It’s never easy when women and children come through the door at Upper Hunter Homeless Support asking for help, says general manager Lewis Millington-Blazey.
We talk to Lewis and his team about the daily challenges their clients face.
Lewis, you’ve got a tough job. What do you wake up to most mornings?
I wake up knowing that we have a terrible problem of homelessness in the Upper Hunter. We have a real housing crisis that’s spread out over 16,500 square kilometres.
What does it mean to be homeless?
I think the preconceived judgement in the community is that homelessness is a choice. It’s not. It’s not a lifestyle that anyone would choose.
Who are some of the people that come through your door?
We are seeing working families who have never faced homelessness before. We are also seeing more domestic violence cases with women and children becoming homeless, which is heartbreaking.
What have been some of the challenges for you?
Funding is a challenge for most not-for-profits like us. We are funded to see 440 people, but we have seen in excess of 900 people. We’re funded under the Going Home Staying Home reforms in 2014 which was the NSW Premier’s initiative to reduce homelessness. But we always need more.
How does Upper Hunter Homeless Support help people?
People walk in the door. Our care response worker finds out the circumstances, makes sure people are safe, then allocates people to a caseworker. We have 90 days to find accommodation. Not all these people need accommodation – some come in for food relief, some for access to fuel cards.
How many people do you see?
Last year during Covid we had one or two referrals a day. Now we’re seeing around four or five a day because of Covid and the housing crisis.
So, what about the housing shortage in the Upper Hunter?
The housing crisis here is real. There’s not much social housing stock. A hundred people can apply for a private rental in the Upper Hunter and 90 of those could be people working in the mines on six-figure salaries, so unfortunately our clients don’t get a look in.
What happens to these people?
Unfortunately, most of these people are priced out of the housing market. There are probably 30 people sleeping rough on our client books because we can’t find accommodation. These people sleep in cars, tents, a friend’s garage, down by the river. They even sleep on the train between Scone and Newcastle.
Are there many families sleeping rough?
Unfortunately, yes. We have a couple of families sleeping in cars right now. I have a family of my own and I can imagine what it would be like. There’s a lot more work to be done in the community to prevent that from happening. We need to work on domestic violence awareness because that’s one of the main causes of homelessness for women and children in the Upper Hunter.
It’s devastating seeing kids who are homeless. There’s no other way to describe it. It’s heartbreaking. Unfortunately, these kids might not get the same opportunities like my kids. We have to make sure they are afforded these opportunities and at least be able to live in a safe house with a roof over their heads.
How do you deal with domestic violence in particular?
We want the community to start talking about domestic violence. We want people to go to the pub and tell their mate who’s talking rubbish about his wife to stop, that it’s not ok.
What are some of your programs?
We have launched the Heart to Heart program to start conversations around domestic violence. It’s been really well received by our community.
What are some of the housing options your team has available?
Upper Hunter Homeless Support has been successful in purchasing some properties so we can put victims of domestic violence into longer-term accommodation. We have 12 staff and we operate out of two offices in Singleton and Muswellbrook. We have a women’s and children refuge and 10 properties that we use for long-term accommodation.
It’s amazing the work you’re doing – what motivates you?
The most vulnerable people of our community generally come to us on the worst day of their lives. We can turn that around and give them some hope. We just give them a smile and say ‘it’s alright’. I want the community to know that there is homelessness and that we need to do more about it. Our ultimate goal is to stop domestic violence. That would certainly help stop homelessness for women and children.