Inside Story

Rush to judgement

Battle lines are drawn in Nowra over the complex causes of homelessness

Bronwyn Adcock 17 August 2017 4471 words

No camping: prime minister Malcolm Turnbull at Nowra showground in February this year. Dean Lewins/AAP Image

Nowra showground is a ten-minute walk from the centre of town: past Best & Less, Jolly Olly’s Discount Variety Store, the Postman’s Tavern and the Bowling Club, along a wide, tree-lined residential street. The gateway is a towering, seven-metre-high sandstone structure with four entrance archways, topped by parapets and crenellated towers, built just after the second world war. A life-sized bronze statue of a soldier, added after the war, stands in front of the gate. He’s depicted without rifle or helmet; as local historical material explains, “His country’s freedom secured, but forever on alert to safeguard the future.”

Inside is a sprawling seventeen hectares, fringed by eucalyptus bush to the west and the Shoalhaven River to the north. Nowra has been holding its annual country show here, over two days in late summer, since 1887. In the between times, it’s a place where locals walk their dogs and community groups meet; children go to scouts and gymnastics in the same place their parents once did.

Sometime around early 2016, the showground’s role in the community underwent a radical transformation: it became a destination for growing numbers of homeless people. During winter, some bunked down in the stables, but by late spring a cluster of around twenty tents had sprung up on the grass. Some people came of their own volition, others were given tents and directed there by desperate community service providers in town. “We didn’t want to do this, this was the last resort,” one worker told me. But “there was nowhere else for people to go.” Many people came and went; others started to look more permanent. One tent had a washing machine beside it, plugged into the showground’s power supply. There were men, women, the old, the young, couples, singles and dogs. Lots of dogs.

For the homeless, it was a sanctuary of sorts. One was a young woman, nineteen years old, who’d spent her adolescence bouncing through twenty different foster homes. She said the showground felt safer than sleeping in a doorway in town. She liked that the gates were locked at night. A woman called Sharron, who was sleeping in her car after escaping domestic violence, said she liked having access to a toilet.

But a drug scene sprang up among some of the homeless. Dealers started coming through, and there were commotions throughout the night. Campfires were lit. Some people struggled with mental illness: one man would careen through the showground, terrified, trying to escape ghosts. Others stayed away from the main group of tents, preferring to find their own quiet place elsewhere in the grounds.

This was all a new experience for Nowra. One woman who had her tent in the main area told me that “sticky beakers” would sometimes drive slowly past the showground, staring at the homeless camp. She says one man who had “drug issues” used to get really irate about this, and yell abuse at the gawkers.

Sharron, who was applying — unsuccessfully — for dozens of private rentals while living in her car, said that, once, a nicely dressed person walking their dog in the showground came past her and told her to “get a life.” She said nothing then, but later, while relaying the story, was fuming: “I’m bloody trying.”

By the end of that year, a small group of local residents decided they’d had enough of the showground camp. They rang around, and distributed a flyer, titled “A Better Solution for Our Showground,” that called on people to come to Shoalhaven City Council’s monthly meeting to “peacefully demonstrate.” Around 130 turned up. One of the organisers, a man in his late sixties who’s lived in Nowra his whole life, addressed the council: “We know we have a problem in the town with [homelessness], it’s everywhere around the place,” he said. “But this showground is our showground and we want it back.”

Then, he turned his ire towards the homeless themselves. “These people are very violent; these aren’t genuinely displaced people that need a roof over their head. These people are there because it is free, it is a great spot, it is close to drugs and it is close to grog. They walk down the street with their dogs. It is disgraceful. These are nasty people.”

The crowd cheered. The few who spoke up in defence of the homeless, such as the mayor and a couple of councillors, were jeered and heckled. “Take them to your house then!” yelled one voice from the crowd.

The fear and anger in the room gathered momentum. Some councillors joined in hurling allegations: someone had heard someone say that a nurse was “held hostage up there”; someone’s neighbour had been hit with a machete; there was washing hung off power cables. Surely council would be liable if there was an accident?

