North Shore’s hidden homeless

Jenny Barlass

While a sizeable number of people on the North Shore are delighted with the upward trajectory of local property values, another chunk are severely harmed by it – perhaps forever.

These are the North Shore’s homeless, like “Kathryn” and “Ben” (opposite), from the affluent homes and suburbs of Ku-ring-gai and Hornsby.

Far from the vagrant living rough, the North Shore’s army of homeless are the teenagers who can’t bare to live at home any longer because of a mentally ill mother or an alcoholic father. Or the single parent family on a low wage who can’t afford skyrocketing rents. Or most shockingly, a new cohort of homeless welfare agencies are seeing emerge in the last few years: women over 70, accounting for around one in six homeless.

In the 2011 census night there were 106,000 people without a home across the nation, while five years later that figure had increased by 14% to 116,000 men, women and children without a safe place to call home. Our most recent Census also showed 6,407 over 55s homeless across the state compared to 4,475 in 2011, again a one third increase. That means there are 2000 more homeless over 55s in NSW than five years ago.

“The most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) statistics show us that homelessness is increasing in Northern Sydney,” says Mission Australia Area Manager, Rachelle Elphick. “The majority are not rough sleepers but people who are experiencing hidden homelessness.”

These hidden are the teenage couch surfer, the woman fleeing domestic violence, the elderly lady unable to afford her rent, the single parent family.

“We also know that people living in severely overcrowded dwellings account for a significant amount of these homeless statistics.”

Just how bad is it locally? Rachelle says that in the Hornsby region in the 2011 Census 178 people were homeless, increasing to 191 in 2016. And in Ku-ring-gai it went from 57 to 95, an increase of almost two thirds over the five year period.

“Affordable accommodation in Hornsby Ku-ring-gai is very limited especially if you’re a young person, single parent family, on a low income or receiving income benefits,” said Rachelle Elphick.

A toxic combination of factors are conspiring to produce this sharp rise: a dire shortage of secure affordable private and public housing, rent hikes of over 100% across our area in the last decade pricing thousands of people out of the private market. Throw in entrenched sexism where men get paid more than women for the same jobs and a minimum nine year waiting list for public housing, inadequate social security payments which result in rental stress and lack of a national plan to address homelessness all conspiring to create this perfect storm of a tide of people roaming the streets at night.

You rarely see them sleeping rough in parks or car parks across the North Shore; nor do you see them wandering the streets barefoot and dispossessed. But they are there.

This translates to alarming nightly scenarios. It mean distraught teenagers ringing their friends at 10 o’clock at night seeing who’ll put them up on their sofa again. Failing that they sleep rough in cars and trains. And the single parent family fleeing to a filthy flat on the other side of town and commuting the two hours at either end of the day just to keep their child at their original school.

Being robbed or raped while sleeping in the open, getting hypothermia, malnutrition or depression are all common hazards that go hand in hand with homelessness.

“While Northern Sydney is one of the most prosperous areas of our state, it is by no means an area free from disadvantage” said Rachelle Elphick. “It’s true that higher incomes lessen the risks of rental stress, however, there are even children from wealthy families forced to sleep in parks because they find it unsafe to return home.”

A handful of agencies locally that offer vital assistance. In Hornsby Ku-ring-gai, Mission Australia and their partners provide support for around 300 people annually who are experiencing, or at risk of homelessness. The team provides an Early Intervention Prevention Program for adults and families, and the Northern Sydney Youth Homelessness Service which works with young people from as young as 12 to 24. The services intervene early to prevent homelessness by providing case management, counselling, referrals, advocacy, tenancy support and access to transitional and semi-independent housing.

“Where possible, we try to connect people with housing close to their social networks,” says Rachelle. “However, right across Sydney there’s a shortage of social and affordable housing. We would hope that with each new development on the North Shore, some social and affordable housing is included, but currently this is a missed opportunity.”

Mission Australia decries the lack of help at a Federal level. “Unfortunately, despite the increase in homelessness, there was not a single measure in the recent Federal Budget that would even begin to put a dent in those figures.

“We need a coherent national strategy and a long-term commitment from government to build new social and affordable homes. This requires commitment from all governments the corporate sector, charities and individuals.

“To even begin to house those who are in need, we require the Commonwealth and state and territory governments to commit to building 300,000 new social homes and 200,000 affordable rental properties across Australia.

“It’s of vital importance that new social and affordable homes are created within communities of opportunity, with infrastructure connected to education, training and support services.

“The national plan must also tackle the contributors to individual homelessness including family violence, poverty, disability and mental health issues.”

These are fictitious case studies to illustrate the problems these groups of new homeless are facing. The Monthly Chronicle was not able to use real people due to identification issues.

Ben is 15 year-old boy* who lives with his mum in a single parent family, but has started to miss school due to continuous arguments with her about going out, money and school. She has to work long hours so Ben is often at home on his own. Most of mum’s wage goes towards rent and bills, and she’s exhausted a lot of the time. Ben is skipping school, not doing his work and started getting into trouble at school, making him want to go even less. After months of ongoing conflict at home and school, Ben disappears for days at a time, staying with one friend then the next – known as couchsurfing. He’s now technically starting down the path of homelessness. Local youth and family services can provide mediation, counselling and conflict resolution – and restoring young people to their family home is a top priority for agencies. If Ben doesn’t go home and can’t find a friend’s family to take him in permanently, he’ll have to move to a local youth refuge or outside of the region if local ones are full. These services provide supported accommodation so that young people have a stable living situation and can continue to study or work.

Kathryn is a 70 year-old single woman*, separated 10 years ago from her husband of 30 years. As a stay-at-home mum, she now relies on the Aged Pension for income. However she can no longer afford to rent the one bedroom North Shore unit where she’s always lived and could be heading for eviction for rent arrears. It means she may have to search for an emergency bed in a women’s shelter. Her grown-up daughter can’t take her in as there’s no room in the two bedroom apartment she shares with her husband and two children. Her options: Kathryn can apply for a social housing unit, but the waiting list is nine years in Northern Sydney, unless you meet strict priority housing criteria, when the list is still about three years. Areas with more affordable rent are at least 60 to 90 minutes away by public transport, far from all her family and friends. It’s possible for Kathryn to adjust her finances to afford to move into a studio apartment in a senior’s village. Some local seniors’ villages are willing to negotiate depending on the applicant’s circumstances. She could access food banks in the area like Hornsby Connect, to reduce her living expenses to better afford her current rent. She could also arrange to share housing with another older person. Failing that, Kathryn is faced with having to move much further away, which could mean social isolation.

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