The number of homeless people in Port Stephens has almost tripled in the past 12 months, while resources from support services are being stretched to their limits and staff struggle to provide emergency accommodation.
An annual one-night street count of people sleeping rough in tents or in cars this year recorded 11 individuals, or in some cases families, compared to just four last year.
"And they were just those people sleeping out in the open in the more common spots of Port Stephens, there are possibly more who go unnoticed," said Port Stephens Family and Neighbourhood Services (PSFANS) manager Sue Pollock.
"The homelessness issue, along with that of domestic violence cases, has hit crisis point in Port Stephens. Our staff are being stressed from the workload trying to keep up."
Ann Fletcher, PSFANS's team leader for Early Intervention and Homelessness Program, said that while homelessness was on the increase due to rental hikes and unemployment, "we don't turn anyone away".
"We speak with every single person that is referred to us and offer what support and information we can to help them work through their situation," she said. "But we do have a lot more clients. Where we would normally have between 20 to 50 new clients in a month we are now having 60 to 80. In the period June to December 2019 we worked with 273 clients, for the same period in 2020 the number jumped to 490 clients."
Ms Fletcher said that COVID restrictions have had a big impact.
"We are finding that people from the cities are now able to work remotely and this has outpriced our clients who are mostly on low incomes or Centrelink benefits," she said.
"In the past 12 months rent on a one to two bedroom place has increased substantially, and real estates have informed us they are receiving 300 applications per day and often they have less than 10 homes available.
"Even the storage providers in the Port Stephens area are keeping a waiting list. If you have been evicted from your home, you cannot even store your belongings while you are in temporary accommodation."
Ms Fletcher added that staff were finding the situation most disheartening.
"We hear the desperation in the stories and experiences that our clients share with us."
"It takes an emotional and mental toll on all of us... but our staff are well supported with clinical and peer supervision."
As for a solution, Ms Fletcher says she would like to see governments invest more heavily in social and affordable housing.
"Homelessness NSW have stated that 5000 new social housing properties need to be constructed per year for the next 10 years to respond to the current demand," she said.
"My personal opinion is poverty is at the very bottom of this issue. When you are living as far below the basic wage as our clients are, you have a very limited capacity to change your circumstances. When your daily challenge is how will I eat today and where can I sleep tonight, readying yourself to compete in the very competitive job market is the furthest thing from your mind."
Hume Community Housing provides homes and services to more than 9000 people across NSW and manages 870 properties in Port Stephens. In November, there were more than 200 households on the waiting list for Port Stephens.
"Hume is working with sector peers and the state and federal governments to look at initiatives that support long-term housing and reducing homelessness. We have been partnering with the NSW government to support the Premier's priority to reduce the prevalence of rough sleeping across the areas in which Hume operates," a spokesperson said.
"Alongside the need for more affordable housing, there is a requirement for adequate support services to assist customers with complex needs to successfully sustain their tenancies. Wrap-around support services enable customers to prosper in their homes.
"Hume continues to advocate for more affordable housing. We would like to see replicable and scalable new supply opportunities for community housing providers like Hume to develop more social and affordable housing to meet the increasing needs within this region. Investing in the maintenance and construction of more social housing will contribute to short- and long-term stimulus of the economy as well as meet a high social need."
The Department of Communities and Justice said that as of June 2020 expected waiting times for social housing applicants in Port Stephens was 10-plus years.
"As of June 30, 2020, there were 151 applications on the waiting list in Port Stephens (Nelson Bay vicinity), 14 of them on the priority list. In Raymond Terrace that number was slightly lower at 136, with nine on the priority list," a spokesperson said.
Anyone who is homeless or at risk of homelessness can contact Link2home on 1800 152 152. Support is available 24-7, every day of the year.
State MP Kate Washington said that since the pandemic, PSFANS has seen a dramatic increase in demand for their services, and their small bucket of resources has been stretched to the limit.
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