Juni Per: Let’s start from the beginning, how did your life as a care worker and housing activist form? Are there key experiences that have endured?
Kit Regan: I’m an alcohol and other drugs (AOD) peer worker and harm reduction worker, as well as mostly working with people experiencing homelessness. The community I work with are people that spend most of their time in the city of Melbourne, either it’s where they live or where they spend most of their time socialising and using public space. I was homeless for a couple of years, it would have been about five years ago. I spent a bit under a year living on the streets and I spent about a year living in Flagstaff crisis accom.
My desire to work in this space and with this community is really rooted in the time that I was living in this space, in this physical area of Melbourne, as part of this community. I’ve got, really, lots of affection for the CBD. And this community. It’s a really interesting community and a really accepting community in many ways. My desire to work with this community comes from being part of it. And I still see myself as quite connected to this community, even though I’m now housed and have that privilege of being housed.
JP: This interview is a part of HEAT LAB, an initiative run by the City of Melbourne. Heat due to climate change compounds poverty and worsens housing injustice. At what age were you first unhoused? Was it in Melbourne? How long was it for? And were you unhoused in the summer?
KR: So I was unhoused first at twenty-eight/twenty-nine, and then couch-surfing and other kinds of secondary homelessness for about a year. Then street-based homelessness, primary homelessness, for about a year. I entered crisis accom when I was thirty. All of that’s in Melbourne. There’s about two, three years of homelessness there, at least. There’s obviously a couple of summers there, a couple of winters there.
JP: While sleeping rough, did you experience lack of access to cool places and dehydration or disorientation? Did you find heat compounded isolation, forcing you indoors in temporary accommodation? Were there any other specific conditions in Melbourne for unhoused people about heat that you could speak to?
KR: I would speak to the fact that a lot of crisis accommodation is not particularly well designed for heat. What we know is that a lot of housing that is available to people that are on low incomes is not designed well for climate variability and not designed well for comfort. Flagstaff had quite limited air conditioning and was quite hot in summer. It was quite warm in winter because the heating was good, but in summer it was really hot. And also, if you don’t have somewhere cool to go, then you’re hopping between cool spots.
One of the things I speak to clients about, particularly in summer, is hopping between services and topping up on Zooper-Doopers. Zooper-Doopers are one of the core services provided. I’ve been handing them out already this January! I remember the constant Zooper-Dooper top-ups when I’d be walking through the city, catching up with friends. That real impact, particularly in the city, as we know cities are heat sinks as well. I think heat does compound isolation. You have to moderate your behaviour to be inside those public spaces that are air-conditioned.
JP: You were talking about libraries, those service centres.
KR: The only other ones are those private spaces that are shopping spaces, which are not great spaces to be in and not spaces that are inclusive.
JP: Definitely not, they’re highly surveilled. Not the go, unfortunately.
KR: That point you’re making about surveillance. If you’re unhoused, having privacy and keeping cool at the same time is nearly impossible.
JP: I can definitely imagine that. Whether it’s actual CCTV at the mall, or the citizen cop at the library, or even just surveilling yourself in those spaces. Not pretty. Could you speak to your history of outreach work with the street community? How did you get into it? Did you work through any periods of heat stress? What did you notice on the street?
KR: I’ve worked through two summers now in outreach. Summers are particularly noteworthy for an increase in people being unwell – that dehydration and heat stress impact. The inability to find spaces that are public and cool is one of those things we see in our community. The weather can affect people’s mental health through disorientation. If you’re hot and bothered, if you’re under that extra feeling of surveillance, if you’re sitting with a level of distress and some trauma history and you don’t have any capacity to remove yourself, then you’re sitting in that extra little bit of stress all the time. And the capacity to get a shower is not always easy, all of those kinds of things.
JP: Do you currently do outreach work on the street, or do you work from the office?
KR: Right now I’m acting in a Program Facilitator role at coHealth, which is a leadership role, for the rest of the month. I’m still doing at least one or two days of outreach a week, so I’ll be doing outreach tomorrow. Outreach is my bread and butter.
JP: Were there any other tools akin to the mass Zooper-Dooper send outs?
KR: There’s some cooling towel stuff we do. There’s some stuff around hydration. And also, supporting people to do some of that other self-care that’s needed, particularly if they’ve been unhoused for a while. If you’re living in [certain] levels of crisis and living in that distress of heat, then you can get a bit used to it and it can become a bit normalised. What I find important, what our clients like, is that checking-in. Showing you care about someone’s health and well-being. That you care that they’re cool and care that they’re well. Reminding them: ‘Hey, I want you to look after your body. I want your body to be well. And I care about your body. Can you take care of your body?’.
