Though the days are warm, the nights are still very cold and will be for a couple of months to come.
For people sleeping rough, this is a really hard time of year and services for the homeless and needy are stretched to their limits.
The problem of homelessness is not getting any closer to being solved; in fact the opposite is the case and it’s difficult to accurately gather statistics because of the nature of homelessness.
The Northern Rivers and North Coast Community Housing’s Housing Needs Northern Rivers Housing Study 2018 report says that beneath the brochure images of Byron Bay surfers and the alternative lifestyle of Nimbin lie some of the most challenging housing conditions.
The report says that local factors contributing to homelessness include the growing gap between rising housing costs and incomes, which is not unique to the Northern Rivers. However, special local characteristics have accentuated the problem: sea-change and tree-change migration has increased demand for well-located housing, often in the form of holiday homes that are only occupied for part of the year; economic prosperity and population growth over the border in southeast Queensland have made the Northern Rivers more attractive, accessible, and affordable to more people – these trends are accentuated by the long-overdue upgrade of the Pacific Highway – unfortunately significant investment in road infrastructure has far exceeded investment in community and social services.
Other issues are coastal resorts, which are a continuing mecca for backpackers, families, and grey nomads. This has led to a loss of caravan parks offering affordable longer-term accommodation, and the rise of the Airbnb and Stayz holiday-lets. Fast-rising property costs have not been met by a commensurate rise in incomes:
The highest household incomes are found in Ballina, Byron, Lismore, and Tweed council areas, though they are still generally 35 per cent lower than the NSW average.
Household income across in the more inland areas of Clarence Valley, Kyogle, and Lismore council areas have risen between 2011 and 2016 at a slower rate than the NSW average
Nearly all areas in the Northern Rivers have a very low household income, defined as under $650 per week. The most challenged areas of inland Kyogle and Clarence Valley council areas have up to 40 per cent of households on very low incomes, compared to an average of below 20 per cent across NSW.
The report says all Northern Rivers council areas have below the NSW average of higher earners, those with household incomes over $3,000 per week. Even in relatively prosperous Byron Shire fewer than 10 per cent of households are classed as higher earners, less than half the average in NSW low incomes, coupled with poor intra-region transport, isolation, and limited supply of social and support services has led to many in the Northern Rivers facing many challenges.
But these are all long-term issues.
Mullumbimby Neighbourhood Centre coordinator and acting manager Leseera Kai says that the needs of the homeless have not changed in the 20 years she has been at the centre. ‘They still need to eat and keep warm,’ she said. ‘They seem to move around more than they used to between Brunswick, Byron, and here. There is a lot of movement but there are definitely more people.’
Ms Kai says they serve community meals for the homeless. ‘We’re doing around 50-plus meals four days per week,’ says Leseera. ‘It’s a mix of rough sleepers, people in tents and cars, and people two seconds away from either.’
There are many layers to homelessness and people living in overcrowded housing and those going through community support. People tend to focus on rough-sleeper numbers.
At ground zero there is a shortage of blankets and towels and well as food and toiletries for the homeless; even the smallest donation could provide a meal for someone in need. For a few dollars you can buy a tin of food, a toothbrush, toothpaste, or soap, sanitary items for women, and dried-food items that are easily consumed for those who don’t have kitchen facilities.
When finances are tight, money for grooming items are way down the list of necessities when you are hungry.
There is a real concern that there an erosion of community and connection when there’s just no room. Literally and figuratively, people to have the right to shelter.
For more information about how you can help, contact the Mullumbimby Neighbourhood Centre, the Byron Community Centre, the Salvos, or Vinnies.