Case Study: The Byron Bay Homelessness Story
The 2006 Census of Population and Housing: Estimating homelessness published 2012 defines ‘sleeping rough’ as sleeping out or in impoverished dwellings such as tents.
They list people ‘sleeping rough’ each night as;
Inner Sydney 76
Sydney East 180
Sydney South 64
Sydney West 24
Inner Melbourne 53
Byron Bay 93
Byron Bay Community Centre community services manager recently reported:
“One of the fastest growing demographics of homeless (in Byron Bay) is middle aged women and I think there are several reasons, one of them is relationship breakdowns. After a relationship may break down, the woman may not have skills for employment after being a homemaker, they don’t have super to access, they may lose the family home and if they can’t make the income to rent they can end up being homeless.”
Ms Seddon also said those relationship breakdowns were often a result of domestic violence. She said the centre had helped 12 women fleeing from domestic violence so far this year, compared to none in 2015.
“We’re currently working with one particular woman on the run who turned up here with four children and has been living in a tent,” she said.
“This is quite new for us, having so many presentations of women fleeing domestic violence.”
She said life had also been made tougher for Byron Bay’s rough sleepers since the closure of a drop-in centre last year that housed the town’s only shower for the homeless.
“If you’re on a Centrelink benefit, you will be cut off if you move from a higher employment area into Byron being a high unemployment area.”
The Byron Shire Echo reports:
“Community agencies have highlighted the desperate plight of homeless people in Byron Shire.
“We’ve seen a disturbing increase in people sleeping in their cars – a situation that has been exacerbated by the recent flood where people lost their vehicle and/ or home and all their possessions including identification,” said Julie Williams from the Mullumbimby and District Neighbourhood Centre (MDNC).
‘There is an increase in single women and women with children sleeping in cars or couch surfing, at times as a result of domestic violence.’
This was confirmed by Paul Spooner from the Byron Community Centre, who highlighted that there are also a lot of long-term homeless people sleeping rough.
“Some people have been sleeping rough for 15 years and as people age they have increasing health needs – it is a very challenging path.”
Volunteers at the coal face tell us:
“A lot of people are really struggling with housing affordability. It’s common that they have very little, if any, money left after they pay rent and bills for food and clothing. We’ve seen a number of men around the 30-40 year age mark living either in their cars in carparks or in tents up in the bush.”
‘Single mums with kids are really struggling to pay $500 a week just to house their families. Many are struck down by illness, some related to the recent floods, and are unable to work.”
Paul Spooner notes;
“There is currently an acute need for transition housing in the Shire and issues around where people sleep in wet weather. With four to six major wet-weather events a year the question is where do the people who are sleeping rough go. What facilities could be provided to help people make it through these periods?”
The Northern Star reports:
“Homelessness in Byron Bay is getting worse and cuts in government support mean vulnerable people are unable to meet basic sanitary needs, a Byron Bay social worker has said.
Celeste Harris, community services coordinator at the Byron Bay Community Centre, said the coastal area from Ballina to Tweed Heads had the second highest number of rough sleepers in the state.
The statistic is mainly due to the concentration of homeless people in Byron Shire – especially in Byron Bay.
Ms Harris said support for homeless people had plummeted since the closure of Fletcher St Cottage last year, which provided a drop-in centre for homeless people enabling them to have a shower, a cup of tea, launder their clothes and access services.
“This community is not able to meet their basic needs for dignity and health and cleanliness,” she said.
The community centre was struggling to cope with these “huge unmet needs”, and it was becoming a “human rights” issue.”
BYRON SHIRE COUNCIL RESPONSE
The Byron Shire Council response to homeless people is to penalise them for being without a home by issuing fines for non-compliance with spurious regulations.
The insensitive actions of Council’s compliance staff is illustrated in the notice shown on the next page which is displayed at the Liberation Larder in the Byron Community Centre where those in need come to get food.
This callousness to those who are ‘sleeping rough’ is insulting and degrading in the extreme and violates human rights to basic respect tolerance and compassion.
One homeless person who has been ‘moved on’ several times and did not have the money to pay the fine issued by Council, is now doing one day a week of community service to avoid a prison sentence.
The only response given by the Council officer was “I am just doing my job!”
There are many such examples that highlight the need for a pro-active positive plan to care for those in genuine need who are marginalised by our political and economic systems.
Where once the Fletcher Street Cottage drop-in-centre provided a safe hub for those in need in downtown Byron Bay, reduced government funding and other factors caused its closure in 2015. The centre, a joint venture between Byron Shire Council, Byron Community Centre and the Salvation Army, could then no longer provide assistance with such basic rights to hygiene as laundry facilities and showers or a simple cup of tea and an ear to be heard.
Open beach showers or pre-booking shower facilities twice a week at the old Girl Guide’s hall in Carlyle Street are the only options provided for Byron’s homeless population with no council initiatives to improve this dehumanising situation.
It seems like adding insult to injury when the Byron Shire Council then seeks to impose restrictions on where someone may ‘sleep rough’ and fine the least financially resourced people in the community for not complying to these restrictions.