Doubts over housing for squatters


LAST WEEK, three Sandhills Estate long-term squatters traded their scrubland camp for a stint back on the streets of Byron Bay after a knife-wielding man threatened to slash the necks of the campers' three dogs.

According to those living in the rough forest refuge for the homeless near Clarks Beach, the knife incident was just another night at Sandhills.

Little surprise then that the campers The Northern Star spoke to this week were all keen to take up an offer by the Department of Lands to find alternative housing for them.

However, local social workers have warned the department's plan to secure alternative accommodation for the 40 or so homeless at Sandhills, before issuing them with notices to vacate the 12ha Crown estate this month, will not be easy: The housing stock just isn't there.

Waiting times for public housing often blow out to years, while the mainstay of affordable housing, local caravan parks, are filled with tourists at this time of year, warned Lisa Cook, co-ordinator of the Byron Emergency Accommodation Project (BEAP), which has operated Byron Bay's only general refuge for the homeless for over a decade.

"We have a client in our refuge at the moment who has been on the Department of Housing's list for seven years," Ms Cook said. "We see this happening often. There is very little housing stock."

And it is not only the Sandhills squatters who face the problem of securing affordable housing in the popular tourist town.

On any one night, Ms Cook estimates there could be anywhere up to 100 homeless people in Byron Bay, either sleeping on the streets, in makeshift bush camps or couch-surfing.

"As the East Coast becomes more attractive to developers it is becoming harder for people to secure accommodation," she said. "We've seen an increase in the number of families pushed out of accommodation.

"These are long-term local families who have been renting for years, but can no longer afford it.

"Up to 30 per cent of rate notices go out to investment property owners who don't live in Byron Bay.

"They would often rather rent out to holiday-makers who pay more for accommodation than long-term tenants.

"The only thing that would be affordable for (the Sandhills campers) is a caravan park, but at this time of year we still have a lot of tourists around and even that will be very difficult.

"Even shared accommodation is hard to find. People will kick their flatmates out so they can rent the rooms for a higher price to tourists."

The BEAP emergency refuge may be also off-limits for those Sandhills squatters who battle substance addiction, which, along with mental health problems, is one of the primary causes of homelessness.

"We provide crisis accommodation for up to eight clients," Ms Cook said. "They can reside for up to three months, but we have strict guidelines for people with substance addiction," she said.

"For example, if they are in recovery, they have to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

"We would be open to taking in some of the Sandhills people, but not unless they have detoxed and are substance free. It's too dangerous for our existing clients otherwise."

Ms Cook is calling on Byron Shire Council to force developers to contribute towards affordable housing and put aside a portion of rent-capped units in every new development to be made available to low-income residents.

"We desperately need more affordable housing in Byron Bay," Ms Cook said.

"The council needs to stand up and address this as a com- munity issue."

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