhood; we visit local injecting and dealing hotspots. It’s a tour Judy has conducted many times with various politicians and journalists to highlight the need for injecting facilities, “I like people coming out to see for themselves,” she says.
“Education is key,” she tells me, and the streets speak for themselves. Stepping into one commonly frequented car park, we witness someone shooting up. Syringes and cotton swabs litter the ground.
“Imagine overdosing in a place like this,” Judy reflects as we stand in the falling rain, among piles of rubbish and muddy puddles. But she’s optimistic RVSDS’s efforts will end that possibility: “I’m so full of hope,” she tells me.
Judy doesn’t want recognition or credit for her efforts, but her dedication shouldn’t go unrecognised. Since becoming involved Judy has put her life on hold.
She still works three days a week at a school in Brighton, but it’s clear her work with RVSDS is her true passion, and she is determined to see her project through, “mum would say ‘you should never die wondering'”.
It’s clear that though Judy may be keen to return to her everyday life, she has no plans of quietening down until she’s achieved a better environment for all of her village.
Residents of Victoria Street Drug Solutions will hold their inaugural March to Stay Alive on August 27 in anticipation of International Overdose Awareness Day to raise awareness and funds.
The program’s expansion comes after a successful trial in the neighbouring suburb of Richmond where there were more than 300 expressions of interest and solar capacity within the suburb increased by 10-12%.
The bulk buy gives residents access to market leading rates by aggregating suburbs of people and making a single discounted bulk purchase.
Yarra Energy Foundation acting chief executive Dean Kline said the program’s expansion will make solar power more accessible and affordable.
“The solar bulk buy, planned for early 2018, will give all Yarra residents the opportunity to purchase high quality solar photovoltaic (PV) systems for their homes or businesses at market leading rates.”
“This is the best option for homeowner’s eager to invest in solar power. The program’s scope means that we are able to demand quality materials with bulk purchase discounts.”
“This process makes it easy for households to make the move towards solar power because we organise everything from finding quality manufacturers, to overseeing installation and even project managing if required,” Mr. Kline said.
Solar powered panels installed as part of the program are predicted to have paid for themselves after five to eight years and PV systems are guaranteed for at least 25 years.
Saint Marys House of Welcome in Fitzroy received an eight kilowatt (Kw) solar PV system last September and business manager Kathy Hogarty said the donation makes a huge difference to their bottom line.
“Our services like hot showers, a warm place to relax and freshly prepared meals demand considerable electricity use and the solar panels save us about 10 to 12% on our monthly electricity bill.”
“That equates to around $2500 a year, which is enough money for us to provide meals to the homeless for a month.”
“The installation itself was quite seamless and a sideline to that it brought a level of awareness both to our organisation and the community at large where by people consciously thought about their own energy use,” Mrs. Hogarty said.
Doctor Jacek Jasieniak Monash university’s director of Energy Materials & Systems Institute said solar power is the most viable renewable energy option for those living in metropolitan areas.
“About 16% of Victorian households have solar power, which equates to about 400,000 homes. It’s a popular renewable energy option for metropolitan households because it is among the cheapest available and only limited by roof direction and size.”
“The average household uses between 20 – 25 kWh per day. To produce enough solar power to meet these energy demands a household would need 17 – 21 high powered panels at the minimum.”
“While it is unlikely that typical metropolitan houses will be able to go off grid, there is no impediment for local generation on a smaller scale that is used, passed back to the grid, or stored in a local energy storage system,” Dr. Jasieniak said.
Registrations for the Yarra Energy Foundation’s solar bulk buy are expected to open early 2018, for more information click here.
Yarra families that are victims of violence are lacking places of refuge and support, according to an online advocacy group run by the Socialist Party.
The Facebook group, We Need a Family Violence Support & Service Hub was created in December last year after the council released a statement on its website in the same month citing a 24.5 per cent spike in family violence reports over the previous year in the City of Yarra alone. This statistic was derived from the Crime Statistics Agency Victoria earlier this year.
The report was even more alarming because the average increase in family violence reports across Victoria was 10 per cent. The group was one of the key drivers of the investigation run by the Royal Commission which released a report in December last year stating five safety hubs will be built across Victoria, with just one of those five to be built in Melbourne.
Yarra councillor Stephen Jolly, a key member and spokesperson of We Need a Family Violence Support & Service Hub said they lost the battle when trying to turn the council-owned property at 152a Hoddle Street into a domestic violence refuge and resource centre. Cr Jolly said that the decision was a “slap in the face” to survivors of domestic and family violence in the area.
He also said that there is a possibility that the council will use the property, located opposite the Collingwood Town Hall,for units and other housing development. Jolly said that the Yarra council’s main concern is money, but assures the public that he will “keep banging away” in tune with the new budget due to be released in August.
Annie Douglas from Women’s Health in the North (WHIN), a council-funded organisation and full member of Domestic Violence Victoria told the Yarra Reporter that she didn’t know about the refuge centre issue, but the increase in family violence reports isn’t necessarily negative as it may demonstrate that the ongoing funding and support of the Yarra Council is helping survivors of family violence be more confident in seeking help.
“It’s really hard to say what has caused the increase. Generally, it can be attributed to increased confidence in the system, an increase in media attention and public understanding that [family violence] is not a ‘private matter’. It is simply not acceptable.” Douglas said.
Douglas, who is the health promotion officer focused on prevention against violence and gender equity, said that WHIN developed a Building a Respectful Community strategy, for 2017 – 2021.The strategy, supported by the state government and backed by a further 26 organisations was released last Friday, and aims to help combat violence using a strategic partner approach with its supporters, Douglas said.
The Victorian Department of Health and Human Services is providing core funding for the strategy, that many major organisations in the City of Yarra and others in the north-metro region are supporting. Cr Jolly said that any strategy or resources are a step in the right direction, but reiterated that he still hasn’t given up the fight to fund more places of refuge.
Fitzroy library showed its support of WHIN’s strategy by facilitating a talk by Fitzroy Legal Service on Wednesday, July 12 in an attempt to educate the public on their rights when faced with family violence. The talk was part of Know Your Rights, a series of regular sessions held at libraries accross the Yarra, presenting legal information for communtiy members.
Fitzroy Legal’s community development officer, Jennifer Ward, said that having better access to information surrounding survivors’ rights empowers them to make better choices.
Ward said the main aim of the talk was to target vulnerable people who may not already have access to services.
The City of Yarra is “diverse and full of new migrants,” said Ward, and this is why the service is committed to providing good quality legal information to those who may not have the tools to know their rights and options.
Cr Jolly said that 152a Hoddle Street is continuing to be discussed as becoming a potential safe hub.
“I live in Richmond and my favorite and most visited place is Victoria street. The street with all its ‘Saigon lights’ signs in different Asian languages, busy market stalls, oriental cafes and restaurants remind me of my home in Thailand. There are also a lot of beauty salons where you can do your nails or hair for a very reasonable price. Moreover, the food choice is extremely diverse. For a chef it is [the] perfect place for food experiences and inspiration for creating new dishes. I like that Richmond is not too urban and on your day off you can enjoy beautiful nature in the park.”