Soaring property prices and an impossible rental market have seen increasing numbers of Australians struggle to find accommodation.
Recent images of families pitching tents or living in cars evoke some of the most enduring scenes of the Great Depression. Australia was one of the hardest hit countries when world wool and wheat prices fell in 1929.
By 1931, many were feeling the effects of long-term unemployment, including widespread evictions from their homes. The evidence was soon seen and felt as slums – known as dole camps – sprang up in and around urban centers across the country.
The way we responded to this housing crisis and the way we talk about these events today shows how our attitudes towards poverty, homelessness and social assistance are linked to national identity issues.
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Slums and eviction riots
The Sydney Estate, Melbourne’s Dudley Flats and the banks of the Torrens River in Adelaide were just a few places where communities of homeless people arose in the early 1930s.
Some lived in tents, others in makeshift shelters made of iron, bag, wood and other salvaged materials. Wooden crates, newspapers, and sacks of flour and wheat were put to many inventive household uses, such as for furniture and blankets. The camps were filled with lice, fevers and dysentery, all treated with home remedies.
But many Australians have fought the eviction from their homes in a widespread series of protests and interventions known as the anti-eviction movement.
As writer Iain McIntyre writes in his work Lock Out The Landlords: Australian Anti-Eviction Resistance 1929-1936these protests were an initiative of members of the Movement of Unemployed Workers – a kind of trade union for the unemployed.
As Explain by writers Nadia Wheatley and Drew Cottle,
Because the allowance was paid in the form of goods or vouchers rather than cash, it was impossible for many unemployed people to pay rent. In working-class suburbs, it was common to see bailiffs throwing furniture onto the sidewalks, pushing women and children into the street. Even more common was the sight of rows of boarded-up terraced houses, which no one could afford to rent. If anything demonstrated the idiocy as well as the injustice of the capitalist system, it was the fact that in many situations the landlords did not even gain anything by evicting people.
The movement of the unemployed objective was from
Organize neighborhood vigilance committees to patrol working-class neighborhoods and resist with mass actions the eviction of the unemployed from their homes, or attempts by bailiffs to remove furniture, or gasmen to cut off power in gas.
Methods of resistance were varied in practice. The threats were often sufficient to prevent a landlord from evicting a family.
Otherwise, a municipality tactical was for a large group of activists and neighbors to gather outside the house on the day of the eviction and physically prevent the eviction. Sometimes this led to street fights with police. Sometimes protesters revenue following a successful eviction to loot and vandalize property.
Protesters came under armed siege in houses barricaded with sandbags and barbed wire. This resulted in a series bloody battles with police in suburban Sydney in mid-1931 and numerous arrests.
It’s not just what happened – it’s how we talk about it
Stories both reflect and shape our world. Written history is interesting not only for the things that happened in the past, but for the way we tell them.
Just as the catastrophic effects of the 1929 crash were linked to the growing struggle between far-left and right-wing political ideologies, historians and writers since have taken diverse and even opposing views when it comes to to interpret the events of the Depression years in Australia and attribute meaning to them. .
Was it a time of silent stoicism that brought out the best in us as “fighters” and fostered a spirit of camaraderie that underpins who we are as a nation?
Or have we pushed our fellow Australians onto the streets and into tin shacks and made people feel ashamed for needing help? As Wendy Lowenstein wrote in her landmark work on the oral history of depression, Weevils in flour:
The common belief was that the most important thing was to own your own home, not go into debt, be sober, industrious, and mind your own business. A woman says: “My husband was out of work for five years during the Depression and no one ever knew […] Not even my own parents.
This part of our history remains contested and stories from this period – about ‘lifters and learners’ or the Australian ‘dream’ of home ownership, for example – persist today.
As Australia’s current housing crisis deepens, it is worth pointing out that we have been through housing crises before. The public debate on housing and its relationship to poverty remains – as it was during the Depression era – emotionally and politically charged.
Our Depression-era slums and protests against evictions, and how we remember them, remind us that what people say and do about the housing crisis today is not just about facts and figures. Above all, it reflects what we value and who we think we are.