Children sleep in empty buildings and parks across Maitland as they struggle to find a place to call home. Teenagers spend their days travelling on trains from Maitland to Sydney because they have nowhere else to go and then there are those who bed down in church grounds as night falls on the city. The face of homelessness is not as it once was. EMMA SWAIN reports.
Sue Dark doesn’t have the luxury, or the inclination, to ignore the Hunter’s homelessness crisis.
As director of CatholicCare Social Services Hunter-Manning, Ms Dark doesn’t really have a choice.
And she hears it all, stories of children sleeping under bridges, in railway station waiting rooms or in tents on vacant land.
“There is of course that general issue of housing shortages but it’s not only that, so many people who are homeless have complications other than not having somewhere to live,” Ms Dark said. “Even those who appear to have somewhere to live, it’s generally inappropriate housing like sleeping on other people’s lounges. Then you have young mums with kids living with friends in an environment that isn’t good for her or the child but they have nowhere else to go.
“It’s really difficult because you have young people living together that have a whole lost of challenges and vulnerabilities.”
On any given night in Australia about 105,000 people are homeless while in the Hunter up to 400 people – some as young as 12 – are homeless or sleeping rough.
Ms Dark recently explored the issue of homelessness in an article she wrote for Catholic magazine Aurora.
In it she said the Hunter’s homeless are unprotected, vulnerable and face an uncertain future seemingly destined to be caught in the ‘no-home-no-job-no-home cycle’.
“In the Hunter the main reason people seek housing assistance is due to domestic/family violence and financial difficulty,” Ms Dark said. “Data also reveals that the Hunter has above average rates of welfare dependency and below state average rates of education and employment, therefore increasing the risk of becoming homeless. The Hunter also has generally higher rates of crime and drug and alcohol dependency – indeed a gloomy picture.
“And Maitland has been clearly identified for a very long time as one of the largest growing areas in the state but with that comes multiple issues and unless there is very good infrastructure in place there will be problems.”
Ms Dark said the contributing factors of homelessness are wide and varied and include domestic violence, sexual abuse, financial abuse, mental torment, family breakdown, mental illness, unmanaged/untreated abuse of alcohol and other drugs, illness, disability, unemployment, blended families, poverty, lack of appropriate accommodation and a care system that can fail our most vulnerable.
“We see kids that have come from really difficult circumstances and they don’t have the life skills to be able to maintain accommodation. They don’t know how to budget, how to feed themselves properly or how to pay bills so they get evicted,” she said.
“The saddest thing is seeing young people at risk of sexual abuse and physical assault and that is so common and then there are those who will turn to prostitution to either get food or accommodation. It’s so easy to fall into because life is so tough.”
On a more positive note there are services available to those in need but according to Ms Dark it’s not enough.
“There are more things happening to support people but there are still too many people needing support. There is just not enough support for the number of people at risk or homeless,” Ms Dark said. “Addressing homelessness and hunger is incredibly important but it’s not the answer, it’s like putting a bandaid.”
CatholicCare offers a range of services to at-risk people and runs a variety of programs including high school initiatives for teenagers at Woodberry, Tarro and Beresfield.
“It’s so rewarding to see someone go through this and come out the other side and we’ve had some great stories,” Ms Dark said. “And we want to help them to develop a plan that will hopefully steer them towards a better, safer existence.
“But we really need to do a lot better with schools, health, community services, and making connections because sometimes there is just no physical way to survive.”