While the meeting had started with a motion asking that a committee be formed, with local residents included, to find a better solution for the showground, after several hours of heated debate a new motion was slapped on the table: simply ban tents from the showground altogether. Essentially, it was an eviction notice for the homeless — and when a vote was finally held, it passed unanimously.

Within weeks, council rangers started moving the homeless on from the showground. The decision sent community service providers scrambling to try to find alternative accommodation, but there were few options. Most of the homeless were simply dispersed — into the bush, parks and cars, onto people’s couches or, if they were really lucky, into a cheap caravan park.

Over the following months, in the summer of 2016–17, I spent time in Nowra for ABC Radio National’s Background Briefing, reporting on the impact of this decision. I spent many hours with the homeless and those who help them. While at one level, what I saw was people trying to find a solution to a practical problem — where to house the homeless — there was also something much more profound going on: a town was struggling to determine the limits of its compassion.

Pastor Peter Dover runs a small independent church in Nowra called Salt Ministries. Salt has a mobile food van that takes supplies to homeless people around town, and throughout 2016 the showground was one of its prime destinations. Dover was at the council meeting and says it was deeply upsetting. “They were just rubbishing all the people up there,” he says. “And then instead of getting rid of one or two troublemakers, they got rid of everybody. These are the most vulnerable people in our community… and to say that we don’t want to see that, well that’s just sad.”

One Thursday morning, late in the summer of 2017, I go to see Dover at the community hall next door to his church. As well as running the mobile food van, every week his church provides lunch here for the needy. Dover doesn’t ask why people need help — to come is enough. While Nowra is just 160 kilometres south of Sydney, average household incomes are 75 per cent lower than in the city. Work by the town’s well-regarded Anti-Poverty Committee illustrates that growing numbers of local people have to survive on very low incomes. Health conditions associated with poverty, such as diabetes and obesity, are increasing, as are addiction and mental illness. In a perfect storm, this is now being fuelled by the rising cost of housing.

I find Dover standing in the middle of the hall as lunch is being served, wrestling with an ethical dilemma. While homeless people in tents have been banned from the showground for several months now, some are still periodically turning up, and a handful are staying there in vans. Dover has just been told that council wants him to stop taking Salt’s van up to the showground and handing out food. “They believe that us going up there is enabling the homeless people to stay there, and they want to move them on,” he says. “And we want to work with these guys in council… we want to respect them. But there’s people up there at the showground who have got kids. How can we just not help them?”

He’s too busy to deliberate for long: more than a hundred people have come for lunch at the hall today. The volunteer who drives the van is hovering by his shoulder, waiting for his decision on where she’ll be taking the van next week. “I’ll tell you what we’ll do,” he says. “We’ll still drive through. We won’t spend a lot of time there — but if there is someone in need, we’ll help them.”

I follow Dover as he strides outside the community hall, past clusters of smokers, to the old weatherboard building next door that serves as Salt Ministries’ home. Along its verandah, church volunteers are handing out free groceries to a growing line of people, arriving as they finish their lunch to collect basic supplies they can take away. Fresh fruit and bread is being swiftly deposited into plastic bags and passed to outstretched hands by a woman in her early fifties. Dover introduces us.

Lyn works efficiently as we talk. She has an earthy friendliness that’s underpinned by a sharp competence. When she used to manage a nearby bowling club, she knew how to cut off a drunken patron from the bar without causing a confrontation: a friendly arm around the shoulder and a joke while firmly guiding him out the door. She’s worked in real estate, owned a couple of houses and raised two boys — mostly on her own.

“I’m not doing this because I’m virtuous, you know,” she says, nodding towards the line of people she’s serving. I know. Lyn is here because she’s homeless. She’s on a program that allows homeless people to work off their debts to the state government — accrued for things like not voting, or driving without a licence — by volunteering. I figure she’s being extra upfront with me because, after everything that’s happened to her, she has no interest in dissembling.

