The number of rough sleepers in Byron Shire has continued to increase, with the most recent count seeing an increase of 18 per cent.
This makes it the area with the highest number of people who sleep rough per capita in NSW, outside of Sydney.
Responding to concerns about rough sleepers and homelessness, local NSW Greens MP Tamara Smith and officer in charge of Byron police station, Detective Chief Inspector Matt Kehoe, brought together 25 frontline workers to discuss the ongoing crisis of homelessness and rough sleepers in Byron Shire.
Ms Smith says, ‘Well meaning folk keep talking about homelessness and rough sleeping in Byron Shire, but very little has changed in the last five years for people experiencing homelessness in our community, or for the front line workers and volunteers who are trying to support them.
‘In fact the opposite is true – the number of people and their needs keep increasing, while the services available to support them steadily decrease.’
While an outreach pilot program being trialled in Tweed Shire has been running since August, and Byron Shire Council appeared keen to make inroads into the issue, frontline workers said the conditions on the street were getting worse.
‘From a policing point of view I’m not seeing it [improvements],’ said Inspector Kehoe.
‘The volunteers and community groups are doing an exceptional job, but with 150 rough sleepers at the last count, and I think that is an under representation, we are going to see more incidents for the homeless, both for victims and offenders.’
Local Ambulance Inspector James Porter agreed, saying that the ambulance services are facing competition for limited resources. Jobs in relation to people with mental health concerns and rough sleepers are affecting their capacity to respond effectively to medical situations in a timely manner.
‘I’ve come up here to see that there is nothing [in this area] working after hours. Once everyone goes home, it is all left to the police and ambulance,’ he said.
It can take police or the ambulance three hours or more to assist someone on the streets who has mental health issues into acute services in Lismore and Tweed. And during that time, local service provision is severely restricted.
The Byron police are assisting people into appropriate services up to 25 times a month. This often involves people being transported in the back of the paddy wagon.
‘The police should be the last line for these types of services,’ said Inspector Kehoe.
Mr Porter said that as part of the success of the Sydney assertive outreach program, he was involved in setting up temporary accommodation, and out-of-hours services such as mental health workers and alternative transport services. This eased the pressure on police and ambulance.
‘We uncovered a real disconnect between what some services say they are offering, and what police, ambos and rough sleepers say life is like on the streets – particularly after business hours,’ said Ms Smith.
A key outcome from the meeting was looking at how to define the needs of rough sleepers and those who are homeless in Byron Shire and how these needs can be addressed. ‘This think tank, with over 25 frontline services represented, was a big step toward defining a Byron model for solutions that I can then take to the Minister to resource,’ Ms Smith said.
‘We have also started planning Byron’s first Connections Week.’
Deb Stafford from Byron Shire Council explained that a ‘Byron Shire Connections Week event would see local workers and volunteers connecting with people sleeping rough, to get to know people by name, and understand how to provide the right support to each person.’
Ms Smith highlighted that, ‘The information gathered through the Connections Week will be vital for rolling out the right support on the ground, in terms of identifying actual need, but as a collaborative process across a huge number of organisations, it will also humanise clients and promote better collaboration between services.’