A lack of public housing and the high cost of rental properties had forced many people in the Illawarra to couch surf or to become homeless, Julie Mitchell of Wollongong Emergency Family Housing said yesterday.
Ms Mitchell was commenting on a new federal government survey which showed 244,000 Australians used homelessness services in the past financial year - an increase of 3 per cent.
Earlier in the year the Illawarra and Shoalhaven regions were targeted as areas of need with a staggering 66.2 per cent increase in homelessness between 2006 and 2011.
In Wollongong alone that figure increased by a massive 84.8 per cent.
"The report reflects the trends that are happening in the Illawarra," Ms Mitchell said.
The Wollongong Homeless Hub has had 350 visits from people trying to find a permanent roof over their head in the two months since it opened.
The centre, operated by Wollongong Emergency Family Housing, helps people search for private rental properties and apply for public housing. They offer haircuts, help fill out applications and liaise with other services to provide a one stop shop for homeless people.
Georgie Morrison, of Forbes, has been couch surfing - sleeping on someone's couch on a short-term basis - since September.
She and her boyfriend moved to the area in April and had been living with a relative when the lease expired and they were unable to afford a rise in the rent.
"We moved here to the city because we thought it would be easier to find work and housing," Georgie said. "But it's been hard. One night we had to sleep on a couch on someone's porch. It was very cold and I felt scared and uncomfortable. I didn't know what was going to happen.
"It's horrible not knowing where you are going to sleep.
"It's not nice because you don't know who is around. You don't feel safe," Georgie said.
Now staying in temporary accommodation, Georgie has used the Hub's services to search for a place to live.
"I feel people looking at me and judging me all the time," she said. "But when I came here to the Hub I was surprised when people were friendly and said hello. I'm not used to that."
Ms Mitchell said she was concerned about the number of young, single people on Newstart allowances who couldn't afford to enter the rental market.
"They are the ones usually staying with family and friends and sometimes that's not the best environment for them to be in," she said. "More and more families too are approaching our services because of the tightening rental market. When they can't afford to rent any more they're left with no place to go."
Ms Mitchell said more money needed to be spent at a grassroots level to assist people to gain access to private rentals. She also called on the government to increase public housing stock.
Only 5 per cent of housing in Australia is publicly owned, compared to 20 per cent in the United Kingdom.
"If we were to increase public housing in line with the UK then that would free up the rental market," said Ms Mitchell. "There are people out there who think it's a dream of having a secure rental property and a job. They believe it's a dream they'll never have. Homelessness should be on every political agenda because it's such a huge issue."
Last year 889 families sought assistance from Wollongong Emergency Family Housing.
Ms Mitchell said homelessness could be generational with people caught in a cycle of unemployment and homelessness.
"You can't get a job without a home because you have to look presentable," she said.
The study also showed that domestic and family violence remained a leading cause of homelessness with 32 per cent of all clients receiving assistance from homelessness agencies escaping some type of family violence.