I spent four nights living in hell

Written By komlim puldel on Senin, 18 Februari 2013 | 20.01

NT News journalist Sarah Crawford spent a week staying at the notorious Kurringal Flats in Darwin's north - here is what she found.

NT NEWS journalist SARAH CRAWFORD spent a week staying at the notorious Kurringal Flats in Darwin's north - here is what she found.

TORRES Strait Islander Angie Mareko has a booming voice which echoes off the grimy walls of Kurringal Flats.

Right now her frightening bellow is directed at dopey-eyed Whitney Brinjen who has plonked herself down in the corridor with a dirty, big bong in her lap.

''F*** what are you doing? Take the c*** inside or I will tip it over the balcony," Angie, 38, roars.

Even in her supremely stoned state, Ms Brinjen does not need to be asked twice.

Lots of things are lobbed over the balconies of Kurringal Flats.

Lounge suites, mattresses, clothes and blades from pedestal fans.

Resident Fabian Yovich, 33, saw someone tip a heavy, analogue TV off the balcony of block four. It exploded on the steps near his front door.

A sign posted to a door at Kurringal Flats in Darwin. Picture: Daniel Hartley-Allen

"After that I stopped allowing my little nephews to stay over," he said.

Kurringal Flats are three, four-storey buildings of poverty, dysfunction and entrenched disadvantage dumped in the middle of one of Darwin's poshest suburbs, Fannie Bay.

Walking through the back gate past the no alcohol sign feels like you are stepping into an alternative universe.

The contrast between the leafy, picture-perfect townhouses of Fannie Bay and the grim, dirty white blocks of the Territory Housing complex is so extreme you feel disorientated.

Dozens of abandoned vehicles are in the car parks. Some vehicles have had their windows smashed or number plates removed. One car has had its engine and all the seats ripped out.

People sit on the stairs or in the corridors drinking port from plastic bottles all day - even though drinking in common areas carries a $500 fine.

Transvestite Ziggy Wilhelmsen, 50, believes people on the outside think he and all the residents of Kurringal Flats are creeps.

Gilbert Shaw, who lives at at Kurringal Flats in Darwin. Picture: Daniel Hartley-allen

''The society around here thinks we are a big waste of time,'' he says sitting cross-legged on his couch in a shiny, dark brown wig.

''Sure we are poor and not much of us had a lot of education but we are a real mixed group here.''

A 58-year-old disability pensioner who wants me to call her Mary tells me there is only one way to find out what Kurringal Flats is really like.

''You need to see it at night,'' she says.

Mary offers to let me stay on her couch in her one-bedroom flat in block eight for a couple of nights.

I take up her offer and move in.

The Best Block

A man waits outside a bus stop at Kurringal Flats in Darwin. Picture: Daniel Hartley-Allen

"Most of the people in this block are elderly, Christian and non-drinkers," Mary's friend Neil Williams, 53, tells me.

This block is pretty quiet. It is the best block by far.

Mr Williams, also a disability pensioner, live upstairs from Mary in a two-bedroom apartment which he pays $160 a fortnight to rent. Both have been here for over a decade.

Block eight backs onto a quiet suburban street and Waratah oval where Kurringal residents regularly drink.

Some block eight residents have put pot plants on their balconies. One woman has hung Chinese lanterns.

Kurringal Flats was built by the federal government in 1966. At its peak there were eight blocks which housed 350 people. Two blocks were demolished in 2001.

Another three were bulldozed two years later and Kurringal Court retirement village, for Territory Housing tenants aged over 55, was built on the land.

Gilbert Shaw in his apartment at Kurringal Flats in Darwin. Picture: Daniel Hartley-Allen

Now there are 91 tenants living in 78 units. A further six are empty. Everyone agrees the worst building is block six in the middle.

Mary's neighbour, John Mu, whose screen door was recently broken down in a police raid, tells me that block six is not safe.

"When you are going in there be careful. They can punch you or stab you. You can see the blood on the ground. Police go there all the time," he says.

Block four, on Dick Ward Drive, is considered to be somewhere in-between not as safe as eight but far better than six.

I sleep on Mary's couch for two nights - the fans buzzing full blast in the build-up heat.

I can't hear the screams that residents complain keep them up at night.

I have an offer to stay for three nights at someone else's refurbished flat at the top of block six. So I move my sleeping bag to the middle block from where the nightly shouts emanate.

John O'Brien at his home at Kurringal Flats in Darwin. Picture: Daniel Hartley-Allen

The Worst Block

Gilbert Shaw, 58, gives an animal-like scream that only years of hard-drinking can achieve.

Someone has stuck a fire hose through a hole in the flyscreen of his kitchen window and flooded his block six apartment.

It is the second time in 18 months he has been flooded out.