Lyn’s unravelling began six years ago. Her youngest son, Steven, who was eighteen at the time, hooked up with a girl whose ex-boyfriend was in prison. When the ex got out, he and some friends hunted Steven down, holding him hostage and torturing him for seven hours. He survived, but was left with broken bones, partially blind in one eye, and the word “dog” tattooed across his forehead

Lyn found it overwhelmingly traumatic. She held it together for about six months after the assault, then had a mental breakdown. She couldn’t leave the house, couldn’t work, her partner left and she started using ice. “I didn’t want to live any more,” Lyn says of this time. “I was hoping I wouldn’t wake up. I didn’t wanna know.”

Through addiction and mental illness — and the associated calamities these things generally bring — Lyn eventually lost everything. She spent most of 2016 living in a tent at Nowra showground and now lives in an old Winnebago with another homeless woman. “Look at me,” she says, without a trace of self-pity. “I’m not the type am I? If you’d have said to me ten years ago this is where I’d end up, I’d have said you were mad.”

Time spent with the homeless quickly strips away any comforting notions that homeless people are somehow “other,” and that this is a situation that could never happen to you, or someone you know.

Life veers off course in unexpected ways, as it did for the young woman I met in the back yard of the Nowra Homeless Hub, a drop-in centre for the homeless. She’d just walked in from the bush, where she was sleeping rough with her two dogs after being kicked out of the showground, and was looking for a shower. She told me her descent into homelessness began with a violent sexual assault when she was at university. Her post-traumatic stress spiralled into cycles of severe mental illness, time in psychiatric wards, unemployment, broken ties with family and friends. She didn’t tell me about ice, but that was my guess.

I also met Brian, a tradie in his early fifties. He once had a good job as a concreter, a wife and kids, a mortgage and enough money for the occasional trip to Bali. By the time I met him he was living under a tarpaulin attached to a van at the showground, with nothing but a dog and a battered old car with a soon-to-lapse registration. Council rangers were letting him stay, for now, because he was looking after the man in the van who had cancer. His downfall began when he was prescribed OxyContin — also known as “hillbilly heroin” — after hurting his back at work. He soon moved on to the real thing, and now has a raging heroin addiction.

Just as often, though, there is no dramatic event in people’s stories — and their downfall is certainly not always due to drug use. Often, it’s just a tale of trying to survive being poor in a country where keeping a roof over your head has become prohibitively expensive. This was the case with Vernon, a wiry man in his mid forties who lives with his two dogs in an old white minibus. I met him a handful of times over the summer, first parked at the showground and then, after he was forced out, at a truck stop south of town. I see him again at Salt Ministries’ Thursday lunch in the community hall, and sit down with him to talk.

As we’re eating, he waves his fork around the room. “I had my Year 6 formal in this building,” he says. Vernon tells me the surrounding streets have been home to his family for three generations. His dad used to walk barefoot to the weatherboard building next door — now Salt Ministries — back when it was a primary school; his grandmother, whom he describes as a proud Aboriginal woman from La Perouse in Sydney’s southeast, came to town when she was just a girl.

Vernon was the youngest of seven kids. “I was brought up by my father,” he says. “My mother left when I was nine and a half. I grew up with the bare minimum. I got brought up to show respect and give respect.”

Vernon’s been poor all his life, but he only became homeless in the past year, after he broke up with his partner and left the social housing they rented together. He emerged, newly single, into a private rental market that is completely beyond his means, and a waiting list for social housing of around a decade.

The cost of private rental in the region has been rising steeply for most of the past decade, and has increased by a quarter in the last three years alone. For those relying on government benefits, like Newstart or a disability pension, there are virtually no affordable properties. And for those who are working but in lower-paid jobs like retail or aged care, only 7 per cent of all properties are affordable — despite this income bracket making up nearly half the population.

Vernon is on Newstart, and he reckons he’s got no hope of ever getting a job again — he’s got heart disease, and has already had one major heart attack. “If I tell ’em I got heart disease they are not going to want to employ me,” he says. “[And if I] don’t tell them I got heart disease and I have a turn on their job site, their insurance ain’t gonna cover it. So I lose anyway.”

