While most people watch the rising value of real estate across our region with interest, anticipation and pleasure, seeing it as a sign of positive economic growth for our future, the flip side is a homelessness crisis.
And it is not looming - it is already here.
On February 16 in the Armidale Bowling Club, the New England Visions Institute held a Q&A session to discuss the problem, and the information presented was confronting.
Phil Donnan is the regional director for St Vincent de Paul northwest, and he told the Express that homelessness had reached crisis proportions across our region and beyond. So much so that his organisation has flagged the issue with the state government.
"There's a whole bunch of people that are transitionary or couch surfers - it's not just people sleeping rough, it's also the ones who are right on the edge of homelessness, and it is difficult to measure," Mr Donnan said.
"And what we can measure is growing at an alarming rate. Within the last year, there's been a nearly 20 per cent increase statewide of people recognised as homeless, and the biggest and most alarming cohort trending within that is women over 50 years old.
"They are homeless either as a result of domestic violence, a relationship breakdown, or the death of a partner when they are financially highly unstable."
After two years of COVID-19 anxiousness, mental health is also causing financial stress for many on higher incomes, Mr Donnan said.
"It's not just people on low incomes; we have had young professionals, lawyers, teachers, who live by themselves feeling isolated and very anxious who recognise they're probably hitting the drugs and alcohol too much and they've got an issue. So it's not someone that's just on the edge. It's people that you wouldn't consider."
Suzy Gillis is the site administrator at Freeman House in Armidale, and prior to that, she was a caseworker at the Men's Special Homelessness Service in Armidale. She moved to Armidale from the central west of NSW after being homeless for six months, even though she had an income of more than $100,000 per annum.
"I am the face of a homeless person, and when people think of homeless people, they don't think of professional middle-aged women," she said.
Ms Gillis said in her experience the severity of the problem facing the region on a scale of 1 to 10 is 'an easy 9'. She also agrees that homelessness is hard to measure beyond those sleeping rough because there is a strong sense of shame associated with it.
"It's a matter of going out into the community," she said. "You tend to know where people stay, and you go there.
"People don't consider themselves homeless if they're living in their car or couch surfing. It's those people that don't have a roof over their head that they can call theirs or can leave their belonging somewhere and know that they're going to be safe.
"And is it that people are only homeless during the night? Are people not homeless during the day? How do you measure that?"
Kate Hedges manages Homes North community housing in Inverell, Armidale, Glen Innes and Moree and one of the products she provides people is temporary motel accommodation while her team tries to find them a permanent housing solution.
Since July, Homes North has already spent its entire annual $1 million temporary accommodation budget.
"We have to go and ask for more," Ms Hedges said.
"I think the fundamental issue that needs addressing is a lack of funding for social housing stock and also for support services and workers."
Ms Hedges said there were many factors to homelessness. As well as rough sleeping, couch surfing and living in cars, overcrowding is considered another form of homelessness - where people are living with family, but 12 people live in a three-bedroom home.
"And we have very, very few four and five-bedroom homes," she said. "We simply don't have the bricks and mortar to support those families."
Homes North manage 2700 property tenancies across the region, providing affordable homes for more than 5000 economically disadvantaged people.
They have about 200 community housing properties in Inverell; 102 in Glen Innes; 210 in Moree; 46 in Tenterfield; 600 in Armidale and 9 in Guyra; 79 in Gunnedah; and close to 1000 in Tamworth.
Tamworth has become a high priority area where the waiting time is now six months for those who have been prioritised to the top of the list, Ms Hedges said.
And while Inverell and Armidale are not yet deemed high priority, they are getting close.
There's been a vast change in the private rental market landscape.
"Armidale and Inverell are under enormous pressure," Ms Hedges said.
"There's been a vast change in the private rental market landscape, and many people in the lower economic area have been forced out, and they battled enough as it was paying market rent before COVID-19.
"Now working people who are in employment are snapping up those rentals, forcing even more people to rely on social housing."
