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Accommodation crisis hits Canberra, Queanbeyan

Looking forward: Richie Unga is now a youth worker with Youth Care Canberra. His brush with homelessness made him realise he wanted to help others. Photo: Kimberley Le Lievre”Sometimes, you just want to go to sleep and never wake up.”
Nanjing Night Net

Richie Unga was struggling to pay rent, bills and his car rego when his siblings stopped contributing to the household payments.

It wasn’t long before they were kicked out of their rental.

That was in 2009 when Richie was 22 years old, and it was one of his lowest points. He moved into his car, and used his gym membership to have a shower and get changed each morning before he went to work.

His story is a familiar one to young people and the services trying to help them across Canberra, Queanbeyan and the surrounding areas. For young people in crisis, there is no temporary accommodation available. A change in government policy has seen a switch to temporary accommodation and away from refuges, of which there are now none for single men or women in the area surrounding the capital.

In an article in the Sunday Canberra Times last week, Anti Poverty Week ACT co-chairs Jeremy Halcrow and Frances Crimmins called on the ACT government to prioritise policies to ensure the city addresses the problem of homelessness.

They pointed out that the homelessness rate in the capital was “especially to our shame”.

While people come to the area believing they can access help or accommodation, that is no longer the case.

At this time of year, even emergency accommodation is a stretch to find. Big events like Floriade, or when Parliament is sitting have a huge impact on vacancy rates in the capital and Queanbeyan.

The cheap motel rooms are constantly booked out, forcing services to pay top dollar to house the most vulnerable in society. Often times, this just isn’t in their budget.

St Benedict’s Queanbeyan co-ordinator Elaine Lollback said she’s considered setting up an unauthorised “tent city” at the Queanbeyan showgrounds for all the people she’s had to turn away.

She said homelessness was a terrible predicament, but one that could be solved by providing early intervention and more affordable housing options.

However, she said to do this, government agencies had to work together. And that had proved nearly impossible.

“I believe housing is a fundamental human right. It doesn’t have to be flash but it has to be safe, secure and a place where you can call home,” Ms Lollback said.

She said everyday she saw people facing no other option but to sleep rough.

While housing affordability was a major problem, she blamed the system for making it harder for people to get back on their feet.

For a young person with no rental history, it was nearly impossible to get a rental property. If that person was also on Centrelink, their application would be disregarded, Ms Lollback said.

Given there were long lists of people lining up for very few rentals, Ms Lollback said there was no incentive for homeowners to consider the greater good.

“For Queanbeyan, being right next door to Canberra is a huge problem, because it’s a large city with a high cost of living. There is an expectation that Queanbeyan would have cheaper accommodation, but because it’s actually so central to Canberra it pushes those rentals up.”

She said the student market coming across the border also absorbed the cheaper end of accommodation.

One possible solution was to provide incentives for landlords, to allow them to choose people who might not have a rental history, but can prove they’re a good tenant.

“You still get market rent, but you’re actually allowing someone on a lower income to prove they are good tenants,” she said.

“It takes one person prepared to say, ‘I’ll give a room, a house’, that would make all the difference because it then opens up options.”

While Ms Lollback said she relied on Safe Shelter to help provide accommodation over winter, those services close up for the year next week.

“What are we going to do? I don’t know.”

The saddest thing, she said, was that the problem could be solved with the right will and wise investment from the government.

As for Richie, he is now a youth outreach worker with Youth Care Canberra. He said it was when he was homeless that he decided he wanted to help others.

“The biggest thing for me was learning that I had a choice, and every choice has a consequence, good or bad,” Richie said.

“I didn’t have a father growing up, I came through the system and I was in and out of [juvenile detention]. I was trying to find belonging and I found it, in all the wrong places.

“That rough patch, of living out of my car, that’s when I was wondering what my purpose was.

“I decided I wanted to be a youth worker so I applied and applied for so many jobs, and I got knocked back … but then one company gave me a chance, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

That was six years ago, and Richie said he’s now living out his dream job.

“I think my purpose is to help people, step by step, day by day. To let them know it is going to be OK, and to inspire them and empower them that one day, you’ll get back on your feet. This is just a rough part.”

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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