A community worker who’s been in the region for thirty years tells me that jobs, particularly for the many with low education, started disappearing in the 1980s. Factories closed and farms were carved up. “There are older men in this community now who haven’t worked since their twenties,” she says. The jobs available now — and there aren’t many, given that the unemployment rate has been way above the national average for a decade — are mainly low-paid and increasingly part-time or casual. But it’s not just the unemployed who struggle: she sees plenty of working families who can’t afford their rent. I spoke with another community service worker who told me he had a client who was a casual schoolteacher but was forced to live in a car.

Every time I’ve seen Vernon he’s been remarkably chipper. The first time I met him, up at the showground, he’d just finished a unique barter: he’d given a lady a tattoo, and in return she’d given him a portable toilet that he then gave to a homeless man who had bowel cancer. “Nice little community we are,” he’d said of his homeless friends. “We look after each other.”

By the end of summer, though, he’s looking thinner and his skin has a greyish pallor. He’s angry about being moved on from the showground, and his van — now parked temporarily outside a friend’s factory — has sprung a leak. He has a large bandage on his hand. He tells me he had an argument with his teenage son that made him feel disrespected. He was so upset he put his hand through a window.

At one of their homes, I meet the two Nowra residents who spearheaded the campaign to remove the homeless from the showground. It’s a renovated older-style place with high ceilings, leadlight windows and deeply polished floorboards, on a street just a few hundred metres from the showground gates. It belongs to a trim retiree named Rex, who says that he and his wife used to enjoy walking in the showground but, once the homeless arrived, they stopped. He was convinced — and remained so as we talked — that they were people of a certain kind, “actually out to do you some harm.”

His friend and neighbour, Peter, said that after the homeless arrived he stopped taking his grandchildren there, believing it to be a “dangerous situation.” It was Peter who spoke out at the council meeting, calling the homeless “nasty people.” I ask him if perhaps he could stand accused of lacking compassion for these people? “Yes, I’m sure we are. No doubt about that,” he says. “But if we hadn’t spoken up about this, somebody [was] going to get hurt.”

While it was clear these residents felt fear, they also demonstrated a fair degree of loathing and resentment. As we spoke, Rex kept coming back to what he said was the “real” problem: not one of poverty and lack of affordable housing, but flawed individuals using drugs and living a life of welfare dependency. “I can’t see how you can just allow people to not contribute at all, anywhere in their life, ever,” he says. “You just can’t allow people to take drugs and rort the system.”

“They got free electricity and showers and toilets and open fires,” says Peter. “They are fed by certain groups. But we got to stop this growing into something that is getting out of control.”

It’s easy to appreciate why someone might want to use their town’s public space freely without feeling fearful. But what’s uncertain is how grounded in reality this fear is. The particular residents I spoke with were unrepentantly unaware of the circumstances of their homeless neighbours’ lives. Peter freely admits he’s never spoken to a homeless person from the showground.

I spoke with Jack de Groot, the CEO of the St Vincent De Paul Society for NSW. He’s based in Sydney but his organisation runs services for homeless people in Nowra, so he’s been following the situation at the showground closely. He says it’s not unusual for people to feel confronted by the sight of such visible disadvantage.

“The face-to-face encounter with poverty, and its messiness and ugliness, is deeply disturbing,” he says. “But when you spend time listening to people’s stories… once you get that human story, the ugliness of poverty dissipates.”

What’s happened in Nowra, he says, is a by-product of a growing inequality that’s taking hold in Australia. “That’s what inequality can do, it can entrench fear,” he says. “Inequality can drive us apart, and drive us to fear. And we have a global narrative at the moment around fear. Fear of the stranger, fear of the other. And it is a crap narrative.”

But the residents weren’t the only ones I heard expressing fear. A number of homeless people I met over the summer wanted to talk about refugees. They felt their destitution was inextricably linked to “too many refugees” coming to Australia, taking limited resources such as houses and government benefits. Whenever the issue of homelessness is discussed on Nowra community Facebook sites, it is this same narrative that invariably surfaces. There is a meme that often pops up, with a picture of a clearly Muslim family in front of a house, which says, “Australians forced to wait ten years for government housing while refugees take priority. Share if you think this is a disgrace.”

