The Piccadilly Centre has been called many things - an eyesore, a hotspot of crime, even an "enclave of scumbags" in a 2012 Brand Wollongong report. But for a slice of the Illawarra's most at-risk people, Piccadilly is something else entirely - home.
For years, the Piccadilly Motor Inn has been a last resort for the region's homeless. Whether referred by agencies including Housing NSW or the Department of Community Services, or arriving on the doorstep with a suitcase in one hand and a child in the other, Piccadilly has long been a refuge for people and families without options.
"A lot of people live in Piccadilly because they can't get regular rental properties. It's the only place that will take them, and it's better than nothing," said Julie Mitchell, manager of Wollongong Emergency Family Housing.
"There is a stigma with real estate agents about renting to people on Centrelink benefits. These people often come from a poor rental history and they are competing for properties against professional couples."
Dr Judy Stubbs from the Property Council of Australia said the Illawarra's competitive rental market would almost certainly shut out many homeless families. In a market with far more potential renters than rental properties, landlords were able to pick and choose their tenants, and jack up prices.
"It's incredibly difficult for low-income households to get an affordable rental property in the Illawarra," she said.
"In a competitive rental market, where 30 people reply to an advertised rental, people with low incomes and unsteady employment do not get a look in."
The issues plaguing Piccadilly are well known to most in Wollongong. Reports of drugs, crime and prostitution are rife through the Crown Street complex, and with the myriad of problems that can cause homelessness - domestic violence, poverty, familial breakdown, prison, mental health issues - the combination is a volatile one. With a minimum five-year social housing waiting time for a two-bedroom unit in Wollongong, and a tight private rental market, places like Piccadilly often present a last resort for desperate families.
"If people aren't able to access housing through the community housing system or in the rental market, they have to look for affordable temporary housing. And there's not much of it," said Narelle Clay, chairperson of Homelessness Australia.
In a statement to the Mercury, a Housing NSW spokesperson confirmed Piccadilly was one of the most used temporary accommodation venues in the region.
"Housing NSW has been using the Piccadilly Motor Inn for over 10 years," the spokesperson said.
Housing NSW, as part of the Family and Community Services Department, offers "a small number of nights of temporary accommodation" to people in emergency housing situations. Of the motel's 33 rooms, three are currently occupied by temporary accommodation clients referred by Housing NSW.
"They are the biggest tenant we have," said Piccadilly director Vic Cuoco.
Housing NSW clients often receive a few days' emergency placement at Piccadilly. After that, they are largely on their own. Most will apply for social housing through Family and Community Services, but they are in for a long wait.
Recent figures published by Housing NSW illustrate the shortfall in public housing in the region; up to two years for one-bedroom housing and up to 10 years for larger dwellings in Wollongong, and 10-year waits for family-appropriate housing in Kiama and Shellharbour.
With few other options after the temporary housing allowance runs out, many simply take up residence at the Piccadilly.
"A lot of people come from Housing and pay for themselves, because Housing doesn't help them any more," Piccadilly Motor Inn manager Billy Richards said.
"They say they have nowhere to go. They can't find a place, they have no money for a bond."
The Housing spokesperson highlighted Piccadilly's "central Wollongong location [and proximity] to the train station, free bus route, real estate agents" as a key reason for using the motel to house emergency clients.
Julie Mitchell thinks there is another reason.
"I believe they're putting people there because it keeps their costs down," she said bluntly.
"A lot of people come to us knowing of Piccadilly and not wanting to go there. It's a cost factor, and caravan parks and hotels do not want to house homeless people."
Mr Cuoco and Ms Richards agree. "Housing puts people in other places first, and if they can't get in anywhere, they come here last. We say yes when other people say no," Ms Richards said.
"Not a lot of landlords want to take these people on, and not only that, these people often can't afford other rentals," Mr Cuoco said.
"Piccadilly isn't five-star, we can agree on that. But we would rather provide this service than see people out on the street."
The weekly rate for a "family room" - a pokey room hardly bigger than a regular bedroom, with double bed, bunk beds, shower and toilet - is $375, while a single room is $300. This is far higher than median rents in Wollongong, where a one-bedroom unit averages $225 per week and a two-bedroom at $310 per week, according to figures from Housing NSW's September Quarter Rent and Sales Report provided by Dr Stubbs.