Hosing the apartment down was probably a good thing - it looks like it has not been cleaned since the last fire hose attack. Cockroaches crawl around the living room without fear.

There is still a large blood stain in the hallway where Mr Shaw was bashed with a metal broom handle during a robbery a month earlier.

He sits on a dirty mattress and sucks on a bong.

Daily life at Kurringal Flats Picture: Daniel Hartley-Allen

"I am sick of this," he says. "Where are security? This is bulls***."

People in block six say jealous men target Mr Shaw because they don't like their women coming over to his house when his disability pension arrives.

Other times the enfeebled alcoholic - who has a large scar on his chest from a heart operation - is attacked because he is an easy target from which to steal money and food.

Mr Shaw denies enticing women to his flat with money, gunja and booze.

"Girls just come over here and have a bit of fun - the dark girls love me," he says.

Mr Shaw was put in Kurringal Flats after he underwent the heart operation in Adelaide. Before that he was homeless.

But after 18 months at Kurringal he has been given a final warning to clean up or get out.

Transvestite Ziggy Wilhelmsen at home at Kurringal Flats in Darwin. Picture: Daniel Hartley-Allen

"I am trying to start a new life but it is all going wrong," he says.

Block six is certainly far grimmer than eight. People openly smoke bongs on the balconies, empty deal bags litter the floor and there are frequent eruptions of rage between tenants day and night.

The residents blame the violence and anti-social behaviour on visitors.

"The biggest problem is not the people living here all the time, it is their relatives that come here and take over the place," retiree John O'Brien, 85, of block eight tells me. I found that was not true.

The incidents of violence and anti-social behaviour that I saw were mostly caused by people who live at Kurringal Flats.

After talking to Mr Shaw, I sit in the stairwell with a Torres Strait island family who are visiting relatives that live in block six.

They chat and laugh drinking alcohol from plastic bottles as the fights and drama caused by the Kurringal residents ebb and flow around them.

Residents living at Kurringal Flats in Darwin. Picture: Daniel Hartley-Allen

A grandmother in the group sings me a lullaby she wrote for her three-year-old grandson.

Her daughter has moved to Sydney with the little boy and she misses him.

"Look to the sky. For Jetstar, Fly him back to me, Tears I cry, Narima, You broke my heart, Bring him back to me."

It is beautiful. We ask her to sing it again.

Cops and Grog

Old man Ezra Young is sitting at a picnic table in the common area when his girlfriend cracks him over the head with an almost empty bottle of rum.

She has just had a case of VB tipped out by police and she is furious.

Gilbert Shaw has two pieces of steel at his bedside to use in self defence. Picture: Daniel Hartley-Allen

Mr Young, 68, is unsympathetic. He is telling the rest of her drinking party that they got what they deserved.

"That is their law. They are public servants. That is their law and it is right," he says.

His girlfriend runs up behind screaming his name before crashing the bottle on the back of his head.

It does not break, so she throws it at his feet where it smashes.

I clear off as all hell breaks loose.

It is pension week at Kurringal Flats and the booze and gunja are flowing freely.

Some drinkers managed to run into the darkness when the police turned up, but the people at the picnic table were too slow.

The daily life at Kurringal Flats in Darwin. Picture: Daniel Hartley-Allen

An officer lobbed a wine skin into the car park where it split.

Mr Young's girlfriend drunkenly scolds the officers as they pour her cans into the grass.

"You steal my drinks," she shouts.

"It does not worry me, I can just buy more - I drink in moderation."

"Shut up," a police officer replies.

"Don't spend your money on grog, buy food instead," he tells the group.

Darkened figures, who have been watching the grog bust silently from block four, yell "f*** off, mother f*****" as the police drive off.

A woman is taken into custody at Kurringal Flats. Picture: Daniel Hartley-Allen

Residents of Kurringal voted to ban drinking in common areas in 2008.

Many residents support the ban while slyly drinking in public at the same time.

I see Mr Young an hour-and-a-half later staggering back to his ground floor flat in block six.

He says he is OK, touching the back of his head.

"She was jealous of another woman," he grins, "I am going to bed now."

St John Ambulance is called to block six three times that night.

The next morning rum and coke bottles, wine boxes and beer cans are scattered throughout the grass.

Angie Mareko sitting outside the Kurringal Flats. Picture: Daniel Hartley-Allen


A Territory Housing worker and a public housing safety officer knock on Mr Williams' screen door.

"We are doing a blitz on Kurringal to clear up the anti-social behaviour," one of the women tells Mr Williams.

"We need to get on top of it. This is our major problem. If there are issues we need to be made aware of it."

They hand Mr Williams a card with numbers he can call if there is trouble.

He is pleased. "In the past we have begged for security here but they have just driven in and out.

"Since this lot have started they have cleared it up a bit because they walk around."

