The Hunter people who live in cars | photos

IF you’re living in a car, it’s widely agreed, the fear is being noticed.

Every night in Hunter parking lots near beaches, public toilets, just back from the glow of houses, a scene plays on weary repeat. Old family sedan, blankets and clothes piled in the back. The occupant slumped up front, wired from waiting out the day, awake. Inhale, exhale…

“It’s the crowds, the people. You see them between cars, stumbling around and making noise. I can’t go to sleep while I can still hear them.”

Trish, 54, sleeps in a white 1996 Holden Commodore. Late Wednesday afternoon near Lake Macquarie she pulled into the grounds of Our Backyard, a year-old pilot project funded by Macquarie Care that gives refuge to people sleeping in cars.

The circumstances of Trish leaving her Community Housing unit in Wallsend – “Hell’s End,” she calls it – involved the trauma of losing her son, the struggle to make rent anywhere else, and a toxic feud with a neighbour she believed was threatening her life. 

The Commodore has been her home since last April, and its cosy interior is decorated with a dogs-and-flowers motif.

Trish suffers from Addison’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis, and relishes the chance to eat a healthy meal, to use a private bathroom and to sleep in relative silence. 

It’s the only place where Julietta, her King Charles spaniel who sleeps in the Commodore’s passenger seat and wears a pink faux fur-lined jacket in the cold, doesn’t yap at passers-by. The yapping is an acquired behaviour from living in the car, Trish said, and this is the only type of refuge where she can bring her dog.

“When I was really sick with my illness I had to find somewhere to put her for eleven, 12 days at a time. She’s my family, she frets without me,” Trish said.

“In the car you’re eating rubbish, or you have days not eating. You’re putting petrol in the car just to find a new spot. Everybody thinks everybody’s got somewhere, but the truth is, not everybody does.”

The 2011 Census counted about two thousand homeless people in the Hunter, as well as 100 sleeping rough and 600 living in crisis accommodation or boarding houses.

The actual figure is higher, Our Backyard’s community program manager Peter Di Girolamo said, something like one in 95 people in the Hunter are without a home.

Some go bush, he said, to emerge dehydrated and distressed on the hottest days of summer, but there is more of a tendency to congregate near the beach. 

Those who’ve become regulars at Our Backyard – location kept secret, open 4pm to 10am, the only refuge for car sleepers in Australia – know that Mr Di Girolamo and his volunteers want them gone, in the nicest way possible.

“Nick” and “Jill”, both 45, recently moved into an inner-Newcastle flat owned by members of the Macquarie Life Church and arranged by Mr Di Girolamo. 

Even a year ago, it would have represented an absurd level of stability.

“There’s a whole new level of social custom; what’s appropriate, what’s not. Things like taking out the garbage, hanging out clothes, doing the washing,” Nick said.

“It’s a multi-tenanted building surrounded by other buildings. It’s confronting. I know that’s part of why some people keep going back to the homeless lifestyle.”

The couple met two years ago in Sydney and came to Newcastle seeking distance from the daily despair they had found in Kings Cross.

Jill was abused as a little girl in New Zealand and began living on the streets when she was nine. 

She has had eight children who, in the worst moments of her ice addiction, she hasn’t been able to remember the names of, let alone their birthdays.

“I was meant to be a mother and I couldn’t even do that. I was a piece of sh**. I thought that way,” Jill said.

“I was living at the Cross and I got p***ed on, I got raped. They took everything. They took the photos of my kids. Then I met Nick and he stopped the drug addicts coming up to me.”

They slept on Nobbys beach and found it somehow easier, up here. 

People would turn a blind eye as their tent went up at night with a soft glow, and Nick was amused to find that homeless conversation didn’t vary that much between cities.

Nightly discussion on the street would be a creaking carousel of “prison, drugs, drunken escapades, encounters with the police, shop-lifting, small-time motor theft...”

Another homeless couple they befriended turned out to be heavy drug-users who bashed each other brutally, and it was the kind of scene they didn’t want to be sucked into. Nick and Jill decided to keep to themselves.

Then they saw a flyer for Our Backyard at Soul Cafe, the Newcastle East charity that provides free meals, and asked where they could find it. Mr Di Girolamo provided whatever they needed – more blankets, toiletries, particular foods – and let them sleep on the ground.

They met people like Victor Azzopardi, 64, who sleeps in his panel van and shows up with fish, caught in a mystery spot “by the lake”, to cook for everyone’s dinner. Wednesday night’s was jewfish.

Nick and Jill’s progression from the streets to short-term tenants – the flat arrangement expires next month – makes them prototypes of a system that could be grown through other willing landlords.

Getting the couple into a flat took some string-pulling, for which they are grateful. But Nick said it was a few nights of stability in Our Backyard to “save a bit of money and get refocused” that gave them confidence.

State and federal leaders have, recently, framed homelessness with housing affordability.

In Newcastle on Friday Senator Doug Cameron, the opposition spokesman for housing and homelessness, reiterated how Labor would, it says, change the conditions that are squeezing housing affordability.

Labor would, he said, appoint a specific minister for housing and homelessness, “deal with” negative gearing and capital gains tax, and match the Turnbull government’s plan for a bond aggregator to fund community housing.

“We would level the playing field between rich investors and young people trying to get a home,” he said.

“We would be establishing proper research facilities... to ensure that we’ve got the best advice on housing and homelessness. We would make this not just a social issue, but a high-priority economic issue.”

While Our Backyard runs on corporate donations and Pentecostal goodwill, Mr Di Girolamo said he welcomes discussion of homelessness at any level of government. Of all the issues competing for funding and policy nous, he said, none needs bipartisan leadership more than this one.

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