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 are just a few places where communities of homeless people sprang up in the early 1930s.
Some lived in tents, others in makeshift shelters made of iron, sackcloth, 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 evictions from their homes in a wide range of protests and interventions known as the anti-eviction movement.
As the writer Iain McIntyre writes in his book Lock Out The Landlords: Australian Anti-Eviction Resistance 1929-1936, these protests were an initiative of members of the Unemployed Workers Movement – a sort of trade union for the unemployed.
As writers Nadia Wheatley and Drew Cottle explained,
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 goal of the Unemployed Workers Movement was to
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. Often threats were enough to prevent a landlord from evicting a family.
Alternatively, a common tactic was for a large group of activists and neighbors to gather outside the house on eviction day and physically prevent the eviction. Sometimes this led to street fights with the police. Protesters have sometimes returned following a successful eviction to loot and vandalize property.
Protesters came under armed siege in houses barricaded with sandbags and barbed wire. This culminated in a series of bloody battles with the 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 the 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.