Ms Clay said these figures highlighted the deficit between housing demand and supply in the region, and that the most disadvantaged members of the community too often found themselves at the bottom of the barrel and the back of the queue when it came to securing rental properties.
"If you have a rental property, you're renting it out for money. It's nonsense a market driven by profit can ever meet the needs of people falling through the safety net," she said.
But despite the obvious deficiencies that lodging as provided by Piccadilly has in terms of adequately housing a family, both Ms Clay and Ms Mitchell praised the Piccadilly Motor Inn for providing a roof where so many others had turned their backs.
"It's not that places like Piccadilly are bad, but we would like the provision of housing to be more appropriate. We need more crisis accommodation options," Ms Clay said.
The Department of Family and Community Services is working on reforms to the homelessness sector, as part of the Going Home Staying Home program. To be instituted from July 2014, the reforms will include "a new resource allocation model, service delivery framework, industry and workforce development strategies as well as on promoting innovation and reconfiguration of services", says the Housing NSW website.
Ms Clay said reform was needed, but she holds fears the new program will strip even more funding from housing and homelessness.
"Without a commitment from the [federal] government to match state funding, we might be providing services with less money than we are now," she said.
"I cannot see how we can reduce homelessness without commitments from the government to continue strategies being trialled."
“Life is a drag. It’s this constant depression, like it’s never gonna end. We’re right next to the train station, sometimes you think, should I just jump under the train?”
Sarah* is a single mother with young boys. They live in a ‘‘family room’’ at the Piccadilly Motor Inn. The room has a double bed, a bunk bed, a shower, toilet and mini fridge. It is no bigger than a standard single bedroom.
“Prostitutes, drug addicts, alcoholics. It’s not a place you want to be with young kids, God no.”
Sarah has lived at Piccadilly for several months. After being forced out of a rental property due to a dispute with landlords over property maintenance, an application for temporary emergency housing through Housing NSW resulted in an offer of a week’s accommodation at Piccadilly.
“They said they could give me a week there, but they couldn’t help more than that, and said I would have to help myself after that,” she said.
Applications for assistance through the Illawarra Housing Trust also amounted to nil. After initial optimism as she was boosted to the top of the IHT’s housing list, her hopes were soon dashed.
“They reneged on that a few months later. They said I wasn’t ‘priority housing’ and they couldn’t help me any more.”
With few options, and no luck in securing private rental accommodation, Sarah joined many others as she turned to the Piccadilly Motor Inn for what she thought – what she hoped – would only be a short stay, until better lodgings could be found.
That was more than five months ago.
“It’s a lack of private rentals. Every time I apply for a house, I get knocked back, so this was my only choice. It was Piccadilly or nowhere, and I didn’t want my kids taken off me,” Sarah said.
Sarah said Piccadilly took in those people other lodgings would not touch. The influx of those who had no other options meant a steady income stream for the motel, Sarah saying the complex was full “about 90per cent of the time”.
She pays $350 a week for her shoebox room.
The September Housing NSW Rent and Sales Report said two-bedroom units in Wollongong averaged $310 per week.
The figures highlight that people do not stay at Piccadilly because they want to.
“It’s because we have nowhere else to go, we can’t get a private rental. Other places won’t take us, but Piccadilly will,” Sarah said.
“It’s better than having nowhere to stay. It’s a roof over your head.”
Because she is a long-term resident – her room is one of 12 rented on a long-term basis, by people who have lived at the Piccadilly for up to three years – she gets a slight discount from the regular rate of $375. That is one of few positive points of her Piccadilly experience, with violence, fighting and drugs simply an ever-present backdrop to the lives of her family.
“The boys have to stay in the room, they’re not allowed out unless they’re with me because I’m too scared to let them go out,” Sarah said.
“It’s horrible. We’re confined, it’s like we’re alienated and shut out from the outside world. I don’t feel safe leaving the boys by themselves. They’re not allowed to open the door to anyone, or to speak to anyone.”
While life at the Piccadilly is far from ideal, Sarah is quick to point out the efforts of the motel managers to support families. She said the managers, Bob and Billy, worked to make life a little easier for those guests who needed a bit of extra help.
“They’re pretty good. They know what’s going on, and if anything goes too far they will be the first to call the police and tell us to stay in the room,” she said.
“They look out for people with families, they are pretty good with us. But I can’t wait to get out.”
*Name changed to preserve anonymity.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.