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.
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?
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.
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.
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.