I’m writing in response to the article published in Echonetdaily: Life in Byron’s Squatter Camps, by Anna James.
I was alerted to this article by one of Byron’s local youth, who wanted to know my opinion on the article.
I struggle to understand the point of this article and how anyone thought it was even important enough to publish. Contrary to what this article says, I would say that very few of those who are homeless and under 25 would be on any kind of ‘spiritual journey’, most have had either long-term issues with family, drugs, alcohol, or mental illness and if they didn’t start out that way, then often these things end up a part of their homeless ‘journey’, as yes, lots of them find their way into little groups, often more so because they feel safer like this, but then, as a group, it also sometimes encourages drug and alcohol-misuse. Homelessness is not a ‘gypsy’ lifestyle, and in fact, I’ve never heard anyone refer to them as the ‘gypsy kids’, including themselves.
Over the years, I’ve seen terrible situations with Byron’s homeless, of all ages, but particularly those who are young and those who are elderly. I’ve seen 14-year-olds, who, even though they are homeless, still try to struggle with going to school, in fact, I’ve personally known many kids who did everything in their power to try to keep learning, some even attending the BCC school at the YAC, yet living in the bush close by. The young people that find their way into learning programs at the YAC are the lucky ones, but even then, there’s only so much that can be done for them, and even trying to get any young people into housing or emergency housing, is so hard, with so many restrictions and so few options, that for most, there are no options. And if they have a drug addiction, or a mental illness, this is even harder.
In the camps over the years, I’ve met women with babies and children, men and women in their 70’s and 80’s, and people who have become homeless for a myriad of reasons, but rarely because they see it as a lifestyle choice! Why the hell would anyone really choose to be homeless? Yes, I have met a few who, because of their mental illness, have burned all bridges with their family’s support and do eventually choose to be homeless because they really don’t have any other choice. No one will give them housing, no real estate agent will rent them a home, besides which, in Byron, so few can afford to even rent a room these days, if they are relying on Centrelink money and by the way, you have to actually have a ‘residential address’ to even get money from Centrelink in the first place. But with the cost of just renting a room well and truly above $200 a week, plus bond and up to $2000 needed just to move into a room, how many of them do you think ever raise that kind of money? None! Plus even youth allowance is barely just over $200 a week, and that’s with rent assistance. Try renting a room for $200 a week and finding enough money for food on top of that on Centrelink money!
Then there are all those kids living rough on no money, because their parents refuse to acknowledge to Centrelink that they won’t let their kids come home, or that there are issues that make it too difficult for them to live at home, such as drug dependence or mental ill-health. You’d be surprised by how many parents block their young people under 24 from having access to any Centrelink funds!
I find it appalling that so many in this town see our homeless people as a ‘problem’, in fact, it is a shameful disgrace that the plight of these people is often seen as a ‘shame’ on our town and that attitudes of some people towards our homeless, is that this is a ‘policing issue’ as I saw one prominent local business person refer to it last year. It is not a policing issue, most of them are doing nothing wrong, and are just genuinely ‘down and out’. It’s also not an issue for council to ‘clean up’, unless you see it like I do, that our council should be doing everything in its power to actually find a reasonable solution for these people, in providing services for them, an actual homeless camp where they can have access to showers, and somewhere where those in the health and mental health services can easily access them, assess them and help to get them the help they need.
The camps are everywhere around Byron, scattered among bushland, sand-dunes, along the railway tracks, the backs of businesses and the edges of town. And then there are those who actually sleep in the doorways of shops along the centre of town because it is safer for them this way.
One classic example of this is an old fella Bushy, who comes and goes from Byron, but during Schoolies last year, was sleeping in the main street, day and night, who told me himself that he felt safer out in the open. Even then, a group of boys from one of the local towns gave him a hard time one night, early, when he was just having a rest in main beach park, with one of them kicking him in the head while he slept, for no bloody reason. I was disgusted by this and for once, instead of telling people that the YAC is an inappropriate place to sleep, I actually suggested to Bushy that maybe the YAC might be a safer place for him to camp at that time. He told me it wasn’t, as so many of those camping around the sandhills estate had big problems and that there was a lot of violence due to alcohol and drug-use. Of course he was right.
Just over a year ago Crown Lands did a massive clean-out of the homeless camps around the sandhills bushland adjacent to the YAC, literally evicting the dozens and dozens of people from the camps there, and bulldozing everything. And although I had had so many issues over the years with these camps, I was also very fearful for what would happen to these people. I went through there a number of times a week in the weeks after Crown Lands put up the eviction signs, talking with the people living there, explaining to them that this was a real happening, and that they needed to start to look for somewhere else to camp, as it wasn’t an idle threat, and they were going to bring in bulldozers and that they needed to take their belongings and find somewhere safe to move to. I found it really difficult to watch these people have to move, many of whom had lived there for years and years, some in groups with 8 tents or more, with well-designed ‘kitchen’ areas and stoned fire-pits, even having cleared the land around them to make them safe.