Last hour of sunlight at Kurringal Flats in Darwin. Picture:: Daniel Hartley-allen

Public housing safety officers were introduced to manage anti-social behaviour in Territory Housing complexes in June last year.

They can ban people from Territory Housing complexes for up to 12 months and have authority to tip out alcohol.

The officers patrol the grounds of Kurringal Flats about 7 o'clock every evening chatting with residents and sometimes at night.

Mental illness

Mr Williams and Mary have seen many failed attempts at placing mentally ill people at Kurringal Flats.

There was big Al who sometimes walked around naked covered in faeces.

Mary had a neighbour who would sit on a crate in the corridor with a mirror stuck to her forehead.

Children play in the evening around the flats. Picture: Daniel Hartley-Allen

And another woman would try to kung fu her every time she left her unit.

Many are treated by the Tamarind Centre, an outpatient service for people with serious mental illness.

"Some had to be carted away - they did not make it," Mr Williams said.

"But there is this guy in the front block who dresses up as a woman. He has been there for years."

That is Ziggy Wilhelmsen.

He moved into Kurringal Flats with a wife, who suffered from schizophrenia in 2003.

Two years later, his wife divorced him and moved out.

After that he became a she.

"I became aware of my body and that I am a hermaphrodite," Ms Wilhelmsen said.

She says police have broken down her door several times and taken her to hospital.

But she denies she is a schizophrenic.

"Possibly bi-polar," she said.

"But I don't hear voices."

She pays $148 a fortnight for her two-bedroom unit.

A psychiatric nurse comes every 28 days to give her an injection.

She does not go out much.

"Some people are friendly with me here. There is a guy downstairs - he says I look pretty with make-up. But there is others that say 'ugly old hermaphrodite'."

Instead, Ms Wilhelmsen spends most of her time nutting out Einstein's theory of relativity.

"I am very lonely," she said.

"I have not had any sort of contact with people for a long time."

Fannie Bay shops

Over the road at Fannie Bay shops, Tim Copping from Captain's Seafood has been serving up chips to Kurringal Flats residents for 20 years.

At $2 a small serve he believes he has the cheapest chips in Darwin.

"I reckon I have about 15 regulars that come from there," he said.

"A few ladies I have known for 20 years. They are always nice even if they have had a few."

He thinks Kurringal Flats needs a major overhaul.

"Clean it up, downsize the blocks and check the people that go in there regularly," he says.

"Let's face it, we are the ones that are paying for it."

Paul O'Brien at North Coast Stereo a few doors up from the flats is far less generous.

"They should demolish the wildlife park," he says.

His wife Julie says she knows very little about Kurringal Flats, even though she and her husband have run the electronic entertainment store for 20 years.

They have only ever had one customer from Kurringal Flats.

"I only notice them crossing the road to the service station because they run out into traffic without looking - but that is endemic in Darwin," she says.

BP service station attendant Susie Niempromlee said she likes serving people from Kurringal Flats as long as they are not drunk and have the money to pay for the items.

"Sometimes they grab too many things and don't have enough money on their BasicsCard. I ask them to put things back but they throw them around," she said.

She said large groups of teenagers at night can be intimidating and hard to manage.

"The manager said that we are allowed to lock the door when they come," she said.

The future of Kurringal Flats

The CLP government's first Minister for Housing, Pete Chandler, described Kurringal Flats and other old Territory Housing stock as "basket cases."

"The $1.8 billion of taxpayer-owned assets have been neglected," he said.

"Seventy-eight per cent of all urban stock is over 23 years old, creating a massive maintenance bill. Many houses are in such a bad way they are vacant.

"The overall condition of housing does not paint a pretty picture," he added.

Back in 2003, then Chief Minister Clare Martin gave the three remaining blocks at Kurringal a used-by date of this year.

Labor pledged during the August election campaign to tear down Kurringal Flats and build a mix of private, affordable and public dwellings.

The site is zoned to provide up to 160 homes in a mix of one, two and three bedroom units in buildings four storeys high.

Mr Chandler made similar suggestions to redevelop Territory Housings old stock at Kurringal, The Narrows (Shiers Street) and Coconut Grove (Runge Street) in November.

"We want to see inclusive communities and eliminate enclaves of disadvantage," he said.

The 15,000sq m block at Kurringal is ripe for building new properties to address Darwin's housing shortage and sky-rocketing rent.

But what about the residents of Kurringal?

Many would not and could not live in a mixed development of public and private housing.

They would not be tolerated.

That is why many of them are here in the first place.

John O'Brien, who refused to remove into Kurringal Court retirement village a decade ago, knows the flats' days are numbered but is indifferent about the future.

"I don't care, as long as I have a roof over my head," he said.

For more see the Northern Territory News

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