Not saying that people don’t have the capacity to do that, they do, but when you’re living in crisis and/or living in poverty, obviously there’s some more key things like making enough money or meeting those other needs. You’d think, I’ve just got to keep pushing through because it’s hot and I have these other needs to be met. I was speaking about it with someone the other day, that I can’t stop things being shit, but we can make you not hungry while things are shit.
JP: That’s the importance of street outreach work, rather than just sitting around and talking about it. And I completely agree that you’re forced to forget your body when you’re surviving like that. And it’s not so much that it just happens, but that the system is set up so it happens to people.
From the Harm Reduction International Conference that you were a part of in 2023, I’m particularly interested in what you shared about the somatic side of things and also being assertive to form connections on the street. How are somatics involved where you’re helping people survive day-to-day?
KR: The reason I talk about the somatic experience, the physical experience of space, is because – I mean, I like theory and we can get really lost in theory – but there’s a type of knowing that is a physicality that can be really useful. This is particularly when you’re connecting with someone in a space and there’s two bodies connecting in a space – that physicality of literally walking alongside someone. When walking in a familiar space our bodies feel different than when we’re walking in an unfamiliar space. And when we’re walking in a space that has been traumatising that feels very different to when we’re walking in a space that hasn’t been traumatising. You can think about how you feel when you walk into an old house or an old neighbourhood and that feeling of comfort, or distress.
What I was speaking about at HR23 was that, in my work, what I’m bringing to the space is having resolved some trauma in this grid that I love, that I spend a lot of time in. This grid that is both causing some trauma for a lot of people [but is] also a place of safety, a place of community and a place of connection. Sometimes by naming that and also by existing in the space differently – and using our bodies in the space differently, that is slower, calmer, less reactive – I can change how I’m relating in the space. By doing that with others we can start to shift how others are being in the space, too. Particularly with trauma, I think about somatics – thinking about how our bodies are responding and how we can deliberately use our bodies in different ways to try and be trauma-informed. How we can use our bodies to work through some of that trauma or not hold it so tightly.
JP: And unfortunately the street community is handed quite a lot of body stress via all the shit that is going on.
KR: Yeah, yeah!
JP: [redacted]. I’m not going to talk about climate justice in isolation. Where heat is a compounding factor for homelessness, so are move-on orders, confiscation of property and hostile architecture. As a housing activist, would you say you centre systemic change and solidarity in this regard? How do you think this attitude was tended to and how has it changed over the years?
KR: It’s an important question. I think that the way public space is policed, particularly for our disenfranchised community, there’s a lot of inequity there. The people who have capacity to complain, have the capacity to write emails, are the people with the power to ask for council and offices to move people on. The community that I work [with], by their very nature, do not have access or capacity to engage with those formal processes, right? They can’t make a phone call, they can’t do that email, they can’t complain in the same way, but they are people who are complained about. The way they use public space is complained about. The move-on orders and all of those things – the assumption is that all people should be in their houses, or shopping, or using public space in actually quite a limited number of ways. I think that there is an inequity there.
Part of what I particularly think is inequitable is that those with privilege and power, and the capacity to use public space in certain ways, continue to want those spaces to be only used in ways that are beneficial to them. We don’t want to see people that are unwell or using public space in different ways. I’m using that phrase ‘different’ very deliberately, instead of something like cold biting*, rough sleeping, or just hanging out on the street in a different way. Personally, I’d really like us to start thinking about the fact that public space is for everyone. And that people who are sleeping rough or are homeless in the city of Melbourne are residents as well. And we know that this is true and the City of Melbourne acknowledges that, but that power relationship – a lot of it comes down to who can write an email and who can complain. And I think that’s a part of what’s going on here – particularly in relation to move-on orders, confiscation of property and hostile architecture – is that the people who have that power are utilising that power to keep the city of Melbourne used in a way they like and that looks appealing to them.
* Cold biting is a term the street community uses for what might commonly be called begging.
Kit Regan (they/them) lives on the land of the Yalukit Willam clan of the Boon Wurrung people and works on the land of the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin nation as an alcohol and other drugs (AOD) peer worker and harm reduction worker.
Juni Per is an abolitionist and movement worker in Melbourne.
The writer’s fee for this interview went to Flat Out and RISE Refugee.
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