By EMMISON VERNON-SKEWES
More alcohol fuelled crime following the recent lifting of the booze ban, trouble caused by tribes encroaching from outside communities and crimes committed by children neglected by their alcoholic parents – these are major concerns of people living in the Alice Springs town camps.
The News spoke with 26 people living in eight of the 16 camps over the past two weeks. They shared the views of people quoted more extensively in this report.
Hidden Valley with 200 residents is the second biggest and one of the most impoverished. It is a mere half a kilometre from Desert Springs, one of wealthiest suburbs in Alice Springs.
These parallel worlds are separated by the foothills of the MacDonnell Ranges.
Phyllis Stevens and Tim MacNamara (pictured) are long-term residents of the picturesque Hidden Valley. Mr MacNamara moved there as a teenager, and Ms Stevens grew up there, her father having helped form the camp in the 70s.
“Originally there was going to be a caravan park here, but Dad stood up at [what is now] Lhere Artepe and said, this is a good spot for my tribe,” Ms Stevens says.
“We just had family groups, and this little town was really quiet before we had these different tribes coming to stay in Hidden Valley.
“They bring problems into our town camps, and that’s why we don’t like them,” Mr MacNamara explains.
“We talk with Tangentyere and [NT] Housing and always say we don’t want these people to come in, but they don’t listen to us.
“We live here every day, every hour, every second of our life, and we’re telling them the stories about the issues and the problems that we have here, and they just lock the door and never listen to us – like they’ve got earphones or something on their heads.
“We don’t have elders anymore,” Ms Stevens adds.
“I suppose we are the elders now. We have to listen to them and try and teach them.
“Town camps are really struggling because the kids are losing their connection,” Mr MacNamara says.
“Kids get bored, they break into houses or steal property. It’s really sacred ground for our own Aboriginal people, and everything keeps getting destroyed.
“Soon we’ll have no stories, no cultures – it will fade away and we’ll end up without nothing. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, falling apart.
“They need more support from us, from me. They’re really good kids, that’s what they are, but in Alice Springs they become stupid idiots.
“They need to go back out bush and learn more about our culture, our connection to our land, show them how Aboriginal people have survived. Everything is still out there.
“Our great, great grandfathers learnt from our ancestors, about walking on this land: stories, connection, the totems that we always hold in our hand. That’s what they’ve got to learn more about – how that connection is.”
There is another side to that coin.
I spent time with kids from Amoonguna, not a town camp but a community adjoining the municipality of Alice Springs to the east.
At Emily Gap, a group of boys climb to the top of the cliffs and point down. They speak a combination of Arrernte and English to one another. They walk four kilometres to the tourist attraction in the East MacDonnells for more than just a swim.
“If you look at the water from up here, you can see where the water is shallow. The shallow end is the snake’s tail. The darkest part is the deepest water,” they tell me.
“That’s where the snake’s mouth is. You’ll see us swimming quickly over there, because you never know when the snake will be hungry again.”
A dreamtime story kept alive by children who are not short of a sense of humour: “The walk from Amoonguna [four kilometres] is a long way on your own but when you’re in a group and chatting you look at your feet and when you look up, you’re there. It’s much shorter talking with friends.”
Graeme Smith, an outspoken activist for Arrernte people, the town’s traditional owners, and the CEO of the local native title body Lhere Artepe, says they are tired of visitors from other language groups coming to town and showing a lack of respect.
“You’ve got to put a black person’s hat on, which is very hard for the media and everyone else in this town to do. You got to see it from our eyes; cultural eyes,” Mr Smith says.
“Go back home, you don’t belong here – that’s an Aboriginal way of dealing with it, that’s the way we do things.
“You’ve outstayed your welcome in town some of you mob, you’re creating too much mess and too much violence.
“It’s going to be a lot of hard yakka and a lot of constructive debate.
“There’s going to be a fight, but we got to turn the boat. It’s one big boat, and we’ve got to paddle.
“Statistics are misinterpreted. Show me the real stats about who these people are? Where they come from? And why they came to town? Because our people don’t break into our own organisations.
