The young mother stands in the foyer of the Byron Community Centre, her face crumpled in tears.
Things have unravelled fast.
Within the space of a month she has lost her job and said farewell to a long-term partner.
Over the next half hour, she tells centre manager Paul Spooner (also a Byron Shire councillor) that she can no longer afford the rent and is now facing homelessness, along with her two children.
‘The thing that really struck me was how quickly it happened,’ Mr Spooner says.
‘We’re all only two or three unfortunate circumstances away from being in her shoes.’
As the region marks Homelessness Week, a new statistical snapshot produced by local service provider Social Futures reveals that the issue has become more pressing than ever.
The figures show that while the northern rivers only represents four per cent of the NSW population, it has 18.7 per cent of state’s rough sleepers.
This number has been increasing over the past four years, the figures show, and if improvised dwellings and tents are added to the mix, the rate of increase is significantly higher.
l get its best indication yet of how many of these rough sleepers are in the Byron Shire when a group of local volunteers conduct a homeless street count.
‘The anecdotal evidence is that we have a high number of rough sleepers in the Shire and this is an opportunity to get a clearer picture,’ Mr Spooner says.
‘We’re doing Byron on Tuesday, and Mullum and Bruns on Wednesday,’ he says.
One of the factors contributing to the rising rate of homelessness in the Shire is the lack of rental accommodation.
Just 0.8 per cent of housing in the northern rivers was available to rent at the beginning of 2018, the Social Futures snapshot shows.
This is down from 1.8 per cent six months earlier, and was the lowest rate of any region in NSW.
Drawing on recent research from Anglicare, the snapshot also shows just how unaffordable rental accommodation has become for local people on low wages or welfare.
The research analysed 329 properties in the northern rivers rental market, finding that just two were affordable for a single person on a disability support pension, while none were affordable for a single person on Newstart.
Single parents with two children earning the minimum wage and the family tax benefit fared little better, with only 12 properties in their price range.
The chief executive of Social Futures, Tony Davies, says the lack of affordable and social housing is contributing significantly to the region’s homelessness problem, and a major shift in policy is needed.
‘For far too long, affordable and social housing policies have poured revenue into urban developments as political leaders seek to build as many dwellings as possible within the electoral cycle,’ Mr Davies says.
‘Regional areas, with their smaller developers and more limited infrastructure, are relegated to watching from the sidelines as their homeless populations continue to grow.’
New policy approach needed
Mr Davies is calling for a new policy approach that specifically targets areas of need in regional Australia with smaller-scale housing developments that are genuinely affordable for people on low incomes.
‘For a start, we need a regime of tax incentives to encourage development in regional areas of high need,’ he says. ‘Relatively small changes to capital gains and land tax would make it much more attractive for developers to build genuinely affordable housing in regional areas.’
Simply slapping up a bunch of houses as quickly as possible is not the answer.
‘There have been a number of occasions in recent years where the government has put money into short-term projects and has essentially failed to meet the need for affordable-housing in regional areas,’ Mr Davies says.
‘The National Rental Affordability scheme and [former Labor PM] Kevin Rudd’s stimulus package are prime examples.
‘Billions of dollars flowed into affordable-housing subsidies and development, but those funds were allocated using processes that required large-scale development to be completed very quickly.
‘It meant that all of the money was allocated on the basis of who could build things fast, rather than on the basis of need.
‘The government needs to look at quarantining social and affordable housing funds for specific regional markets, so that community housing partners can look at a pipeline for affordable, smallerscale development.’
Mr Spooner added there is also a need for more local services to help those, like the young local mother, who found themselves in crisis.
‘There’s a lack of support for people in difficulty – emotional distress, mental health issues, people with addictions,’ he says. ‘Governments have a responsibility to look after all people. We seemed to have turned our back on that in Australia, and we see it in particular in Byron because this area gets so much attention.’