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Mandy Nolan’s Soapbox: The homeless women of the Byron Shire you won’t see on Instagram

Poverty is an uncomfortable truth. Knowing you can intervene to change the circumstances of another human being’s life is a privilege and a duty. In his book The Life You Can Save, philosopher Peter Singer argued that citizens of affluent nations are behaving immorally if they do not act to end the poverty they know to exist in developing nations.

This is upsetting. None of us want to perceive ourselves as immoral. But we are. I believe Singer’s thesis can be pushed further. In this shiny coastal utopia we call home, filled with influencers doing yoga on the beach, celebs building mansions on hills, and real estate agents cashing in on housing values that are swelling like the bellies of Singer’s malnourished children, then perhaps it’s time we looked at what we should do to change. And I’m not saying Council. I’m saying us.

The rental stress in this region is out of control, and is about to make a whole tier of the community who previously occupied the lower rung of the rental market, at risk and homeless. Many of these are the unseen of homelessness; women.

Opportunism costs

Let me share three real stories from this community. I have changed their names to protect their dignity, but be assured, these are not fictional stories. This is the long-term social harm that occurs when the super privileged move to town, and our most vulnerable are left without options.

Meet Carol, she’s 87. She’s a widow who has been living in a rental in Ocean Shores for the last seven years. She still drives. She is still able to live independently. Her rental was $350 per week. She lives upstairs and sublets downstairs so she can manage on her meagre aged pension. Her landlord has just served Carol with an eviction notice, and she is to vacate the property in the next six weeks. Clearly, with the going rental rates, a renovated house in Ocean Shores could lease for up to $800 per week. Who would begrudge anyone a bit of free market opportunism? Isn’t it what we all do? But all opportunism has a human cost. And I guess if we were to be truly honest with ourselves that is where it becomes immoral.

There aren’t many options for Carol. She doesn’t want to leave the area, because this is where she has made friends, it’s where her life is, it’s where her medical and social supports are. How does an 87 year old woman pick up and start again as a stranger in a new community with no support?

Invisible gates

Before you say what I hear many say – which is – ‘move somewhere you can afford’, consider what a community is. Consider how valid every tier of our community is to our overall social cohesion. That is what inclusive  means. As soon as you say ‘move out’ – you are engaging in exclusivity, and we all start to live in a gated community. Except you can’t see the gates.

So here are the options for Carol: She can go to the Tribunal and possibly get extended tenancy until January. Not an ideal time to be seeking accommodation. The reality is, who will lease to Carol? How can she compete, on the pension, against young couples who have moved from Sydney and who have offered to pay six months in advance? Because that is what’s happening. Everyone I know who has got a lease recently has paid many months rent up front. Who among our more vulnerable community could afford to do that?

There is an elderly priority wait list for the Housing Department once you are 80, but unfortunately we are so short of housing here that that’s not an option for Carol. The only retirement village where she can rent at $250 per week is in Murwillumbah, but there is a long waiting list for a room there too.

Carol’s most realistic outcome at this point is going to be homelessness. She will have to live in her car.

Oh yes, there is the 28 days emergency temporary accommodation ‘option’. But do you know how that works? It’s five nights, and then you have to go back to your local office in Tweed with your signed lease-seeker document to prove you are looking for housing. This continues until the 28 days is up. Then guess what? Nothing. There is nothing.

This is how a vulnerable member of our community, who has always paid her rent, who has done the right thing now ends up homeless. If we let this happen, we are immoral.

Can you step up?

She is extremely distressed. She is frightened. She feels her life has no meaning, that she has no value, no future. The message we are giving Carol is that there is no place for her here. In a truly connected and diverse community her story must become our story.

Someone must intervene. There are enough people in our region with enough money to pay for 100 Carols. Please step up.

Meet Sally. She’s a hardworking single mother in her mid thirties. She currently lives with her two children in a one-and-a-half bedroom home. She’s been living here for over a decade. She recently looked at a house in Newrybar that 245 people applied for. If she doesn’t find something soon she’ll have to leave the area. Her kids will need to change schools, she’ll need to find work again, and she will be living somewhere without her social supports. Someone, please step up.