One morning, about three months after the showground ban, I stop by the Nowra Homeless Hub. The homeless may now be less visible to the community, but their numbers are not diminishing. Julie, one of the Hub’s workers, says they’ve been frantic for months, with twenty to thirty people coming through a day asking for help.

There’s a young couple there, just seventeen and eighteen. She’s thin and won’t lift her eyes to meet mine; he’s also skinny, but more talkative. They both look cold and damp. They’re sleeping in a tent at a remote bush camp about thirty kilometres west of town. They have a car, but no money for petrol, so they’ve hitched a ride to the Hub to sort out some paperwork so the girl can start receiving Centrelink payments. The boy is confident he’ll get a job once they get a place to live. But right now it’s just about survival. As they rush out the door to get their ride back to the bush, Julie presses some pastries that have been donated that morning into their hands, despite the boy’s polite insistence that “we’re fine, thank you.”

Over at the computer, Crystal is applying for rental properties. She’s recently out of jail, and has been bouncing between refuges and motels.

She’s desperate for her own place so she can start seeing her two kids again. She’s well-spoken — she used to be a manager at McDonald’s — but knows her criminal record will be a deterrent for landlords. “I just need someone to give me a chance,” she says.

With the shortage of affordable private rental accommodation in town, competition for the few available places is fierce. The homeless are competing against people with jobs, better references and good rental histories. Community service workers say that in this ultra-competitive market, people who are unemployed or suffer social stigma — Aboriginal people, single mothers or former prisoners, say — are often unsuccessful.

Over on the couch, Bek, thirty-eight, and her partner Jaimie, twenty-eight, are drinking tea while taking a brief break from this race for a home. For weeks they’ve been attending inspections for every cheap place on the market. Applicants are required to physically attend the inspection, so they’ve quite literally been running around town: Jaimie describes how, the day before, they bolted through a paddock to get from one inspection to another in time. “It’s great for weight loss,” she jokes. Plenty of the places they’ve seen are awful but they apply for everything regardless. Right now they’re staying in a caravan park.

We end up talking for over an hour. They tell me about the mess they’ve made of their lives. Bek was a hairdresser, soccer mum, the president of the parents and citizens’ association at her kids’ school; Jaimie was a chef with a good job. Ice addiction destroyed everything. But they’ve now been clean of drugs for a couple of months and are desperate to rebuild their lives.

Jaimie wants to work again, as soon as she gets a house. “That is the foundation of trying to rebuild your life,” she says. “The world’s your oyster once you’ve got a house.” Bek wants to see her kids, and work on her mental health. “I got my life just waiting to start again,” she says.

They’ve been here before: off drugs and looking for somewhere to live. Last time they ended up crashing at a friend’s place, an “ice den,” and soon started using again.

Bek checks her phone. She says she can’t stop thinking about one of the places they applied for this week; it was an actual house, with a yard, and a funny room in the middle decorated with wallpaper with pictures of swans. “I’m just thinking about furniture, and how I’ll decorate it,” she says.

The tussle over what this community should and could do for its most vulnerable members is ongoing. At a council meeting at the end of summer, the mayor, Amanda Findley, arrived with a new motion: winter is coming, she said, so could council investigate opening up an abandoned building in the centre of town to be used by the homeless when the weather is fierce?

It was swiftly defeated. One councillor voiced his irritation at the mayor: “You are wanting to send our ratepayers down a path where we spend time and money and resources on an issue that does not belong to us,” he said. “Today is the day we need to hit this out of the park and never come back.”

To follow this analogy, though, even if it were possible to hit homelessness in Nowra “out of the park,” it will, of course, come back — the game will invariably continue. And not just in Nowra. People sleeping rough in a country showground is a symptom of a nationwide phenomenon: growing inequality and poverty, fuelled by a dire lack of affordable housing. While this can hardly be the future that the bronze soldier outside the showground’s front gate imagined he was safeguarding, it is the new reality facing Australia. •

This essay first appeared in Griffith Review 57: Perils of Populism, edited by Julianne Schultz.