This National Homelessness Week, the Bay Post/Moruya Examiner is shining a light on those living on the fringes of the Eurobodalla community and the frontline workers pleading for more services.
To tourists, the Batemans Bay bridge is an iconic entrance to a coastal holiday town, but on any given night, the underpass is home to some of the Eurobodalla Shire’s most disadvantaged.
According to the region’s support workers, people sleeping rough under the bridge are just the tip of the iceberg.
Data from the 2016 Census estimated more than 600 people were experiencing homelessness in Southern NSW, which included those couch surfing or living on the streets, in shelters, caravan parks or overcrowded dwellings.
Until five weeks ago, there were 10 blokes a night sleeping under the Batemans Bay bridge.Glenn Farquhar-Nicol, Pivot Point volunteer
This figure marks a sharp rise of 14 per cent since the 2011 Census, and those working in frontline services, fear the number will continue to grow without much-needed funding.
Driving up these numbers is domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, a shortage of affordable housing and unemployment.
Among those concerned is volunteer Glenn Farquhar-Nicol, of Batemans Bay’s Pivot Point service, run through the Uniting Church. The service has run for more than 30 years and provides emergency food relief, a hot shower and laundry facilities.
Mr Farquhar-Nicol said he had observed a sharp increase in residents experiencing severe financial hardship and housing instability over the past five years, particularly women and those with mental illness.
“Until five weeks ago, there were 10 blokes a night sleeping under the Batemans Bay bridge,” Mr Farquhar-Nicol told the Bay Post/Moruya Examiner.
Wollongong is too risky and Nowra is too risky, so people keep coming further south where it's a bit safer.Glenn Farquhar-Nicol, Pivot Point volunteer
He said it wasn’t uncommon to find people sleeping in tents in the bush or on the beach around the Bay.
“A lot of these people are locals. We are getting some drifting south because Sydney is too risky to be on the streets.
“Wollongong is too risky and Nowra is too risky, so people keep coming further south where it's a bit safer.”
Ann Murphy, of Uniting’s Ability Links, said the vast majority of homelessness was hidden.
“For the ACT and NSW from the ABS, figures suggest only seven per cent of people are even sleeping on the street,” Ms Murphy said.
“As an Ability Linker, I've been working with people living in their cars, camping out rough and crowded into homes.
“When we see things like Pivot Point providing those showers, the food service and the laundry, we're showing that we’re caring for people in our community and that’s what helps transform the community.
“It’s important we don’t pretend it’s not there and push it away.”
I've been working with people living in their cars, camping out rough and crowded into homes.Ann Murphy, Ability Links
A chief concern is the lack of affordable housing available in the region, with only two properties in the Eurobodalla available for rent under $200 per week.
“For a lot of people, it’s a struggle to pay above $200 when you're on some sort of Centrelink benefit,” he said.
“Everyone who comes in (to Pivot Point) who has been previously homeless is now living at Bay Waters Hotel. That's because it's $170 a week for a room and in Batemans Bay there are only two units available in that price range.”
Helping fill the gap is Batemans Bay men’s refuge, Hope House, which provides medium-term accommodation for up to six months.
For many making the transition from jail, or battling mental health issues or drug and alcohol addiction, Hope House is one of few options available locally.
Manager Shirley Diskon said the facility struggled to keep up with the ever-increasing demand.
Mrs Diskon said 311 homeless men had been supported at Hope House since it opened in September 2009.
In the past two weeks we've had 14 referrals to Hope House and four of them have been from Corrections.Shirley Diskon, Hope House
She has long campaigned for more extensive rehabilitation and detox facilities in the Eurobodalla region.
“We need a huge place to take these people on - it's just not enough,” Mrs Diskon said.
“In the past two weeks we've had 14 referrals to Hope House and four of them have been from Corrections.
“I can't guarantee a bed, but I can try and put them on the list.
“On my wish list would be a detox clinic with a rehab beside it. I’d have a transitional house and for homelessness, I’d like to have a big place like a warehouse where we could have make it a home and run programs with a mental health worker and a doctor.
“I’d love to have the facilities to concentrate on these guys and build them up.”
Nathan Whiting, 36, is one man who has experienced firsthand a downward spiral into drug addiction and homelessness.
I ended up on the streets and out of my family when I was in high school and got taken in by my mates. That rolled me into a criminal careerNathan Whiting
“I was pretty bad on drugs last year – I was about 60kg. I was dying, but Shirley saved me,” Mr Whiting said.
“I ended up on the streets and out of my family when I was in high school and got taken in by my mates.
“That rolled me into a criminal career. I’d always done pretty well to stay out of trouble and drugs, but it was the ice. It’s just a whole other game.”
After spiraling into a dark mental place, Mr Whiting was admitted to Goulburn mental health facility, Chisholm Ross. Upon his release, the father of two faced a nine-week wait to get into rehab. It was Hope House or bust.
“The only reason I got off the ice was because there was an option outside my area. It was Woolloomooloo or here, and I thought I would end up in a bad way up there.”
After spending five and a half months at Hope House, Mr Whiting has moved into stable accommodation and volunteers his time as a supervisor at the refuge.
“The day after I left, I went straight back for supervising. I love being involved with all the boys there and helping them out,” he said.
Mrs Diskon said Mr Whiting was a shining light for residents at the refuge, like 20-year-old Caleb Souter.
After a family breakdown last year, he found himself out of his house and on the streets for six weeks.
I had four choices of where to go, including Batemans Bay. It was my last hope. I had no other place.Caleb Souter
“I was on the street long before that. I’ve had a year’s experience on the streets in Sydney and two months in Cooma, which is the coldest,” Mr Souter said.
“I was at my wit’s end; I thought I had lost everything.
“I had four choices of where to go, including Batemans Bay. It was my last hope. I had no other place.”
In the past three weeks, he has a place to rent through the state government’s Rent Choice Youth Subsidy program, which assists 16-24 year olds who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
He and Mr Whiting offer a glimmer of hope to those on the fringe, and Mrs Diskon believes their good news could become commonplace if there were more adequate services in the region.
“Hope House operates on a shoestring and we’ve had a 70 per cent success rate,” she said.
“If we had the money, could you imagine what we could do? You’re only limited by your imagination with what we could do for homelessness.”