On any given night in Tasmania, about 1600 people experience homelessness. And that number is only increasing.
As Shelter Tas told the government in December, “with more than one in four Tasmanians renting their home, the combination of rising rent and low income growth has created unprecedented hardship for many people”.
Frances Vinall sought out two of the stories behind the numbers – and it got her thinking about her own good fortune.
Nowhere to go
Jess Jackson was eight months pregnant when the house she was renting was sold.
The lease that her and her partner originally signed ended, and they were occupying their home on a month-to-month basis.
When the landlord wanted to sell the house, they had no choice but to go.
“I understood,” she said. “[The owner] was an old man and he kept the rent pretty cheap for us, and the rates were piling up.
“But I just thought we’d go straight into another house.
“And we just couldn’t get anything. I don’t even know how many we applied for.”
They turned to their friends, sleeping on “a lot of living room floors”.
And that puts her in the majority. Although homeless people sleeping rough are the most visible to the general public, they make up only 6 per cent. The rest are couchsurfing, sleeping in cars, in crisis accommodation, or in severely overcrowded make-do lodgings.
Eventually, Jess gave up on Tasmania.
“After I had the baby we just got in the car and drove to Queensland; we kept driving and got all the way there, and then got a phone call from housing commission saying that they’d found us a place,” she said.
“So we made our way back and moved into a housing commission house, which was wonderful. It took about three months for us, which was quick – it might have helped that we didn’t mind where we went, we applied for the whole state.”
As of 2018, the average wait time for public housing in Tasmania was 18 months.
Meanwhile, between 2014 and August 2018, 372 Housing Tasmania properties, worth almost $50 million, were sold by the Tasmanian Government.
“I wanted to buy one of the housing commission houses, and I was trying and trying, but it was just too competitive,” Jess said.
“My neighbours’ houses were all housing commission houses, and three of them went to one investor. I think it’s wrong, that investors could come all at once and buy three houses, when other people are desperate.
“You put in offer after offer and you just don’t get anywhere, the investors are too quick. It’s not just not working out for people.”
The guardian angel
It is a bitterly cold night on Friday, April 26. A cold snap has come through, and even though it’s only late autumn, it feels like the middle of winter.
Wherever you look around Launceston, people are shivering under layers of jackets, walking hurriedly from one heated location to another.
At Royal Park, though, the scene is one to warm the spirits.
If you hadn’t been to one of Feeding the Homeless Launceston’s five-nights-a-week free barbecues, you might not be expecting an affirming scene.
You might be anticipating a collection of downtrodden – perhaps even scary – individuals, hardened by difficult lives.
And when you actually meet the warm, friendly, chatty, and welcoming characters standing around the car park, catching up and telling stories, and cheerfully agreeing to have their photos taken, you will feel pretty silly for your misconceptions.
There is a strong sense of community among the people who have come for tonight’s donated pizza.
Everybody clearly knows each other. There is the atmosphere of a sharehouse, or a worksite on smoko – a relaxed, easy conviviality.
Kirsten Ritchie, the one-woman force behind Strike It Out (Feeding the Homeless Launceston’s other name) is darting around everywhere, marking people’s name on a sheet.
She hands eight boxes of Domino’s pizzas out by the slice, from where they are laid out on a ute tray.
Strike It Out is down at Royal Park at 5.30pm every weekday night.
It survives on donations from community members and businesses, but Ritchie has real fears that the barbecues will soon come to an end.
On April 19, she made this Facebook post.
“We have less than two weeks to go and we will have to look at ceasing our services,” the post said.
“This week the Holden Combo broke a starter motor and belt this has just set us going even further backwards of around $600. This vehicle is our refrigerated vehicle which has an important component to run our service with the pick up and delivery of perishable food.
“We also have not reached our target to meet enough funds coming in to keep us going.”
She estimates that the organisation needs another $700 a week to be confidently viable, covering insurance, van registration and servicing, petrol, food supplies, leasing their storage facility, and the eftpos machine.
She is hoping to get 700 people to set up a $1-a-week bank transfer donation.
GENEROUS: Kirsten Ritchie with Narelle Bywaters. Picture: Frances Vinall
Healthcare or groceries
The people at the Friday night barbecue clearly adore Kirsten.
They flock over to talk about how they feel about her – especially Narelle Bywaters, who said that Kirsten is doing “a marvelous job”.
“She certainly deserves all the support she can get – she’s been doing this for a long time, and she has her struggles too, so it would be really good to see more support for her,” she said.
Narelle has a disability, and is on Newstart, she said, but Medicare doesn’t cover a lot of her specialists’ costs, and she has to pay the difference – which takes a huge chunk out of her budget.
She comes to Strike it Out for dinner during the times she has to prioritise health care over groceries.
“We all have different reasons for why we’re here,” she said.
“When I’ve been financially okay, I’ve brought down food – big packs of meat, anything that’s easy to cook on the barbecues or in the van – and it all helps, it really does.
“When people or businesses bring donations of different foods, it’s like, wow – like hitting the lottery, sometimes,” she laughed.
