Bega Valley homeless services serve food for thought

Homelessness is a difficult topic to talk about, and the lack of communication means this growing issue can be swept under the carpet.

Local support workers gathered in Bega’s Littleton Garden on Tuesday for a free sausage sizzle to start a conversation around homelessness in the region.

Bega Valley Homeless Support Service acting program manager Donna Davis said the day was about letting people know what services are available, and advocating that current services are being pushed to capacity.

“There are about 250 families in the region who are experiencing homelessness or at risk of it,” she said.

“At the moment we just don’t have the services to be dealing with the numbers.”

She said it was crucial for the wider community to recognise homelessness as a collective issue, and one that is growing in the area, not shrinking. 

“The lack of affordable housing is our biggest problem at the moment,” she said. 

She said the growing number of unoccupied dwellings, mixed with rising rental prices, has pushed accommodation out of reach for many people trying to find their feet.

“The prices now are unattainable for people on Newstart, especially single people on Newstart,” Ms Davis said. 

David Jones is the manager of mental health and wellbeing service Flourish. He said the barbecue was a way to shed light on lesser known forms of homelessness, such as couch surfing, which he described as “hidden homelessness.” 

Mr Jones couch surfed for a period of his life, and warned that it was an unstable lifestyle that left people exposed to exploitation.

“Couch surfers are dependent on the person providing them shelter, which creates a power imbalance,” he said. 

Although it gets people off the streets, Mr Jones warned that couch surfing is only a band-aid fix that inevitably traps people in a cycle of dependency. 

"You might need to get out of home, so you stay at friend’s house just for one night, then a night turns into a week, then you outstay your welcome there and move on to someone else’s house,” he said.

Paul and Kareen Martin were at the barbecue with their son. They have recently moved to Bega from Nowra to buy a larger property and enjoy a lower cost of living.

They hoped the barbecue would put people in touch with the services that they need.

“I think the area does need more emergency housing, I’d like to see older buildings converted into shelters,” Mr Martin said. 

Ms Martin said the lack of job opportunity in the area could be contributing to homelessness. 

“You can be really keen to work, but because jobs are limited, it’s hard for new people to find work,” she said.

She said this could trigger to some of the bigger issues driving homelessness. 

“When you’re having no luck job hunting, it can really bring your confidence down. 

“And when you’ve got no job and no confidence, bigger problems start to brew.”

They believe rising rent and electricity prices will create a bigger homeless population in the future. 

Financial counsellor for Mission Australia Gabrielle Rosengren agreed that electricity prices were becoming an “exponential” problem for people in the region. 

“I’m being bombarded with requests for help at the moment,” she said. 

Ms Rosengren provides financial and problem gambling counselling for South East NSW. She has seen an increase in homelessness in the region over the last two years.

“There’s growing financial stress on people, and it’s coming from a number of directions,” she said. 

She said housing, electricity and a lack of jobs were the main problems, but these were often inflamed by issues like fine debts, drug and gambling addictions and mental health issues. 

The aim of organisations like Mission Australia and Flourish is to address the immediate issues facing the homeless, such as their mental health.

Then they begin the process of referring people to the services they require, weather it be housing, financial or medical assistance.

Ms Davis said the problem calls for longer term case management, to disrupt the cycle of homelessness that people can fall into.

“It’s not just about giving someone a key to a house and then walking away from them,” she said. 

“It’s about following up each case and helping people stay on track through really difficult periods.”

 The causes of homelessness are as complex and varied, and so to are the solutions. Local support services agreed this is the reason a more comprehensive homeless support network is necessary to tackle the issue.