Story & photo Eve Jeffery
Byron Bay’s issues of people and rubbish in a town that is being more often perceived as an alcohol-fuelled bedlam is becoming a turn-off for the people it is trying to attract. There have been reports that at times over the new-year break you couldn’t even see the sand on Belongil Beach for the refuse and human waste.
Youth worker Deb Pearse says she is disgusted, disappointed and disillusioned by the behaviour of a certain element in Byron Bay. Deb has been a part of the Byron Youth Service Street Cruise program for 12 years, providing youth outreach on both Friday and Saturday nights. Deb says she understands the need for tourists but feels the wrong sort of visitor is being attracted to the town. ‘Look, I’m not stupid,’ she says. ‘This is a tourist town, but the tourists we need we are driving them away. Families and people that respect the place don’t want to come here. They are horrified.’
After 12 years looking after teenagers on the streets, Deb says she can see it is the tourist element causing most of he trouble. ‘You know the difference. I’m not blind, deaf and dumb. I know locals can throw rubbish, get in fights and behave badly; the difference is they know me. If I am working I can go up to them and say, “Hey guys. You live here. What are you doing?” and they can usually be brought into line. Out-of-towners abuse me usually in a very unpleasant manner.’
Deb says she works every weekend so she can speak for what she sees. ‘What I see is the most gross consumption of alcohol. From my observation the really problematic group are mainly guys from late teens through their twenties. They are the ones that I am constantly asking to pick up their rubbish, to stop throwing bottles, to stop urinating in the street in front of me. This is what I have seen with my own eyes.
Deb says it is hard on the local kids to see their town being trashed by people out of the area. ‘It has a flow-on effect on a lot of levels. I talk to a lot of young people and some of them are very angry and that can cause fights. When they see someone drop rubbish, they are not always polite in asking someone to pick things up and it can get aggressive. What kind of belief system are we passing along to these kids. If we can’t look after this place then why should we expect them to?’
Deb says that heat, alcohol, and holidays are a dangerous mix. She says the energy is getting more volatile and very scary. ‘It is volatile at other times as well, but at this time of year when you get such an enormous amount of people in this tiny little town there is bound to be trouble.’
She says the need for the outreach bus is growing steadily each year, but lack of funding means Street Cruise is down to just Fridays. Deb says that the problems are escalating. ‘This year it’s much more spread out. Last year the mayhem was contained pretty much in town. This year just about every street you go into there is rubbish, broken glass right up into the residential area. It’s up Ruskin Street and even on the road to the wetlands; it’s everywhere.
‘The local youth rely on us. They trust us. A lot of them will text me during the day to make sure we will be in town in the evening. I feel so sorry for the police, the ambos, the taxi drivers, the hospital staff. I don’t know how everyone keeps going. Last Friday night there were so many disasters they were just racing from one crisis to another. There’s just not enough of anything to cope with this many people. Apparently we can afford to clean the mess up. Yet we can’t afford to keep the Street Cruise bus going for the locals.
‘The young people are SMSing me to make sure I am in town so they know they have a safe place to come to when things get out of control. When we worked last Friday night I thought “what next!”. It felt like we’re were on another planet. It’s insane’