And then there’s Bec. She’s in her late 20s and has a full-time job in hospitality. She’s a brilliantly friendly young woman with a talent for connecting with her customers. When she’s not couch surfing, she has been living in her car. Step up.

Homeless slide

Housing stress is hard on the whole community – but it’s particularly hard on women who become increasingly vulnerable as they slide into homelessness.

Government and Councils are hamstrung by funding availability, politics, and budget restraints. And generally progress moves far too slowly to make the necessary changes when we have so many people in housing stress.

Meaningful action

Right now there is an opportunity for the affluent private sector, and I especially mean the super affluent (you know who you are) new residents, like Chris Hemsworth, who love this place that so many of us have worked so hard to curate into something unique and amazing, to do something meaningful.

We call on those newer residents we’ve welcomed, like Chris and friends, who, simply by their presence have unwittingly had significant economic impacts on our postcode’s desirability explosion. We call on you to really become part of this community by leading the way to create something ongoing for our most under-resourced citizens. Imagine the story we could tell to the world if rich and poor could live together harmoniously in a connected community!

We need social housing for women like Sally and Bec. We need someone with a lot of money to do it now.

We need a house for Carol, now. This is the life you can save.

If anyone has housing options for Carol, please email [email protected]

And if you have a shitload of cash and want to change the world, let’s start.

It’s time to step up.


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27 responses to “Mandy Nolan’s Soapbox: The homeless women of the Byron Shire you won’t see on Instagram”

  1. Nerida says:

    Why doesn’t Carol have her own place at her age?

    • Vincent says:

      Because she probably doesn’t exist.

    • Trevor Nunya says:

      Because not everyone has or has had the opportunity to buy? That would be my guess. Many people have ‘been there’, lost it, ‘been there’ again, and lost it again. Maybe ask Carol herself?

    • Diane says:

      @Nerida, let’s see, there are many people who, though breakups, ill health or mental health issues, casual underpaid workers, and/or systemic racism, particularly women, who have not had the opportunity to purchase housing.

    • Jennifer says:

      What a loaded (judgmental) question Nerida. It could be for a variety of reasons – but I wont go into that because its not the point!

    • That’s an awful assumption by Nerida. Not everyone’s life is all plain sailing to achieve goals methodically & according to your ideas or experience.

  2. Most of the world’s ‘immoral’ Mandy. Lets try & turn it around beginning
    with shelter.

  3. Kathleen says:

    Neridas question/statement. Sums up the attitude of some. It is full of unconsciousness.

  4. Geoffrey says:

    Lovely sentiments Mandy. One big problem though. The people that already live here. You know, the Nimbys that would love something to be done about the homeless and for the people seeking affordable housing, but ‘just not on my street or in my neighbourhood’ or ‘not next door to my house’. There are probably a lot of ethical investors who would be happy to build co-housing estates or affordable housing, or even tiny house estates. Until they run into the Nimby, DA destroying, brigade.

  5. keerti says:

    Successive governments and councils have shoved the housing issue to one side (especially Byron Shire council) whilst mouthing platitudes about affordable housing ( so called affordable housing is anything but!). It is coming to a point where people will need to organise and create a tent city or else the poor will be forced out of the shire (those who still remain). The great monopoly game is nearing collapse. Without organization the homeless and their close cousins (the rent stressed), will disappear from the shire as they are swallowed up into nameless, endless impoverished slums elsewhere. People who have lived in the area for all or most of their lives. Shame on people , who, like Nerida have no compassion. There is only one step between privilege and poverty. it can happen anytime and without warning.

  6. 20% of replies are negative. Shamefully, that bunch could only be accused
    of representing ‘the backside of society’. Questions; did mummy or daddy
    lend you the money to purchase a home here. Where do you originally come
    from; what city. Why did you leave your old residence… & did you own it.
    Nerida, an 87 year old woman has most likely lost her partner to illness &
    if that is so she may have had to sell her home due to crazy medical costs.
    Or, perhaps she has children who helped her ‘spend’ her money on them.
    That, unfortunately, happens all the time. Either way, just think. That 87
    year old could be you some day. Vincent… she exists. Believe it. What a
    ‘corny’ reply. Suspicion … no room for that. Try again. We have a nice
    new way unfolding – an attitude that 5 to 10 years ago just would not
    have existed.