New data from Commonwealth Bank shows quarterly migration away from capital cities 15 per cent higher than it was two years ago, before the COVID-19 pandemic.
"So while that's great for investors and homeowners who have the capital, the flow-on effect to get the return on investment is that the rentals go up," Mr Donnan said.
"And what happens to most people on a fixed income is they get squeezed."
St Vincent de Paul defines someone under 'housing stress' as having to spend more than 30 per cent of their income on rent.
"The only long term solution (other than increasing Job Seeker payments, which we have been asking for) is an increase in affordable social housing," " Mr Donnan said. "That is a state government issue, and we will be advocating very, very strongly for that."
However, according to new research, the flow of people moving from capital cities to Australia's regions has shown clear signs of slowing in the December quarter, and the rising cost of regional property could be to blame.
The number of people moving from the capitals to regional areas fell by 10 per cent during the December 2021 quarter, the latest release of the Regional Movers Index - a collaboration between the Regional Australia Institute (RAI) and the Commonwealth Bank that uses banking customer address changes to track relocations - indicates.
So it would appear it is not just current residents who are feeling the squeeze in the property market - potential tree changers are also being deterred.
Mental health is a big issue amongst the homeless, Ms Hedges said, and her team can only help those who want to work with the service, but she said this is often a struggle and is distressing for all involved.
"Many of them have been so traumatised from their earliest moments of life it's incredibly difficult for them to walk in a door, let alone get all the documents that they need ( bank statements, Centrelink statements, ID that may have been stolen) to bring into us - and they have to do that continually," she said.
"It's just a nightmare for some of these people in all honesty, and sometimes the system just contributes to their problems.
"We have a handful of people that even if we gave them a house, it's very difficult for them to remain there. We know many of them are genuinely homeless, but for whatever reason, they are unwilling or unable to engage with us, and for that reason, we are pretty well mandated to refuse help.
"And that is a very traumatising thing for the staff that I work with and me to have to do but even more so for them because we know full well that they may genuinely not be capable of engaging with our service.
"We are here to help them, and believe me, we try, but sometimes because of a lack of funding or because we can't get them to fit in with the rules that we have to abide by, we just can't make it happen.
"And that's not an easy decision, and it's not easy to watch happen."
What comes across loud and clear is that homelessness is a complex issue that touches all levels of society and requires an interagency response. But there is also an increase in community concern and desire to support those affected, the speakers at the recent New England Visions Institute Q&A said.
But do we want to see them next door to us?
A common trait associated with homelessness is isolation, and this is where the community can help, according to Mr Donnan.
"As a community, we need to look around for someone a little bit isolated, reach out and see how they're going," he said. "As a community, we can save someone from relationship breakdown or becoming homeless, or from suicide. So be willing to sacrifice a little bit of time and effort to help that person through the next phase."
Ms Hedges said change would involve a lot of pressure on governments.
"They need to actually start to see that communities and people who aren't homeless are behind it," she said. "Everyone cares about the problem, not just the homeless people who often don't have a voice because they're too busy trying to survive."
It is a common misconception that drugs and alcohol cause people to become homeless, according to Ms Gillis.
"It's the fact that you're homeless that causes it and that's a statistic," she said. "And most likely when you see a homeless person, you think they must have done something to deserve it."
Just as important as donating goods and our time to volunteer is changing our attitude towards social housing Mr Donnan agreed.
"People volunteering to support people in social housing are invaluable - seeing them not as a project but as a friend that needs some help," he said.
"And when those small scale social housing sites turn up, we all want to see them, but do we want to see them next door to us?
"As a community, we need to be able to rally and go okay; it might be a bit noisy, it might be a bit inconvenient, and you might hear some raised voices on occasion. But rally around and support them and accept them wherever they turn up."
Anyone who is homeless or is at risk of homelessness can call Link2home on 1800 152 152 for information and referrals to services, including temporary accommodation.
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