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Sleeping rough: Bianca's story

On a cold winter night, homeless couple Shane and Bianca huddle together for warmth as they tell the story that led them to the often violent streets of Melbourne.

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Only a few days ago Salvation Army Major Brendan Nottle was losing sleep over a unique dilemma.

He was worrying that Melbourne’s homeless population was almost being drowned in kindness – a wave of compassion, blankets and hot coffee that followed January’s death of popular rough sleeper Wayne “Mouse” Perry.

As he watched the third or fourth van deliver a load of food to a homeless camp he wondered, “Should we be doing things differently?”

Spike in the number of young and female homeless people.
Bianca Priest is 22yrs old and has been living on the streets since she was sixteen.

Go back: That’s the advice from Bianca Priest to kids who leave home. Photo: Justin McManus

“Is this helpful or are we entrenching homelessness?"

But perceptions and sympathies can change radically in the space of a day.

By Monday a very different story had hit the headlines, as police pursued homeless man Scott Allen Miller as the suspect in a violent death of a young woman.

Bianca Priest at 22 years-old. She has lived on the streets since she was sixteen. Click for more photos

Six years living on the streets. Bianca is 22.

Bianca Priest at 22 years-old. She has lived on the streets since she was sixteen. Photo: Justin McManus

  • Bianca Priest at 22 years-old. She has lived on the streets since she was sixteen.
  • Bianca Priest is 22 years-old and has been living on the streets since she was sixteen.
  • There has been a spike in the number of young and female homeless people. Bianca at the soup the van.
  • Bianca at the soup the van.
  • Bianca with her boyfriend Shane.
  • Bianca with her boyfriend Shane.
  • Homeless. Richard James is 25 and Olivia Noonan is 21.
  • Richard James, 25, and Olivia Noonan, 21, remain homeless after four years. Olivia was raped and sexually assaulted while living on the streets.
  • Richard James and Olivia Noonan have lived on the streets for four years.
  • Lisa Adams became homeless less than a week ago after fleeing from domestic violence.
  • Homeless woman Charlie with her dog. There is a spike in the number of young and female homeless people.

Major Nottle was now concerned these reports implicating a rough sleeper in a horrific crime would see people withdraw their generosity and return to attitudes of decades past.

He said there was a time when homeless men were urinated on by Melburnians leaving football matches.

“Homeless people were accused of not helping themselves. But most homeless people are in that predicament through no fault of their own,” he said.

“We want the focus to remain on the main aim, which is about providing safe accommodation for people with appropriate supports around them.”

One of Melbourne’s key homelessness services has sought legal advice over whether they can complain to the Australian Press Council over Monday’s front page Herald Sun headline – “Hunt for killer hobo”.

Youth Projects chief executive Melanie Raymond said words like “hobo” and “junkie” were derogatory and demonised the homeless population. 

 She said they could also encourage the criminalisation of homelessness, such as bans on people feeding rough sleepers.

“I think we need to be careful not to brand people who are homeless as violent and dangerous,” Ms Raymond said.

“Stigma and fear make a bad situation worse.”

The city’s homelessness services have reported that their clients are worried they could be judged by the alleged involvement of a rough sleeper in a murder. However because Mr Miller was considered a fringe dweller most people had not had any significant contact with him.

Ms Raymond said in the 20 years that Youth Projects had run their outreach services to homeless people, they had not had a member of staff assaulted. Instead they regularly treated homeless people from wounds they had sustained in attacks.

It was a sentiment shared by Major Nottle, whose wife and daughters work alongside him with clients.

“There’s no way I would allow my family and friends to work within an environment that is dangerous violent and aggressive,” he said.

The latest trying circumstances for the rough sleeping community come as the Enterprize Park homelessness camp was hit by storms last week. It is believed a number of people’s possessions were blown into the flooding waters of the Yarra River.

A number of affected people have since been housed by the Salvation Army.