Some people have lived in the cars for more than a decade. Picture: Peter Ristevski
Some people have lived in the cars for more than a decade. Picture: Peter Ristevski

Queensland teachers forced to live in their cars

BY the light of the dashboard, a middle-aged woman marks her students' papers.

When the last page has been filed away, she checks the doors are locked, reclines the car seat and attempts a few hours' sleep before the next school day dawns.

This is the new face of homelessness on the Gold Coast. And it could be the face your child sees in the classroom.

Teachers are part of the city's growing class of working homeless. While this noble profession may be granted generous holidays, the same can not be said for their wages, especially not when compared against the city's soaring housing costs.

Mona Nielsen, Chair of the Gold Coast homelessness network. Picture: Jerad Williams
Mona Nielsen, Chair of the Gold Coast homelessness network. Picture: Jerad Williams

Gold Coast Homelessness Network chairwoman Mona Nielsen says many residents would be shocked not just at how prevalent a problem homelessness has become, but by who it is affecting.

Mona has been working with the city's homeless for 14 years and says it has changed drastically.

"The traditional face of the homeless is still there - youth who have run away, people with drug and alcohol problems, people affected by mental health issues and, always, people affected by domestic and family violence," she says.

"But there's a new group which has been growing in the last 10 years on the Gold Coast.

People need to stop thinking of the homeless as just the man with a beard pushing the shopping trolley.
People need to stop thinking of the homeless as just the man with a beard pushing the shopping trolley.

These are the working homeless. We have to stop thinking of the homeless as just the man with a beard pushing the shopping trolley with all of his belongings in bags.

"That certainly still exists, but that's only the beginning of the problem. Think of the teachers at our schools as well.

"The first time I saw this happening on the Gold Coast was not long after the GFC. We were helping a teacher who was living in her car but still going to school every day to do her job.

"Can you imagine? The stress and strain that teachers are already under … and then to take your work home not to a house but to your car? The shame of that would be suffocating."

Mona says there is no simple solution to the city's "homeless epidemic'', but affordable accommodation is a critical component.

The buffer between getting by and being homeless is shrinking according to experts.
The buffer between getting by and being homeless is shrinking according to experts.

She says education about the extent of the problem is also crucial to understanding just how much help we need.

"The buffer between getting by and being homeless is shrinking," she says. "If you talk to almost anyone, they will say it's getting harder.

"There is so little social housing on the Gold Coast and affordable private rentals tend to be so far out from employment bases that what a tenant saves in rent they spend on transportation.

"Affordable accommodation is not going to cure homelessness, however. For many people, the problem is not only finding a house but being able to make it a home.

"That's where efforts towards improving mental health, increasing drug and alcohol rehabilitation beds and helping those suffering from domestic and family violence come into play.

"We also need to work toward helping people understand that homelessness is not just someone in dirty clothes sleeping rough in Surfers Paradise or under the Nerang bridge, it's someone who sleeps in their car or couch surfs - someone who travels from friend to friend, from couch to couch. They may have a roof over their head but it is not their roof.

"These people are still extremely vulnerable. They have no fixed address, no permanently safe place.

"We're talking up to 4000 homeless people every night. The Gold Coast can do better than this and a lot of people are trying, but we need to help the whole city understand how deeply rooted this issue is."

Mona says the city showed its ability to open its heart and doors during the Commonwealth Games.

 

Vickie Williams 74 years old was forced out of her unsafe home and into her car back in 2014. Photo Paul Beutel
Vickie Williams 74 years old was forced out of her unsafe home and into her car back in 2014. Photo Paul Beutel

She says one of the greatest legacies of the event was not sporting, but social.

With much of the city centre closed to residents - not just to the homeless - she says emergency shelter was opened as part of a state and city co-ordinated approach.

"The response we had from the community during the Commonwealth Games was just amazing," she says.

"We didn't want to be like other cities where sporting events have been held and they've bussed the homeless out or tried to hide them.

"We wanted to acknowledge that during this time the places that the homeless call home were going to be off-limits, not just to them but to everybody.

"We really worked across multiple levels of government to open emergency accommodation. Some of these were simple stretchers set up in respite areas, but we also negotiated special rates with local motels.

"The numbers of the homeless didn't increase over the Games, but the beds did. Some of those, like the stretchers, simply could not be kept up afterwards - it's a matter of staffing and building use.

"But some of those motels have continued working with us, which has made a difference. The level of co-operation and co-ordination between assistance groups in the city was amazing, and that has stayed with us too.

"We were hopeful that afterwards the Athletes Village would be used as social housing, but unfortunately a deal had been done with a previous government and it will be used as private residential premises.

"It is a shame. But you can't focus on your losses, you just have to keep moving."

It's an ethos Mona is well acquainted with.

Born in Denmark, she moved to Victoria with her family in 1969 after her father answered Australia's call for skilled migrants.

Upon arrival, the family was housed at the Bonegilla migrant camp near Wodonga, an experience the then-six-year-old has never forgotten.

"We lived in these cabins which had mosquito nets and there was just so much sun and sky and insects. It was a different world from Denmark. And the food … so different," she says.

"We later moved to the Wacol migrant hostel near Brisbane after my father got a job, then we moved into housing commission. I was always surrounded by people who were doing it tough.

"I think my childhood as an immigrant really informed who I became as an adult.

"It's given me a deep compassion for those who are vulnerable, like I was - and like the homeless.

"But it also showed me that you can overcome these barriers."

Mona should know. She started her career in social work after starting university at the age of 40, graduating the same year her youngest child finished high school.

"It was a crazy time," she says.

Karin Fey, 60, living in her car because the department of housing wouldn’t let her live in a place with her dogs.
Karin Fey, 60, living in her car because the department of housing wouldn’t let her live in a place with her dogs.

"But I knew that I didn't want to be just sitting at home, waiting for my husband to finish work and my children to come back and visit me.

"I'm very lucky that I have a husband who supported me. When I went through orientation at uni they told us that 50 per cent of married students end up divorced by the end. But not us.

"I just knew this was a passion in me. Not that it's been easy.

"This sort of work is 24/7. I try to remember to invest in other parts of my life - family, friends, church … I try to practise self-care.

"But then there are those times when that all just goes out the window. You can get stuck in a moment. Sometimes that's because of the workload, sometimes you are so invested in a particular client and doesn't work out the way you hoped.

"But I've always come out of it and kept going."

Mona says right now she's focused on the Gold Coast Homelessness Network's symposium next month that will focus on ageing.

She says that, like the working homelessness, it's a new, older face of the same problem.

"We've identified that there are a lot more over-65s who are presenting to our service," she says.

"Some of it is that we have ageing population, but it's also that a lot of older residents are renters.

"When a partner dies, they lose that extra income or the house is too much and they lose it.

"Helping that older population is difficult because of the varying social and medical needs. But what kind of a society are we if we can't look after our elders?"

And what kind of a society are we, too, if we can't look after our teachers?

It's a lesson the city is starting to learn.



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