    • Erika says:

      Those people who wonder about why Carol doesn’t have a house at her age have received a lot of messages… thanks to everyone’s empathy. Here is another thing to think about…. if everyone owned a place then there would be nobody that rented… how could investors buy property if nobody rents? Be grateful to have people around that pay rent

  7. lindy stacker says:

    OMG Nerida & Vincent I am appalled at your comments Guess what ?One day you’ll be old & the way our pandemic is going you may NOT have a home you own. You are so insensitive & speaking out of arrogance.You have no idea re the facts or the details of the life story of this 87 yr old woman. Many people who have worked their arse off can’t afford a home in later life, I’m one of them. Without my parents loving assistance I’d be working till I was 87. That’s what happens when you (I ) work for non profit social justice organisations & environment groups . The work was ethical/satisfying & fulfilling but the pay was crap. Being a single mother & having to work part time didn’t help either. This dear elder that you chose to judge , could have had 3 divorces, ill health, poor wages, children to support ,family /or friends she assisted, people could have robbed her financially etc We don’t know but many people end up in this tragic situation, in older life.If you’re looking to blame someone blame this hard arse/heartless conservative govt, who continue to rob from the poor to advantage the rich.

  8. Megan says:

    These stories are sad, someone should step up. How about someone audit north coast housing. There are people on subsidised housing in Byron, paying token rent, nothing like market place, in houses. One person in a 3-4 bedroom home. Perhaps someone should look at the housing that is here and support those that really need it and not allow those that are working/are capable of working to get the subsidised housing. The system is flawed.

  9. Bec says:

    Thankyou Mandy for addressing this reality. Im really worried for the future. I know the inevitable will happen to me and I feel completely impowered.

    I have a huge amount of resentment towards our new residents who are feeling ‘so welcomed by the community’, yet oblivious to the housing crisis and disharmony they contribute to.

    Ill give you a forth case study to dwell on… I stay in and subject my children to a horrible relationship because I cannot afford a new rental let alone be fast enough to go to a viewing!. I’ve been here only 16 years my 3 kids all school in Mullum, I have a full time job, and extended family too. But I’m forced to live a life i don’t choose and stay in a horrible relationship. Oh I pray my teenage girls don’t copy behaviours they witness!

    And @Nerida my reason for renting is because its bloody hard to save a fat deposit whilst raising 3 children let alone the 5 years it took me to get qualified to hold a FT job…

    So now I am raising my courage to upheave my life and change EVERYTHING because I no longer belong here.

  10. Makindo says:

    Unfortunately this situation is not confined to Byron shire it is everywhere and you don’t have to be elderly either nor female. Some people suggest this is the fault of the ” super” rich moving into the area I don’t believe so. I moved to the northern rivers area over 40yrs ago like a LOT of other people and I can assure you that I’m not any where near rich but I and all those people (maybe your parents)all helped to contribute towards this situation
    along with councils and all governments ( not enough affordable land / housing).
    Nerida and Vincent, women of Carols age if they were married weren’t expected to go to work instead they stayed home looked after the house and made sure their children were fed and clothed unmarried women who had to work only received about 2/3rd of a mans wage. Even today not everyone has a great wage you two have have a very lot to learn about life by the look of it. Anyway I have to go outside now and see if I can find where roof on my caravan is leaking before it rains again .

  11. Edeltraud says:

    Mandy Thank you for voicing exactly my sentiments….
    The privilege of having funds/ wealth comes with moral obligations to help the poor… its mainly the new materialistic countries that have lost this noble sentiment that the rich give tidings to care for the poor… even in the old feudal systems the poor had roofs over their heads.
    It is also the moral task if any council toprovide shelter for the vulnerable and homeless, and it would suggest for them to work together with the landowners… eg allow dwellings to be erected without the red tape to house vulnerable people on compassionate reasons.

