I felt obliged to write about the vexed topic of homelessness after witnessing people sleeping rough in Queensland’s small towns. It shouldn’t happen, but it does.
The stereotype of a homeless person is the hobo asleep in the doorway of a city store, worldly goods in two carrier bags as a pillow. The reality is closer to an unhappy teenager, couch surfing with friends, or an 60+ women in a van on her own. Or Mum and two kids living in their car in a small town where they are less likely to be hassled. She’s cooking stew on a two-ring propane stove at the local park while using a public power point to charge her mobile. The kids are running about, being kids.
As we all should know, the official data (at the last Census in 2016), confirmed there were 116,000 people in Australia who were defined as homeless. However, the Australian Homelessness Monitor 2020 estimated the numbers had climbed to 290,000 by the close of 2018-2019 – that’s one in 86 people.
Queensland has big challenges when it comes to helping the homeless. The state is so physically large (1.835 million square kilometres) that social workers can sometimes rack up a 1,300 km round trip just to see one client.
This FOMM started forming after we watched the Academy Award winning movie, Nomadland, on Sunday night.
Emerging into a chilly early evening I said, “Better get home and light a fire,” despite being well aware our cosy brick house doesn’t yet need much heating (Warwick recorded 1degree Celsius last night-Ed).
Nomadland, if you have not seen it, is a docu-drama focusing on a 61-year-old widow, Fern, who has joined the legions of people known in the US as van-dwellers. Fern has been hit by a quadruple whammy: husband dies, factory closes, job goes, town is abandoned.
Left with a house she cannot sell, Fern hits the road in a beat-up van she has modified for her own purposes.
In Australia she’d be known as a Grey Nomad, although as in the US there are two distinct classes of traveller. First there are the well-to-do nomads, able to afford a big road rig with all the trimmings. Most often they are self-funded retirees, letting their hair down after a lifetime working. In the US they’d probably be known as Snowbirds (wintering in Arizona).
The other type of nomad, perhaps like those portrayed in Nomadland, live permanently on the road, in whatever style of motor-home or caravan they can afford. Like Fern, these people do not regard themselves as homeless (so are therefore not a statistic).
They favour free camps, recreation reserves and roadside rest areas where local governments have sanctioned overnight stays.
Some just pull off into the bush, far enough away that they cannot be seen from the road. In Australia, free camps will usually have a toilet; some may have a shower and a few have electricity. Fees range from nothing to $10 or $15 a night, the latter usually only applying to camps that have power and showers.
So while we toured around playing at being nomads, in Nomadland, Fern lives permanently with these restrictions and more. In one scene she is tucked away in her camper van at night eating a pizza when a man creeps up and peers through the van window. Then he hammers on the door.
“You can’t park here!”
“I’m leaving, I’m leaving.”
In Australia, our version of van-dwellers gather together in large numbers at the better known “free” camps. They also favour the physical space and lack of bureaucracy found at local showgrounds. These facilities are popular with big rigs (buses, motor homes and fifth-wheelers). If you own such a vehicle it is hard to find a caravan park which can accommodate an 8m-long van plus towing vehicle.
In Goondiwindi, I counted 50 rigs staying overnight at the showgrounds on the edge of town, close enough to the highway to hear the constant roar of heavy traffic. For $25 we got a powered site, TV reception and (as always out west), patchy mobile reception. There was a camp kitchen, toilets and showers and a separate toilet and shower with disabled access. Also the all-important dump point (for vans with chemical toilets).
Many small town showgrounds charge between $15 and $20 a night, less if not using power. It is often an honour system, with no way of knowing how many people came in after dark and left before dawn.
It’s probably impossible to establish how many Grey Nomads live permanently in their vans and own no real estate. They’re not homeless as long as the money holds out and the vehicle does not break down. As Fern explains to someone who is hiring casual staff – “No, I’m not homeless – I’m houseless.”
According to Tourism Research Australia, about 2.6 million Grey Nomad trips were taken by 55 to 70-year-old domestic travellers in 2019. This was up 12% on the previous year. As we found on our journey north in 2021, restrictions on international travel are accelerating this growth.
In a submission to the Inquiry into Homelessness in Australia, the Queensland Government stated that in 2018-19 , one in 116 people in the state received homelessness assistance.
“While this was much lower than the national rate of one in 86 people, it shows an increase from the previous year.”
The submission said that 55% of Housing Register applications had been identified as being at risk of homelessness.
Homelessness in Queensland is driven in part by housing affordability pressures, increased cost of living, stalling wages growth and welfare payments that don’t keep pace with the cost of living.
The majority of the 43,000 people seeking Special Homelessness Services (SHS) were spread among three cities (Brisbane, Townsville and Cairns) and seven regional centres.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders accounted for 33% (14,432) of all those seeking SHS (40% men and 60% women).
The largest cohorts seeking help were people fleeing domestic and family violence (31%), people with mental health issues (27%) and young people aged 15-24 (20%). My demographic accounted for just 6% (2,676), men and women (50/50) aged between 55 and 70.
I always had this somewhat romantic notion that being homeless and sleeping rough in tropical Queensland might not be a hardship. I said as much in the lyrics of Big Country Town: “We caught the ferry back to Main Street, there’s fellas sleeping in the park, beneath the blanket of the summer, they’re safe and warm there in the dark.”
Well, maybe in the height of summer, but on this caravan trip we shivered through a few single figure nights. As many Grey Nomads would know, sub-zero night temperatures are common in the interior of the country.
Meanwhile, as autumn turns to winter in Warwick, charities are doing their best to fill the gaps in services for those suffering hardship. Volunteers from the Seventh Day Adventist Church take their Community Van to Leslie Park every Sunday evening. The Salvation Army organises a ‘community gathering’ every Saturday, offering “a free meal, a positive and practical message and friendship.” These well attended free meal sessions attract more people than one might expect in a town of 15,000. Until you remember than one in 116 Queenslanders were homeless in 2018-2019, and that was before the pandemic.
Footnote; The Conversation, which I often cite, is on a donation drive to ensure it can continue providing independent, academically sound, not-for-profit journalism. https://donate.theconversation.com/au