Life with nowhere to live in Warrnambool

Homelessness is often a hidden problem in regional and rural communities. This Homelessness Week, we spoke to people trying to turn the tide.

Can you imagine celebrating milestone teenage birthdays without having a permanent place to call home?

For Kate*, a 23-year-old Warrnambool woman who didn’t want to be identified, that was a reality she faced multiple times while homeless.

The young woman ran away from home when she was 13 because home was unsafe.

Kate started taking drugs, fell in with a rough crowd, and was living “nowhere and everywhere”.

“I’d stay with friends, strangers, anybody,” she said. “I could meet somebody that day and stay there that night. That’s how I survived for about three years or more.”

When she fell pregnant at 18, she moved back in with her mum before eventually moving into supported housing.

But stretches of stability for Kate were dotted with periods of homelessness until she was able to get the help she needed. She said she was in a good place now.

Brophy youth support team manager Peter Flanagan said Kate had a long history with the organisation, and was doing well.

In the past financial year, the youth-based service has assisted 285 young people, providing 4600 nights of accommodation.

Information about those accessing services sheds some light on some underlying societal problems.

Female clients made up 66 per cent of those seeking help – with a high number presenting due to family violence. Aboriginal clients made up 9.5 per cent of those accessing help, while 30 per cent had a diagnosed mental health issue.

“We look at individuals and say family violence, mental health, drugs and alcohol – all those things we’ve talked about for years – that’s one side of it, but the other side of it is just because those things are happening to you, doesn't mean you shouldn't have a safe and secure place to live,” Mr Flanagan said.

“Those people are more vulnerable, that’s why they’re in the stats.

“They’re more vulnerable to becoming homeless, but if they had some support and if housing was more affordable and there was more community housing, they might not be.”

Mr Flanagan said homelessness was less visible in regional and rural areas, and more likely to involve sleeping on couches than being out on the street.

Kate is now living in her own home with her partner and two girls, aged five and three. She was also recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and is both nervous and hopeful about starting medication to manage the condition.

She said it’s almost impossible to describe how it feels to have a roof over her head.

“It feels great that I actually have somewhere I belong,” she said. 

“It’s our own little safe haven where if somebody does show up that I don’t want there, I can tell them to go instead of them telling me to go.

“It’s my sanctuary.”

*Kate is a pseudonym

Additional houses the key

Lindsay Stow, regional manager SalvoConnect Western, and Andrew Edgar, Barwon South West Homelessness Network regional coordinator, are working with other agencies to highlight the local homelessness issues. Picture: Rob Gunstone

Lindsay Stow, regional manager SalvoConnect Western, and Andrew Edgar, Barwon South West Homelessness Network regional coordinator, are working with other agencies to highlight the local homelessness issues. Picture: Rob Gunstone

When you ask those working on the ground tackling homelessness what would really help, they agree on the solution. 

It’s simply more places to live – affordable homes, not-for-profit-run community residences and government housing.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of Australians seek assistance from homelessness services.

Barwon South West Homelessness Network regional coordinator Andrew Edgar said demand for homelessness services far outweighed supply.

He said the focus needed to be on preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place through support.

“Homelessness is more than rough sleeping,” Mr Edgar said.

“There is not one path to homelessness. More often than not we see people with a housing affordability issue. It’s not a mental health or drug and alcohol issue. Housing affordability, being able to sustain a private rental or get into the housing market, is becoming more and more of a barrier.”

He also said a third of people seen by homelessness services were facing family violence.

Mr Edgar said secure, ongoing government funding was needed to implement solutions.

The Salvation Army is one of the key homelessness service providers in Warrnambool, and SalvoConnect Western regional manager Lindsay Stow said last financial year the organisation opened 947 new cases.

Mr Stow said in Warrnambool the organisation had 14 transitional, medium-term emergency accommodation properties and three crisis properties. He said there were 27 singles and 19 families waiting to access the accommodation.

“On a very simplistic level, increasing the supply of public and community housing would be something which would go a long way to addressing the homelessness,” he said.

Brophy Family and Youth Services’ Peter Flanagan said the numbers of people experiencing homelessness were not dropping.

“Homeless numbers continue to rise because there’s no overall policy or structural change around housing affordability or an increase in community housing,” he said.

“While services like us just keep flogging away at it, there’s no structural change.”

Both Mr Edgar and Mr Flanagan pointed to a Utah case study, where a ‘housing-first’ option was implemented.

The method of providing people with a roof over their head coupled with support was effective.

“They put people in a house and they provided support and they almost wiped out homelessness,” Mr Flanagan said.

“How can you plan or work or budget when you’re homeless?”

Warm place to connect and enjoy a meal

Expert pour: Warrnambool's Sharmain Ayres shows off the barista skills she picked up as part of the Kulcha Shift Friday Feed program at Brophy Family and Youth Services. Picture: Rob Gunstone

Expert pour: Warrnambool's Sharmain Ayres shows off the barista skills she picked up as part of the Kulcha Shift Friday Feed program at Brophy Family and Youth Services. Picture: Rob Gunstone

Nutritious food, a hot drink and welcoming company have been on offer every Friday for those doing it tough in the Warrnambool community for the past two years.

When it began, Brophy Family and Youth Services’ Kulcha Shift Friday Feed was only supposed to run for eight weeks, but its success propelled its continuation.

Regular visitor Francis Regan said he came in to meet up with people he knew.

“A lot of people I know who come in here are really doing it tough, both personally and financially, and it’s like a cafe rather than the negative view of a soup kitchen,” he said.

Mr Regan said the space provided a good opportunity to socialise, it helped people learn new skills and connected them with support services they may need to access.

Warrnambool's Sharmain Ayres, 22, has been mastering coffee-making skills during the Friday Feed for about two months.

Ms Ayres said she turned up one day and found out about the free barista training available, and thought she would give it a go.

The young woman said she would eventually love to get a job in a cafe and knew having barista skills would increase her chances of picking up work.

“It gives me a happy boost talking to friendly people and being able to make them a coffee that they love and enjoy,” Ms Ayres said.

“When I was starting out I wasn’t very confident, but I’m a lot more confident now and I’m even helping others learn how to do them.”