Increased demand on the Department of Housing is creating a cycle of homelessness

There is light at the end of the tunnel for Robert Bishop, 30. Picture: Sylvia Liber
There is light at the end of the tunnel for Robert Bishop, 30. Picture: Sylvia Liber

“I’m feeling helpless, I’ve done everything I can to better myself and stay away from drugs … it’s to a point I’d rather be in jail.”

That was the sentiments of a broken Illawarra man just over a week ago, trying to get a fair go.

Increasing demand on Australia’s welfare system has meant those who are in desperate need of assistance are often being left in the cold.

For Robert Bishop, 30, his struggle highlights the difficulties people face when trying change their lives for the better.

He has experienced homelessness many times before. He’s camped in the middle of the city, slept on trains and on park benches. 

This time is different because he’s clean and wants to stay that way.

Six months ago Mr Bishop was released on bail for a crime involving drugs, but it was the final wake-up call he needed to set himself straight.

He was released on court orders to live with a relative, who was also battling to stay clean.

Unfortunately the relative returned to the dark clutches of crystal meth in December and Robert Bishop was forced out onto the street to conserve his sanity and his will.

“I turned up to Wollongong police station at two in the morning because I couldn’t stay there, there was too much going on and I didn’t want to breach bail,” he said.

He spent the night in the cells, not for wrongdoing, but to stay clear of the substance that took hold of his life for nearly a decade.

Mr Bishop, also on a disability pension, first presented to the Department of Housing towards the end of 2014 with an application for permanent residence - he is still on that waiting list.

The minimum wait time for housing in the Illawarra region is at least two to five years. The sad reality is many people including families, could be waiting for a home for more than 10 years.

In the interim specialist homelessness services work with the Department to find temporary accommodation in low cost motels or caravan parks for clients in their search for something permanent.

Over December and January Mr Bishop and his mother desperately searched but it wasn’t as easy as staying at a refuge because it would breach Mr Bishop’s bail conditions.

Government assistance provided short-term accommodation in Bowral before moving the pair to the Piccadilly Motor Inn, Wollongong.

“I know it’s terrible but at least it’s a place out of the pouring rain,” said caseworker for the Illawarra Homelessness Coordination Services Liz Stumbles.

“This is the dilemma. We’ve always got people who will actually be OK up at the Piccadilly because that’s what they’re comfortable with, they’re lifestyle lends to being very comfortable in that environment.

“Then you get people like Robert and his mother and others that are maybe forced to go there and it’s just rude, it’s rude to every part of them.”

Mr Bishop was on the verge of breakdown and tried to plead with staff at Family and Community Services as to why he couldn’t be placed there.

He presented them with letters from Corrective Services and his doctor outlining their concerns for a relapse, and how unsettling it was to be constantly greeted by people and habits from the past he was trying to rid himself from.

A magistrate deemed the accommodation inappropriate and in breach of bail, as it posed a risk of Mr Bishop relapsing and therefore become “a serious risk to society”.

“It’s a revolving door situation because needs are not appropriately assessed in the first place,” said Ms Cunningham.

In the past financial year 897 visits for help were made to St Vincent De Paul’s homelessness services in the Illawarra region, 40.7 per cent male, 59.3 per cent female. The highest category of people accessing their services were aged 30 to 39.

This is just one of many organisations who offer homelessness services in the region.

In December 2015 Homelessness Australia released their annual report revealing more Australians than previous years had received assistance from homelessness services.

It also showed housing was still problematic. Despite the number of people who needed accommodation being similar to 2014, the proportion who were able to be provided with accommodation had decreased to 60 per cent.

 “A lack of affordable housing is a double-edged sword. It drives people into homelessness and is a major barrier to exiting homelessness,” said CEO of Homelessness Australia, Glenda Stevens.

Ms Stumbles works closely with FACS employees and said they were frustrated too because of the lack of properties available to meet demand and the protocols they have to go through.

She said cases like Mr Bishop’s were not uncommon and blamed the increase in people seeking help on rising house prices and rents in disproportion to incomes.

“For people on a fixed income like disability supports, it’s really difficult,” she said.

Ms Stumbles agreed it was a vicious cycle for some and put intense pressure on people trying to better themselves.

“Sometimes the environment is very unhelpful and it’s just a shame that there isn’t a lot of other options,” she said.

A call by Ms Stumbles to the owner of a motel was the “breakthrough” needed to help Mr Bishop. 

While the room “wasn’t anything fancy” it was a roof over his head and the piece of mind Robert yearned for to help keep his life heading in the right direction.

Currently FACS estimates more than 59,000 people are currently on the public housing waiting list.

By early 2017 the Illawarra will have 30 new one and two bedroom units available, covering Bellambi, Corrimal and Unanderra.

They’re being constructed with money raised from the sale of 47 Government owned properties in Millers Point with views of Sydney Harbour. Sale of the properties collectively generated around $500 million.

Department of Housing wait times

  • For a two-bedroom home: Wollongong 5 to 10 years; Shellharbour 10+ years; Kiama 10+ years; and Helensburgh 5 to 10 years.
  • For a one-bedroom home: Wollongong 2 to 5 years; Shellharbour 10+ years; Kiama 15 to 10 years; and Helensburgh n/a.
  • For a three-bedroom home: Wollongong 5 to 10 years; Shellharbour 5 to 10 years; Kiama 5 to 10 years; and Helensburgh 5 to 10 years.