Before it was the pet project of a home renovation reality show, the Gatwick Private Hotel was a last resort home for some of Melbourne’s most vulnerable residents. Channel Nine bought the three-storey rooming house in St Kilda ahead of this year’s season of The Block: a high-drama, 12-week series that saw five couples renovating the run-down rooms into luxe apartments and penthouses. It also saw the Gatwick’s remaining residents forced out of their homes and onto the street, the ABC reports—many of whom have since ended up in jail.
Before filming of The Block Season 14 commenced, any tenants who still called the Gatwick home were promptly evicted. Local and state government promised that they would work with housing services to arrange alternative accommodation—but a deficiency of adequate crisis accommodation facilities across Melbourne meant that, in many cases, those arrangements fell through. The result was dozens of homeless people out on the street and, ultimately, at least 32 women behind the bars of the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre: Melbourne's maximum security women's prison.
"There is absolutely no doubt that the Gatwick's closure has had an effect particularly on women in the city of Port Phillip," a support worker in St Kilda told the ABC. “I'm not necessarily saying that the Gatwick was the best place for people to live because there were a lot of issues—there were some deaths there, there was violence. But everybody needs a place to stay.”
Before the lights, cameras, and budding interior designers arrived on the scene, the Gatwick had a reputation among local neighbours as a breeding ground for crime and violence. Earlier this year NewsCorp described it as “hell hotel”: a “dangerous and derelict flea pit”. This was allegedly the kind of place “where you [could] be murdered in your room, robbed, bashed, or offered a variety of drugs among the cockroaches, addicts, and prison parolees who graced its doors.”
The renovated apartments have since gone to auction, many of them with multimillion dollar price tags, and Domain—which is owned by Fairfax/Nine, the company behind The Block—is now referring to them as “rich people’s” homes. Meanwhile, the amount of beds available for homeless people in and around Melbourne is shrinking. And as rampant gentrification consumes more and more places like the Gatwick, the problem is only being exacerbated further.
Many of the former residents who are now in Dame Phyllis have wound up there on drug-related charges, having committed offences that their support worker believes are a direct result of homelessness.
“Many women with involvement in the justice system offend to fund their drug habit and use substances to self-medicate," the support worker said. "Sleeping rough is extremely unsafe for women so many use drugs to keep themselves awake at night, which provides them with a false sense of security."
Jill Prior, the principal legal officer at the Law and Advocacy Centre for Women, is currently representing four of the women who have been locked up in the maximum security prison. She’s also recently represented more than a dozen who were living on the street after the Gatwick closed, according to The Guardian—and describes the so-called “hell hole” as a safety net for the disadvantaged, the downtrodden, and anyone who might be circling the drain of incarceration.
“We have had a number of women come to us where homelessness or transience was the immediate precursor to imprisonment, and these same women have utilised the Gatwick either immediately prior to being imprisoned or in some cases in an on-off way,” she said. Speaking to the ABC, she stated that "The Gatwick is notorious amongst the judiciary but our clients have described it as a place of last resort—of comfort and non-judgmental available residence.
"We find it easy to pass judgement on the place due to the negative stories of criminal activity but in the absence of this option we are left with women who have no place to go to and for whom life on the streets becomes dangerous and helpless," she says. "When this occurs... the likelihood of criminal offending increases."