Hoping for a Christmas miracle, a homeless Murray Bridge pensioner shares her story
As a community, even amid a housing crisis, how do we allow a 69-year-old woman to end up living in this tent?
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Helen* didn’t plan to spend this Christmas living in her car.
But here she is.
She has no running water, no power – “I miss watching TV” – and only a camp stove to cook on.
A bag of cat food and a rental application sit on the passenger seat next to her, the back seat is piled high with tinned goods, and there are blankets in the boot.
Helen is almost 70 years of age.
She loves her cats, gives gifts to her grandchildren when she can, and enjoys a beer or a punt on occasion.
That didn’t make her irresponsible, she said.
“People are always willing to criticise, but they can’t see past their noses,” she said.
“They’re willing to pounce on me about the number of cats I’ve got, but they couldn’t give a s*** that I’m living in (my car).”
Her landlord evicted her from the last place she was renting back in February.
She alleged that he did not give her a proper notice period – “he gave me two hours to pack” – and accused him of making inappropriate advances towards her, harrassing her and stealing her things.
She was unable to get any stable accommodation after that because she refused to part with her beloved cats – “I’d be lost without them” and owed a debt to Housing SA.
She ended up living out of her car for the first three months after that.
In May, a friend let her pitch a tent in the garden of a property she was renting out.
She slept there until October 21, when the wind finally finished tearing it apart; she has been back in her car ever since.
“I’ve got a few comforts here – I can sleep in as long as I want – but it’s not the same,” she said.
“I’m 70 next year and I don’t want to be in (my car).”
She didn’t want much, she said – just a house or a flat to rent, or even a caravan, anywhere she could feel safe under a solid roof.
If she doesn’t find somewhere soon, her health will be at risk, her doctor warned in a letter she showed to Murray Bridge News: “(she) desperately needs suitable and proper facilities for her to be able to survive humanely”.
Of course, finding a rental property in Murray Bridge has not been an easy feat in 2021.
Housing shortage is harming vulnerable people
Non-profit organisation AC Care typically takes the lead on the issue of homelessness in the Murraylands.
Homelessness services manager Thanuja Hiripitiyage said she couldn’t comment on Helen’s specific case, but suggested her story illustrated a bigger problem.
“A critical shortage of affordable housing in regional areas, including Murray Bridge, is impacting on all sectors of society, especially vulnerable people with limited incomes,” she said.
“We are aware of cases of people living in tents and other makeshift options as a last resort.
“We need more affordable accommodation, including private rentals and social housing, to meet the demands of people in our community.”
The COVID-19 pandemic had proven to be the perfect storm for housing, she said: people had lost jobs or had their hours reduced, and government supports such as Jobkeeper had been withdrawn, just as demand for cheap houses in the regions had spiked because city-dwellers could now work remotely and wanted to escape the rat race.
She welcomed recent state government announcements about investing in social housing – in Adelaide – but said more needed to be done to lift vulnerable people out of poverty.
That would mean building more affordable housing in Murray Bridge and raising the rate of federal payments such as Jobseeker.
The Murray Bridge council, too, is working on a plan to house the hundreds of workers who will need to move into the district in 2022, as jobs become available at Thomas Foods International’s new meat works and elsewhere.
TFI has reportedly been in talks with the developers of the Newbridge housing estate about what they might accomplish together.
But all of that is small comfort to a woman who needs somewhere to go right now.
“I’ve really got to get out of here,” Helen said.
“I’m 69 years old and it’s getting a bit much.
“I can’t live in a tent for the rest of me life.”
Can you help? Call Peri Strathearn at Murray Bridge News on 0419 827 124.
*The subject’s name was changed for this story at her request.
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