  12. Ill fares the land says:

    Thanks for writing this Mandy. The sad and brutal reality is that “we” are the problem”. “We” don’t care about Carol and even some of the respondents to your article are suspicious – it must be Carol’s fault. Easy to take that view when one is blind to how easily a life can fall apart, “We” are the well-off from Sydney and other places who have gentrified Byron, pushing up the costs of accommodation and everything else. Funny thing – during the dot.com boom, the exact same thing happened in Silicon Valley. Oodles of start-up overnight millionaires pushed up the price of housing to the point where people like teachers, nurses, fire-fighters and police officers were renting somebody’s garage, living in their cars or travelling on the all-night bus to get some amount of sleep. The rich in SIlicon Valley didn’t care either once they were caught up in their own magnificence. “We” embrace the myth that all of the unemployed are lazy and don’t want to work. “We” want something done about climate change, but will drive 5-minutes to the supermarket, gym or cafe in a 2-tonne gas-guzzling, uber polluter (FACT: if the pollution emitted by all of the SUV’s in the world were emitted by one country, that country would be the 7th largest pollution emitter in the world). But are “we” changing? No effing way. “We” think Cariol should just get off her a** and buy a house, or the unemployed should get out and get jobs and stop wanting “us” to give up our hard-won wealth. It might not be that binary, but because enough of the “us” think that way, Carol and people like her, will probably die homeless. The governments of the world are almost universally a disgrace, but it is the “we” of the world that elected many of those clowns and “we” who seem to keep on re-electing them. If “we” really cared about the damage those clowns are doing, wouldn’t “we” vote them out of office?

  13. Only the people can turn this around. Get up & stand tall. Say it
    & mean it ‘we are not going to take it anymore’. We all know what
    the ‘truth’ is. Vote the fodder out.

  14. Larry spence says:

    There will always be poorer people in any community. Poverty is relative. A poor person living in Byron would be well off in Wilcannia. The 3 people used as examples will have to move to somewhere less expensive. This is not the fault o

  15. Barrow says:

    Great initiative Mandy ! And yes it is true our shire
    Has become so desirable that soon only the rich and famous will reside here .. 800 a week for rent
    Who can afford that .. !! Unfortunately homelessness is a huge issue not only in the northern rivers but Australia wide and growing.
    Especially during the pandemic, 40.000 kids
    Live on the streets at anyone time .
    Stepup the well heeled !!

  16. Nerida says:

    Life’s marginalised flotsam and jetsam cannot expect to live alongside Hollywood superstars and the mega-rich. Byron has changed. Forever.

  17. A perfect example of a small town in Qld overlooking the Glass House
    Mountains. Yes, yuppy-vill. Maleny; Sunshine Coast. It’s now choked
    to death. The Maleny Folk Festival that worked a world-wide treat is now
    long gone. The ‘alternatives’ [including me. I lived there for 40 years]
    scattered to Tassie & NZ. Maleny was known as Australia’s largest
    Co-Op town & ‘real people’ gave their time & know-how inventively to
    one another. We pulled together. Recycling began there long before
    Tasmania followed suite. We even invented a local currency. Bunya
    Nuts… in place of dollars. It worked on ‘needs’. If I had a broken leg &
    could not do the shopping, get the lawn cut etc then the bunya-swap
    kicked in – I would help the kids with homework or teach guitar. That
    home-town being is lost. It needs to come back…Everywhere.

  18. Gazinger says:

    The reality is that desperately needed initiatives like affordable housing don’t get traction until somebody is able to make a buck out of it. The government needs to step up. All levels of government need to offer incentives to facilitate this via rates or contributions relief, land or income tax concessions, loans etc. Australia builds an adequate number of dwellings per annum but they are being bought by those advantaged by government tax concessions/incentives and by overseas investors. The government has a big influence on the type of housing produced. The latest example is the Homebuilder grant scheme. No government incentives to build social or affordable housing.

  19. If the government won’t implement social or affordable housing the country
    will literally ‘fall apart’. Even blind Freddy can see that.

  20. J Hill says:

    Historically women have been ripped off financially. It really is a crime. Women did not even access superannuation, even when working full time, until the 80s. Many other social factors have prevented equal pay. It has just got worse and worse. Social housing creation stopped completely during the Howard govt. and never recovered.
    I am concerned that people (like the comfortably well-heeled and numb people I know) are lacking any compassion for others in their community. I am speaking from my own experience as a woman, that although they’re very nice to you they never offer help in any way. Like a lot of others, I have contributed to society and raised family and been a carer. These sacrifices need to be recognised and people become more giving.

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