SEARCH 2000 Games

May 25, 2000
In the heart of Olympic city, slum highlights Aboriginal

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) -- For most visitors to the Sydney Olympics in September, the suburb of Redfern will be no more than the first stop for trains heading west from Central Station to the sporting stadiums.
 But throughout Australia, the name is synonymous with the plight of urban Aborigines trapped in a downward spiral of poor health, poverty, substance abuse and crime.
 One notorious neighbourhood -- known as The Block -- is a microcosm of problems Aborigines suffer throughout the country. And plans for a redevelopment project have sparked debate about the future of affordable housing in one of the Southern Hemisphere's most expensive cities.
 Australia's 386,000 Aborigines are a tiny minority in a nation of 19 million people. They suffer from health problems, poverty, a lack of education and crime in a land that likes to call itself The Lucky Country.
 Nowhere in urban Australia are the problems more painfully apparent than in The Block.
 In a garbage-strewn alley, a dozen Aborigines huddle to inject heroin. On the other side of a vacant lot, men sit on upturned crates around a small fire drinking from beer bottles. A young Aborigine man sits slumped in a filthy office swivel chair, oblivious to all around him.
 It is 9:30 a.m., an average day on The Block.
 Police tour the area regularly and sometimes arrest drug dealers, but the trade continues unabated after each raid.
 Local official Peter Valilis, who is leading the drive to clean up The Block, said: "You have child abuse, lack of respect, poor housing, health. A whole lot of issues," he said.
 Valilis is redevelopment project manager at the Aboriginal Housing Company, a private company established in the 1970s to administer the area's Aboriginal housing.
 The company wants to raze the dilapidated grid of wrecked, graffiti-covered houses and replace them with new community housing, a plan that has met with opposition from local residents.
 Joyce Ingram, 77, has lived on The Block for 20 years. She fears redevelopment will mean selling off the land for profit -- something the company denies -- but also that rent will rise from its present level of $28.50 per week. Rent for houses a couple of streets from The Block can reach 10 times that.
 "What kind of houses are they going to build? What will the rents be?" she asks. "This is supposed to be affordable housing for Aborigines. Most of the people here are on welfare."
 The company's office bears the scars of the conflict and of the random vandalism that plagues The Block.
 The graffiti-scarred building is surrounded by high steel mesh fences, its side wall has large chunks smashed out of it and is smeared by black stains caused by fires lit at its base. Many of its windows -- despite steel bars protecting them -- are smashed or covered in corrugated steel.
 The neighbourhood started life as an idealistic attempt to help Aborigines help themselves.
 It was bought in the 1970s with money given by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam's government, which hoped the homes would form a base on which to build a better Aboriginal society in central Sydney.
 Instead, the neighbourhood degenerated into a slum.
 "You walk down the street, and there are people with needles hanging out their arms," says Block resident Daniel Ariel. "I've seen people shooting up into their necks. It is a real big thing because it affects little kids."
 Ariel, who says his home is one of the only drug and alcohol-free houses on The Block, supports the housing company's redevelopment plan.
 "To resolve the situation, it has got to the stage where it just needs to be bulldozed and rebuilt so there are no alleyways and everything is in the open," he said.
 Only about 15 of the original 53 families still live on The Block but dozens more drift in and out of the area, squatting in empty houses to be close to the heroin peddlers.
 There were hopes the ghetto would be cleaned up in time for the Olympics, but that hope has evaporated.
 "There is no way you will get this cleaned up by the Olympics, no way," Valilis said. "We are not going to be ready. There is nothing you can do."
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