FRINGE DWELLERS: Sandhills Estate campers, from left, Alex, 19, Raymond, 18, and Daniel, 26, and their cat.
FRINGE DWELLERS: Sandhills Estate campers, from left, Alex, 19, Raymond, 18, and Daniel, 26, and their cat.

Living on the edge of society


JERRY doesn't have the financial resources of the typical property developer, but he sure knows how to maximise the potential of a block of beachside scrubland.

The fast-talking, 55-year-old divorced musician runs a tight ship at his new subdivision for the homeless.

There are building covenants (only top-of-the-range matching tents allowed), a roster for water-carrying, rubbish removal and cleaning duties, and everyone has to chip in for home improvements.

"Every couple of weeks we buy something special for the place," said Jerry, seated in the outdoor living area shaded by two shiny new tarps.

While Jerry is busy making improvements to his camp at Sandhills Estate, Byron Bay, nearby neighbours have called on Jerry, and up to 40 other squatters, to be evicted.

However, Byron Shire Council and the police say they don't have the power to do that and have arranged a meeting with the landowner, the NSW Department of Lands, later this month to discuss the situation.

After his divorce, Jerry arrived in Byron 14 months ago wanting a free lifestyle, and despite the lack of toilets, electricity or running water, living 200 metres from the surf at Clarkes Beach provided it.

However, three weeks ago, Jerry and the boys split from the camp across the sandy track after too many late-night police visits and brawls.

"There were noises going on all hours of the night and people break and entering and we'd get blamed for it."

Now 'uptown' Jerry presides over the newest division of Byron's most secluded housing estate, where the residents may not have toilets, but they all have mobile phones.

While they have no approvals to live on the 14ha estate, Jerry and the boys have big plans: "We're going to get solar panels and a TV," fellow resident Daniel, 26, said.

The way Jerry sees it, Crown land is the 'land of the people': "We should be allowed here, given proper facilities, a shower, toilets."

The boys snap-to in a flurry of table-cleaning and bonghiding when Jerry says tidy up for The Northern Star's photographer.

One of the boys, Raymond, 18, admits he lives there by choice. "I'm having a nice break from working after I had a car accident last year," he said.

"This is better than a lot of share houses I've lived in."

Former opal miner, 26-yearold Daniel, also admits he has chosen this lifestyle. "I could have bought a house by now, but I'd rather be living in the bush," he said.

Across the track, the homeless lifestyle has been less a choice and more of a necessity for 19-year-old Yalala.

Flipping through a waterstained photo album, she shows The Northern Star her most precious possession ? tattered photos of the younger sister she left behind at 15, when she was kicked out of home after a childhood of abuse and foster-homes.

She's lost one brother who hanged himself, another baby sister to cot death, but what she lacks in a loving family background she substitutes with the closeknit and colourful homeless community.

There's Lady Di, her itinerant older neighbour, whose camp site, with rotting cucumber atop a rotting mattress, is next to Yalala's.

Then there's Aunty Jude and busker Spiderman and, when Jerry from across the road drops by, Yalala jokes they are living in Neighbours' Ramsey Street.

Yalala is known as the Queen of Hertz, a title bestowed on her when she was 16 and would line up the 30 blankets she'd collected along the verandah of the Hertz Rent-a-Car shopfront.

The blankets are for older homeless people, too drunk, or sick, to take care of themselves.

"If I had to leave here (Sandhills) I'd probably have to go back to Hertz," she said.

For the past two years, however, Yalala has made the Sandhills scrubland her home, initially camping alone, now shacked up with her boyfriend, 17-year-old Steve.

Along a sandy track lined with abandoned Woolies trolleys packed with clothes, dirty jars, kettles and rubbish, Yalala and Steve have barricaded themselves in behind a hand-made thicket of twigs and dried leaves.

Their love nest may be carpeted in sand and cigarette butts, but to Yalala and Steve it's home.

They survive on community centre and church food and a $140 a week homeless allowance, supplemented when possible by fruit picking.

And, just like any other young couple in love, they have plans for the future: After sorting out a court appearance, Steve dreams of building a house 'up north' and Yalala yearns for a child of her own.

But the street-wise kid is realistic: "Not while we're living like this."

ACTING as protector of this ragged bunch is 34-year-old Maori Will, or Wilderbeast, as Yalala affectionately calls him.

With chiselled features, wiry hair and a Maori shield tattooed on his left breast, Will is the self-appointed warrior guard of the camp.

A former Sydney underground rave scene regular and tradesman, he describes himself as 'security and chief counsellor' of Sandhills.

Along with nightly 'perimeter checks' with his formidable dog Buddy, Will provides a safety house, or tent, for young runaways and breaks up the alcohol and amphetamine-induced brawls that erupt at night.

"I'm the only one who will attend the night-time screams," he said.

Anyone who wants to take up residence at Sandhills has to get past Will first.

"Everyone gets screened before they can come," he said. "But, I give diplomatic immunity to anyone who wants to talk. In the forest I've seen it all, good and bad.

"We've all been pushed aside by society, and we'll give just about anyone a go. But there are some outcasts who aren't even allowed to stay here."

Will knows the camp angers nearby neighbours, and he figures the inevitable will happen: Eviction.

But in the meantime, he will help the Department of Lands clean up the metreslong piled-up rubbish that has accrued: "I've guaranteed them workers from every camp. They've all been assigned."

While, across the road, Jerry and the boys create their outdoor-utopia, Will is under no illusions about what life at Sandhills is really about.

"This is the last stop before Richmond Clinic," he said. "What Byron Bay really needs is a refuge.

"We're not bad people."

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