Frontline service providers say the scrapping of an outreach service which helps reduce “criminal charges and incarceration” is negatively impacting a large group of vulnerable, transient communities visiting the South Australian city of Port Augusta from Central Australia for the hotter summer months.

Key points:

  • Port Augusta’s City Safe program ran for more than a decade before funding stopped in September
  • Port Augusta Council says while the program was very effective, funding is a state and federal government responsibility
  • Transient communities in need of support services like City Safe are visiting the city in unprecedented numbers

In September 2020, the Port Augusta Council stopped funding its City Safe program after more than a decade, despite widespread agreement among frontline services that it helped vulnerable people access support.

A 2019 council report showed “the vast majority” of the program’s activities were transporting people, including on behalf of the Aboriginal Drug and Alcohol Council SA (ADAC), “to support clients at risk and protect them from harm”.

In the report ADAC, which runs the town’s only drug and alcohol drop-in centre Stepping Stones, said the “City Safe program has a good rapport with many clients at the day centre and assists in the prevention of harm and the intervention of police”.

It said the program reduced “the level of criminal charges and incarceration as well as keeping others (including staff) in the vicinity safe”.

Mayor Brett Benbow agreed with the report’s assessment, highlighting the council ended the service’s contract not because it lacked value, but because its operations were not the council’s core business.

The State Government stopped partially funding the program in 2012.

Police say they have increased patrols, including on horseback, in recent weeks.(ABC North and West SA: Gabriella Marchant)

He is instead calling on the federal and SA governments to step in and fund additional Police and Mobile Assistance Patrol (MAP).

More resources needed

Anangu woman Rhoda Pearson is visiting her dad, who is on dialysis in Port Augusta, from Indulkana in SA’s far-north.

She said many people were visiting after protracted coronavirus lockdowns in remote communities.

“Once the lockdown has been lifted, people come down to do stuff, shopping and visit family.”

Ms Pearson, who regularly used the Stepping Stones Day Centre in the city, said it was very helpful.

“I have breakfast [here], shower, wash clothes and pretty much do arts and crafts sometimes,” she said.

Manager Alinda Hogg said demand for the drug and alcohol service had increased “exponentially” over the past two months, and her team required better resourcing to meet demand.

“We have a very small building, we have five staff, and we keep running out of food all the time,” she said.

“It’s very demanding on my staff and myself — we’re only budgeted for a certain amount of money.”

Stepping Stones Day Centre says demand for its services has increased exponentially.(ABC North and West SA: Gabriella Marchant)

Stepping Stones Day Centre provides free breakfast and lunch in Port Augusta.(ABC North and West SA: Gabriella Marchant.)

Ms Hogg said the loss of City Safe had had a noticeable impact in the community.

“There’s been an increase of alcohol [abuse] since City Safe has been shut down,” she said.

“They were really good, they would come in in the morning when breakfast was on, and they had a really good rapport with the clients.”

Online panic ‘blown out of proportion’

Arabana man Paul Tanner, who worked for decades in the city’s justice system, said the lack of support meant an increase in the perception of anti-social behaviour.

“I think it’s blown out of proportion in some instances, and there’s a lot of keyboard warriors on social media unfortunately, and they’re making it a lot bigger than it really is,” he said.

Mr Tanner said while there was no doubt that visitor numbers from central remote communities had swelled as people escaped the heat, some of the online commentary had racial undertones and impacted the local Aboriginal community.

Paul Tanner says council needs to ensure it works with the local Aboriginal community.(ABC North and West SA: Gabriella Marchant)

Inspector Phil Kotaras from SA Police (SAPOL) in Port Augusta said he agreed that, to a large degree, community concerns about anti-social behaviour were just perception.

“Property damage or thefts are down in the CBD,” he said.

“And the vast majority of assaults take place between people who are known to one another, and [the majority] … in private dwellings.”

Inspector Kotaras said SAPOL had increased patrols, including on foot and horseback, in the wake of a spike in callouts.

But he said the added numbers were aimed at helping the community.

“We want to work with people, educate, make sure they’re provided the health services that they require, so we can try and reduce these types of behaviours.”

He said “Welfare Barring Orders”, where individuals “who are a danger to themselves and others can be restricted from obtaining and consuming alcohol” had been implemented on about 50 occasions.

Where to from here?

Mr Tanner said it was critical Aboriginal people were a part of finding long-term funding and service solutions.

“Often things get done or decisions are made for Aboriginal people instead of with Aboriginal people, and that creates a lot of problems,” he said.

Mr Tanner said City Safe was very effective and would be even better with Aboriginal people involved.

Mr Benbow said he was advocating for a State Government-led group of affected agencies and services to establish need and better fund solutions.

Port Augusta Mayor Brett Benbow says funding the City Safe program is not the Council’s core business.(ABC: Gabriella Marchant.)

He is meeting with the SA Premier Steven Marshall about the issue next month.

“I would expect the Aboriginal leadership groups, the elders from all locations and areas would be part of this decision-making,” Mr Benbow said.

He also said he would ensure that any visiting police were given “background in the local cultural requirements” and that they had awareness about who the local people were so the relationship could “build not in a negative manner”.

A spokesperson for Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt said the Federal Government increased funding for the city’s MAP in the 2020/21 budget.

The spokesperson also said funding for the service beyond the end of this financial year would be considered “as part of the agency’s biannual process”.

Federal Member for Grey Rowan Ramsey also said he had lobbied Minister Wyatt to federally fund City Safe, but had not yet been successful.

Drug and Alcohol Services SA said it already funded a number of available services, inlcuding outpatient counselling in Port Augusta.