Byron tent-city squatters get their marching orders
By MEGAN KINNINMENT
NSW Greens MLC Ian Cohen has intervened to help nearly 40 long-term homeless campers at Sandhills Estate, Clarks Beach, after the NSW Department of Lands issued eviction notices.
The homeless squatters, some of whom have been living in the rough Crown land bush camp for four years, were issued with the notices and a list of eight places to seek alternative accommodation by the Lands Department after nearby landowners complained about the makeshift 'tent-town'.
Mr Cohen said he was asked to intervene by a group of 15 Byron Bay locals, including Byron Shire Councillor John Lazarus, who have been advocating on behalf of the town's homeless.
"In an eviction process like this the primary concern has to be the welfare of the people, for them not to be traumatised," Mr Cohen said.
"The Department of Lands has a certain responsibility to find alternative accommodation for them.
"It might be inconvenient for a bureaucratic department to have them living there, but it is incredibly traumatic for these people to be moved on."
Mr Cohen said he intervened directly with NSW Local Government Minister Tony Kelly, who in turn contacted the Lands Department to acquire more time for the squatters to find alternative accommodation.
"I don't support the long-term permanent residency at Sandhills, but I do want the eviction process to be done humanely," he said.
Mr Cohen said the Department of Lands moved bulldozers into the area a week ago to clear a firebreak between the campers and neighbouring luxury holiday units, and in the process killed native animals, banksia forest and damaged campers' tents.
"In my mind, the department has not been acting humanely in this situation," Mr Cohen said.
The Department of Lands has now extended the deadline for their eviction notices to July 14.
Meanwhile, members of the Byron Bay Homeless Forum, a group that includes welfare and health workers and Byron Shire councillors, have taken on the task of finding housing for 20 of the most needy Sandhills campers.
Gwen Gould, co-ordinator of the weekly homeless and community breakfast at the Byron Bay Community Centre, said that with assistance from the NSW Department of Housing, some homes had been found.
A private rental had been also secured for one Sandhills couple at Coffs Harbour, and two younger homeless campers had been reunited with family members in Bundaberg, Queensland.
But finding homes for the remaining campers was proving hard, Ms Gould said, with public housing waiting times stretching to seven years.
"There is nothing available in Byron Bay, there's just nothing they can afford. It's impossible" Ms Gould said.
She is now trying to find accommodation in Brunswick Heads or Mullumbimby for two more campers, and in the meantime has replaced some leaking tents.
"Just giving them a list of places to ring doesn't help. It's unachievable for many of these people," Ms Gould said.
"I'm helping one camper who is too traumatised to make phone calls. He just can't talk on the phone, he doesn't have the skills.
"You are dealing with people here who just don't fit into the mainstream."
Ms Gould said the homeless situation was getting worse in Byron Bay, with as many as 70 people turning up to a weekly homeless breakfast where medical assessment, vitamins and fresh food were doled out by volunteer community and health workers.
"The best outcome would be for Byron Shire Council to come onboard and provide a permanent campsite for the homeless, where there is basic shelter, showers and lockers to keep their belongings safe.
"The homeless are not going to go away."