Four wheels, two dogs and one back seat: homeless and staying on the streets
Kristina spent her first night without a home on the side of the road crying and contemplating how this could have happened again.
“I think there’s a lot of people like me too, that are probably ashamed and not quite sure what to do,” she says as she steers her black Volkswagen Tiguan through the gritty streets of Melbourne’s western suburbs.
For this former sales rep, who didn’t want us to use her last name, the car was once her work vehicle.
Now, it’s her mobile home, a five-seater transformed into a bedroom, wardrobe, pantry and kennel for two large pet dogs.
Five years ago, after her last brush with homelessness, Kristina swore she’d never land in the same predicament again. But here she was once more, a victim of a series of personal calamities.
“This can happen to anybody,” she says with the authenticity of someone who’s been here before. “Homeless people aren’t just the people you see in front of [the supermarket] begging for a dollar.”
The ranks of the homeless are increasingly bolstered by people like 45-year-old Kristina — older women, working women, and women who’ve become trapped in a cycle of desperation and misfortune.
Like many, they choose to live in their cars rather than risk sleeping rough, or because there’s no room at nearby shelters.
Agencies stretched thin
New statistics from Homelessness Australia show that women like Kristina who have one stint living in their cars will likely end up back in the same predicament.
Of the 2,300 who sought help from Victorian services for sleeping rough in 2016-17, nearly half ended up back in a similar situation.
The experience has been backed by national data released by the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare which shows more than 250,000 Australians asked for help from a homeless service last financial year.
Nearly two-thirds of those were female and one-in-five found themselves on the streets after being evicted from their homes.
Social policy experts say the figures show one thing is clear: we’re losing the battle.
“Unfortunately the tap’s not getting turned off,” Marion Bennett from Mission Australia says.
A root cause is housing affordability and availability. “Increasingly, we’re finding it more and more difficult to find a place for clients to live that’s appropriate,” she says.
Those sentiments are echoed by Jenny Smith, the chair of Homelessness Australia.
“People on low incomes have simply run out of options,” she says.
“Agencies are stretched so thin that they must focus only on the most critical clients, while pushing others to the back of the line.”
Living with the dogs
When we met Kristina in November, she and the dogs had been living in the car for a month. The dogs are her lifeline — a source of affection and comfort during her cold life on the streets.
But Dolce, a caramel Irish wolfhound cross, and Aya, a charcoal American staffy, are also part of the problem. Pet-friendly rentals don’t come easy.
Be that as it may, Kristina would rather stay together on the streets than be separated. “I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it wasn’t for that dog,” Kristina says of Dolce, who was rescued as a pup from an uncaring neighbour.
As we deconstruct Kristina’s life, it’s clear she’s had more than her fair share of bad luck. There was a series of broken relationships, an abusive partner, a workplace injury and then she was scammed.
Until a few weeks ago she had a job in sales. But when she asked for time off to go to a house opening, her boss wouldn’t let her. So she quit.
Then to cap it all, she was evicted after a dispute with her landlord that ended up in court. When the court ruled against her, she had no choice but to leave.
”I grabbed dog food, a blanket, the clothes that were drying, my work clothes.”
Homelessness experts say it’s at this point in the homelessness cycle where homeless services can have the most impact.
New figures from the Federal Government show three in five clients weren’t yet homeless when they first asked for help, but rather they were at risk of homelessness.
Among those that got support at this point, the majority could be helped.
Nine in ten who were living in public or community housing were able to maintain their tenancy while 80 per cent who were living in private or other housing were able to stay where they were — but only if they got the right support.
”Preventing people becoming homeless in the first place is really important, it’s turning the tap off,” Ms Bennett says.
Ms Bennett explains it’s about practical things like loans to help people who’ve gone into rental arrears, assistance paying medical fees, treatment for gambling or alcohol addictions or just help to negotiate issues with landlords.
Kristina shows me a screwed-up piece of paper filled with phone numbers. They’re mostly helplines. “Except there’s no help at the end of them,” she sighs.
But living in a car or sleeping rough is not the only way people can experience homelessness.
From the streets to a motel room
This Adelaide family had to make do with one motel room after becoming homeless (ABC News: Matthew Abbott)
For Duane, living with his wife and three children in a single hotel room might have been cramped, but it was much better than when all five of them lived in a van.
The former factory worker and his family were living in a hotel in the industrial suburb of Elizabeth in South Australia, one of the country’s most disadvantaged areas.
“Every Saturday, Friday night there’d be fights out the front. We couldn’t let the kids out. You’d be woken up half the night. But it was a roof over our head.”
Things were so tight, both space and cash, that the family relied on value packs of Weet-Bix to eat. And not just for breakfast.
They were falling over each other and their belongings as they packed into the hotel room.
But as Duane remembers, the family was yet to hit rock bottom. Worse followed.
The family’s housing situation came to a head about six months ago when school teachers noticed the signs of neglect among the children. Family members of Duane’s stepped in and now three of the children live with them.
Children play outside an Adelaide motel room after their family became homeless (ABC News: Matthew Abbott)
For Duane, losing his family has been the turning point. When we caught up with him in November he’d been clean for five months and was dealing with some of the many health problems that his drug addiction had caused.
Now he’s found somewhere to live — a unique community housing program. Under the model he pays for part of the rent and a charity picks up the tab for the rest. It’s not a permanent arrangement, but it’s better than the alternatives he’s had to face over the past year.
Duane’s predicament is not unique. “Rising rents in the private rental market are pushing low-income earners into rooming houses, motels and caravans,” Homeless Australia chair Jenny Smith says.
So what are the solutions? Mission Australia says it’s time for a National Homelessness Strategy.
This Adelaide family had to squeeze into a hotel room after becoming homeless (ABC News: Matthew Abbott)
It wants governments to invest in more public and subsidised housing and boost Newstart and Rent Assistance payments.
Homelessness Australia is calling on the Federal Government to tackle homelessness and rent stress in a meaningful way.
“Jobseekers on Newstart benefits are forced to pay almost their entire income on housing in most capital cities, leaving them on the knife-edge of homelessness,” Ms Smith says.
“Australia is sleepwalking in this homelessness crisis. Static federal homelessness funding, pitifully low Centrelink incomes and not enough social housing stock have created a perfect storm.”
The Federal Government says its new $375 million National Housing and Homelessness Agreement with the states will increase the supply of new homes and improve housing for all Australians across the housing spectrum, particularly those most in need.
For people like Duane and Kristina having nowhere to live means they’re not torn anymore, not torn between work and having to finding somewhere to live, not torn between the responsibilities of life, dogs or children. Being homeless is the job.
By the time of publication Kristina has found somewhere to live. But while this wasn’t the only time Kristina had been homeless, she certainly hopes it’s the last.