Having run youth drop-in and music programs at the YAC on Friday nights for the last eight years or so, I was constantly having to be on the alert for those who were camping close-by in the sandhills bushland, mainly due to intoxication and also the high levels of mental health problems, and particularly psychotic illnesses, because you really have no idea what their actions and behaviours may be at any given time. But at the same time, I got to know many of them, I saw how well many of them looked out for each other, the older ones, the younger ones too. But there was the other side to this too, there were the ones who were abusive, or who abused each other and there were the ones who were terrified nightly, that might die in their sleep. Crown Lands may have evicted everyone a year ago, but there are still a lot of homeless people come and go from there.
For years and years, I have advocated for fencing around the YAC, so that young people attending programs there, particularly in the evenings, can be kept safer from these sorts of issues. Finally last year, I wrote a successful grant for that fencing to become a reality, and it will soon be going up around the front of the YAC. It’s needed, not just for the young people attending there, but to also safe-guard the building from the problems that have occurred from homeless people camping out there, building fires under the awning in winter, and actually even setting fire to the side of the building a few years ago too, when someone’s bedding went up in flames during the day. I would often walk into the camps early in the evening, when I would notice the orange glow from their camp-fires, some of which were quite big and just have a chat, remind them to keep the fires safe, as the place is a real tinder-box, and they would also remind me at times, that it was them that collected all the dead branches and tree debris and burned it to keep the place safer from fires…
One of the saddest homeless cases I ever came across, was an elderly aboriginal man, in his late 70’s. I arrived one Saturday morning at the YAC, to set up for a whole weekend of youth music festivals I was running, one on the Saturday and one on the Sunday. It was about 8am when I arrived and this man was sleeping with a threadbare blanket, under the awning of the YAC, with a shopping trolley beside him with his possessions. At first, I decided not to disturb him, as it was only going to be me there for a few hours and I figured at his age, he was doing no harm and just looked like he really needed to continue to sleep. He stirred after about an hour or so, and I explained to him that I had a big event that afternoon and he’d have move on before all the young people arrived. He was very polite, said he understood, and then attempted to literally crawl sideways, which made me realise that he was actually severely disabled and could not use his legs. I asked him was he hungry and then made him a sandwich and gave him a bottle of water and sat and had a chat. I had briefly dropped into the YAC the afternoon before and had noticed him there then, so I asked him had he been there all night. He told me his ‘friend’ had left him there and he would be ‘back soon’ and then he’d be able to move on somewhere. Well, the friend never turned up, and the young people started to arrive to help to set up for the music event, and they were fabulous with the old man, sitting and talking with him, and in the end, we physically moved him over onto a shaded area of the amphitheatre, and with time running out, I started to call around to see what I could do for this man.
By then, he had been there for over 24 hours, just abandoned by his so-called ‘friend’, who turned out to be his ‘carer’ who took all of his money and left him living on a thin cot-mattress with a threadbare blanket, no tent either, just camped in Sandhills, ignored for days at a time. I tried my contacts at St Vinnies and also the Salvos, already knowing that the ’emergency housing’ program had been shut down and now the only option for that is to call a Sydney number, that then refers you through to Lismore! But in the end, I had run out of options and called the police and the ambulance and between us we literally made the call that this man needed to go to hospital. This in itself was a problem as even the ambos knew that the hospital would not take him, and they had to go to extremes to push the point with the hospital to admit him. Lots of calls back and forth later, needless to say, he was admitted, but only for a short time and the police then set about looking for the ‘carer’. This man turned up during our music event later that night, and became extremely aggressive when he learned his ‘friend’ wasn’t there, whereby the young people who had been with me earlier in the day, actually rallied around me, to help me force this man backwards out of the YAC grounds, while I was also telling him I was on the phone with the police and they were on their way. Turns out this man had previously been charged with neglect, for not caring for his ‘friend’, including having sold his wheelchair for booze and had been banned from having any contact with him. But in the end, the old man just ended up back at his camp in sandhills the next day, as he had no other options. Others were wheeling him around in the shopping trolley. Sad, sad situation.
Byron’s homeless people are part of our community. They deserve respect as equally as anyone else who lives here and even sometimes more than some of the business people, who speak out against them, yet never lift a finger to help, or donate foods to those who help to feed them. What so many seem to forget, is that many of our homeless have come to this through circumstances sometimes beyond their control. Families get evicted from their homes here when their rents go up to a point where they can no longer afford to pay the ridiculous rents, or to have those homes turned into ‘happy houses’ or holiday lets. Young people become homeless for so many reasons, and there is nothing for them here if they do. In fact there is nowhere for our homeless to go now, since the cottage was closed, to even get a shower, wash their clothes or keep their belongings safe. I am truly saddened by the homeless situation in Byron and I sincerely wish that appropriate solutions could be found to help them.
And finally, this sort of article by Anna James, does Byron’s homeless no good whatsoever. It is flowery and fluffy and makes no point at all. There are NO gyspy kids in Byron, but there are a shitload of seriously impoverished young people, who daily face the very worst kind of struggles anyone could ever face, no homes, no comforts, no food, no family, mental illness, ill-health, drug and alcohol addiction and the constant fear of abuse in many, many forms. How about the Echo publish THIS sort of story and actually help to get some action happening on the true terrible situation of our homeless people!
Nicqui Yazdi, youth worker, Byron Bay