“These black people are not our tribe, we’re not responsible for what brings them here,” Mr Smith says.
His sentiments are shared by many town camp residents who are tired of the violence and desperate for change.
Mr Smith says: “The big picture needs to change, alcohol is just one little part of it. We should all be rejoicing the removal of this ban, because it’s discriminatory.”
In Warlpiri Camp a woman in her fifties says: “We want things to change. We need things to change – the kids need it.”
Another woman adds: “People think that because we live in town camps we are used to the violence, and that we’re okay with it. But we’re not.
“We’re grandmothers, and we don’t want violence any more than your grandmother would in her home.”
A lady introducing herself as Marlene was happy to be interviewed with her friend Laura. Marlene and Laura are employed by Tangentyere to work in the community centre.
It was a busy day for them, as school holidays meant a lot of kids were coming to the centre for lunch, or to use the computers and hold a litter of newborn pups.
Recently kids from out bush had caused trouble in the Warlpiri camp: “We were talking to their parents, but they wouldn’t listen to what we were telling them about their kids,” Marlene says.
“We don’t want that to happen here, in town camps, in Alice Springs, we just want to stay in a good way, no fighting. We just want kids to play together, to walk together.
“People come from out bush making rubbish, they make a mess and go back without cleaning up,” Laura adds.
Ignoring the burnt cars, discarded scooters, and rubbish on the ground, children play happily with each other outside their home in Hidden Valley.
A man in his forties, living with his wife and three children aged 12, 8, and 2, says he enjoys living in the town camp, and that it was a great place to raise his kids because of the sense of community.
In the Little Sisters camp, who introduced herself as Stephanie says her role is to care for the kids. Lots of aunties and grandmas don’t drink so they can look after the children. Stephanie also speaks of the housing shortage at Little Sisters.
“There are too many people living in the houses,” she said, “some people have family come and visit and they never leave.”
On the other hand Helen explains that one of houses still under construction (pictured) was trashed by a group of kids, so the builders stopped working and have not yet returned.
Cr Eli Melky, who owns a real estate company, as a town council member is confronted daily with has become known as “the problem”.
He says he is appalled by the housing situations in the camps.
“You have over crowdedness which somehow, over the years, has become normal. It shouldn’t be normal, either build more houses or you make sure the correct number of people are occupying the space,” Cr Melky says.
“If you do that, and there’s still a thousand people outside the gate, then clearly you’ve identified an accommodation crisis.
“How can you expect any order when there’s 25 people staying in the one house, children everywhere, no privacy, only one bathroom?
“That’s disturbing to understand in 2022 in Australia of all places, this is allowed to happen.
“And I say the words ‘allowed to happen’ because it is being allowed to happen. Who’s responsible? Well, the Federal government is ultimately in charge so it’s on them.”
Territory Families, Housing and Communities responded to me over email: “Across Alice Springs town camps, more than $40 million is being spent … to build 64 new homes with 238 bedrooms.”
The average cost is $625,000 per house.
“The solution is holistic,” Cr Melky said, “Council has a responsibility to play a role, and so does Tangentyere and Congress and Lhere Artepe – everybody has a role to play.
“There’s a whole industry that’s been built up around this issue,” he said, “rather than looking like you’re doing the job, actually just do the job.”
Tangentyere has a budget of $33m, mostly to provide services to the camps.
Its contribution to the News initiative of giving camp dwellers a direct say – not via a “gatekeeper” – came from a Tangentyere worker at Trucking Yards Town Camp, telling us that all communication between residents of town camps and media was prohibited without prior arrangements through Tangentyere – part of whose mission is to “promote the opinions and views of the Aboriginal town campers.”
We did not hesitate to ignore that Tangentyere worker’s demands.
Other Tangentyere workers in Hidden Valley, Little Sister, and Warlpiri camps were extremely helpful in introducing me to people interested in being interviewed.
However, the organisation did not respond to questions we put to it although Territory Families, Housing and Communities, as it says, “provides public funding support for Community Housing Central Australia to deliver tenancy support in Alice Springs town camps as well as funding for Tangentyere Council Aboriginal Corporation to deliver essential and municipal services”.