“It’s like being looked after by a group of grandparents, you know, making something for us. It’s the love behind it, the care – just saying that, everything’s OK. That you’re just as important as everybody else.”
Refugee from the mainstream madness
For ‘Hammer’ Flower, the Strike It Out barbecues are as much about the company as they are about the food.
Hammer used to own a successful shearing company – Shear Pleasure, based in Wyoming, USA – but he “walked away from the mainstream madness”.
He started reading about the IRS and the CIA, the multi-billion dollar Rothschild family and the military industrial complex, the corporate media and the global banking system, and then went off the grid.
His Asperger’s leads him “deep into things, where other people get bored and lost”, he said.
He then lost his hand in a suicide attempt.
“The world started to make no sense to me,” he said.
“I lived with a lot of money, and I’ve lived under a tree, like I do now.
“I’ve got no source of income, I live by my wits, and it’s the easiest thing I’ve ever done.
“How do I feel now? I feel great.”
Hammer said he used to dig food out of trash bins, but now Strike It Out is one of his primary food sources – as well as sources of company.
“They say I’m homeless, but I say not really, because my home is wherever I go,” he said.
“My friends and brothers are wherever I’m at.”
A Fresh Start
When we spoke, Tabitha Walters, her partner, Daniel, and their dog, Knuckles, were living in a tent by a North-East riverbank.
Tabitha and Daniel are new to Tasmania; they left Melbourne around Christmas. As Tabitha puts it, “we had a lot of problems with exes – we couldn’t have a relationship that was just us”.
In November 2017, she said, in the midst of a dramatic relationship breakdown, Tabitha fell behind on her rent. She was kicked out of her house of seven years. After using up the 90 days available to her in crisis accommodation, she settled under a bridge in front of Crown Casino – which she shared with her father, a veteran who is also homeless.
Tabitha’s story is not unique. The single biggest factor behind homelessness in Australia is family violence. Those in unhealthy relationships frequently have the option of staying, or escaping with nothing – and 23 per cent of Australian homeless people are those who chose the second option.
For Tabitha, the tumult, among other factors, led to her losing custody of her children – and that’s something that she “can’t dwell on”.
“And to be honest, I’m glad they’re not here,” she said. “I would hate to see my kids go through this.
“Along the years, I’ve been in bad relationships, ending up with drug habits … nobody’s ever held a gun to my head and said, ‘you have to get into this relationship’.
“But it’s about knowing what those bad choices were, admitting that they were bad choices, and moving on from them. I won’t let life drag me down to the point where I stop making any effort.”
For now, Tabitha is looking for work – she is a qualified snake-handler, and said she has experience with racehorses, including 10 years with 12-time Melbourne Cup winning trainer, Bart Cummings.
She is on Centrelink. But as reams of research confirms, Newstart’s $275 a week is not enough to cover rent as well as basic expenses.
“I’ve got amazing references, but I don’t know … because the basis of my income is Centrelink, it is a hindrance,” she said.
“If I could get off Centrelink tomorrow, I would. In two seconds flat. But before I got stable, there was no way I was going to get work. Now that I’m here, I can at least start looking.”
She’s pretty sunny-side-up about things.
“I don’t mind camping,” she said. “I’ve always liked it. And it is harder to find a rental when you’re on Centrelink, but it can be done. You’ve just got to persevere, and accept the fact that it may take a while – and you can just take it day by day.”
The view from the middle class
About nine months ago, I bought a second-hand car.
I had just moved to Tasmania, and the costs of moving interstate had almost completely depleted my savings. But I had just enough money for a chunky, lovable, two-decades-old Subaru Forester, and I nabbed it straight away.
It was less than two weeks before the hood started spewing steam. Initially, the mechanic thought I’d need to completely replace the engine, so I was relieved when it turned out to be only a $1500 job. But still. I didn’t have $1500. I had that brief feeling, of the walls closing in.
Here’s how that situation turned out for me: I was completely fine. I explained the situation to my parents over the phone through hysterical sobs, and they’d transferred me a loan before I’d hung up. They both have the kinds of super funds that one could sign up to as a public servant in the mid-eighties – plus a couple of investment properties – so it wasn’t really a big deal for them. But it was one of those moments that threw the sheer power of the lottery of birth into sharp relief.
What if my parents weren’t so solidly middle class, with emergency money at the ready for their daughters? Without a car, would I have been able to keep my job? To pay rent? Without the knowledge of my parental safety net, would I ever have taken the financial risk of moving states to try and be a journalist? The answer to all of these questions, is probably not.
I have to admit something.
When I read about homeless people, or when I see them in the street, I sympathise with them, but I never see us as having anything in common. It seems like such a remote, almost alien, possibility – not having anywhere to live. But the truth is, and as any care organisation will tell you, there is a very thin line between a secure, stable existence, and struggling to survive. And the difference is so often not a fault of character, but of luck.
Information on donating to Strike It Out can be found through its website, strikeitout.com.au, a GoFundMe page, ‘Feeding the people who are homeless in Tasmania’, or through its Facebook page, Launceston feeding the homeless.
- Lifeline 13 11 14