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Is this the end of the line for Melbourne’s homeless?

Seeing someone sleeping without a roof over their head doesn’t sit well with Deakin University property and real estate lecturer, Tom Keel. But it wasn’t until the property professional spotted homeless people sleeping near empty train carriages that he had a lightbulb moment: a roof could be provided by other – more resourceful – structures than houses or buildings. And with that, Sleep Station, a proposal that would see disused train carriages converted into shelter for the homeless, was born. Recent reports show that homelessness in Melbourne is on the rise, with a 74 per cent increase in two years. But there has been little long-term planning or support for Melbourne’s homeless. In some cases, people sleeping rough are even treated with contempt – one man was recently charged for begging.

Why aren’t we doing more for the homeless?

According to Keel, ‘It’s not a priority for the government. The state treasury office collects billions in stamp duty each year. There are people sleeping on the steps of the same office building.’ Keel is working on Sleep Station in a personal volunteer capacity and says all we need to do is commit to change. He’s using his sustainability and property knowledge to develop creative solutions. ‘If authorities addressed the problem seriously, they would find there are many solutions. There are many empty buildings in Melbourne, which could be converted into homeless shelters,’ he adds.

'If authorities addressed the problem seriously, they would find there are many solutions. There are many empty buildings in Melbourne, which could be converted into homeless shelters.'

Tom Keel,
Property and Real Estate lecturer, Deakin University

Barriers to reducing rough sleep

Despite the easy and obvious solution that Sleep Station presents, implementing it won’t be easy. ‘The challenge is to find a stakeholder who is willing to allow a homeless service on their land,’ Keel explains. But adds that other factors are in his favour. ‘There’s no shortage of funding, trains and good-will available.’ He believes that once he has an agreement between the land operator and owner where the trains are situated, there will be few barriers. He hopes the State Government will grant permission to begin a trial by winter 2017.

Shifting attitudes 

Often there is a resistance to supporting homeless people because in many cases they are victims of trauma or addicted to drugs or alcohol. But in various locations overseas, several innovative approaches have been implemented that have had great success in combating homelessness. For example in the US state of Utah, prejudice was abandoned in 2004 and the homeless were, quite simply, given homes. It has not only significantly reduced homelessness, but it has also reduced the amount of money the state spends on public resources that homeless people have previously consumed, such as hospital and prison time. ‘It’s much more cost effective to support someone in a home, than on the street,’ Keel concludes.

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