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Homelessness, hopelessness

By Charmayne Allison

THE homeless exist in a netherworld; in the case of the twin towns if you care to look it doesn’t take long to find some. On a freezing winter’s night under the bridge is a favoured haunt; sadly also occasionally a hunting ground for people who get a kick out of kicking those who are down. Writer CHARMAYNE ALLISON and photographer CATH GREY have been investigating the issue, which reaches across the community, and discovered the most disturbing collateral damage of all – the hopelessness. People who have fallen through the cracks and who the system can’t, sometimes won’t, help because even the system is tragically overloaded and dreadfully underperforming.

LOOK into Tony Haigh and Melissa McGee’s eyes and you’ll see something extraordinarily heartbreaking.

You’ll see weariness, the emptiness.

But above all, it’s the hopelessness that leaves you not knowing exactly where to look.

The Moama couple has been homeless for six years.

And for the past eight months they’ve been sleeping outdoors.

Rain, hail and shine, snatching whatever warmth they can from a campfire, whatever shelter from the Echuca-Moama bridge and whatever protection from a tin fence.

They are on their own long day’s journey into night.

Nomads with little more than a tent and the few blankets supplied by local homelessness services; band-aid tokens to tide them over until the next roof, maybe, one day, comes along.

They’ve been told it will; promised it will.

But as two people in an ever-lengthening list of locals desperate for housing, the pair are at long last on the verge of defeat; to give up hope, the one thing that has kept them going.

Tony is 48 but looks about 70, and so emotionally traumatised, so stressed, he has tears rolling down his cheeks as he talks.

“We’re sick of it. Melissa and I have been together for ages, she’s the light of my life, but we’re struggling. Our relationship is struggling from this,” he explained, wiping tears from his eyes.

His face scarred with wrinkles and dirt staining the seams on his hands, each line the marker of a tough life – and an especially tough eight months.

For a while now, Tony and Melissa have been living under Echuca-Moama Bridge.

They haven’t been alone, two in a group of about 15 seeking shelter under the twin towns’ historic link.

Among the group, a pregnant young woman, four children aged 14 and up and a young man struggling with mental illness.

Each with their own challenges but all linked by a desperate need for something most of us take for granted – home.

Last Thursday night the group was torn apart.

They claim a man wielding a gun stormed into their site and threatened to shoot them if they didn’t leave.

Fearing for their lives, Tony and Melissa and a couple of others sought protection at Moama Local Aboriginal Land Council.

Seeing their desperation, Moama LALC chief executive John Kerr didn't hesitate to offer temporary refuge behind the land council building.

“Home” is now a semi-circle of ramshackle tents heated by one small fire.

That’s where Melissa and Tony were found crouching yesterday, boiling water for coffee over the embers.

The squealing of their two puppies Coco and Mokbel, who played in the dust nearby, is at odds with the heaviness in Melissa and Tony’s voices.

“I’ve wanted to take my own life several times,” Melissa admitted.

“I’ve gotten really low.

“But the problem is, homelessness is political.

“No one wants to take responsibility and help find us a home, they just keep arguing with each other over who’s doing the most for people.

“Meanwhile we have nowhere to go, it’s like they don’t even think about us.”

Like many in their situation, Melissa and Tony are the first to admit they’ve had rough histories.

Both have struggled with drugs. Tony “did the jail thing”.

They claim they’re both drug-free now.

In fact, Melissa successfully completed rehab six years ago – but the joy of that victory was short-lived.

A few days later, they would become homeless.

“At the time our kids had just come out of welfare after eight years and they had a lot of hurt in them,” Tony said.

“They came out smoking marijuana and it was a nightmare. Melissa was away in rehab and I was trying to watch the kids.

“But because they were on dope they played up and smashed the house.”

Melissa came home to a sight she’ll never forget – windows smashed, holes kicked in the walls.

She and Tony were evicted and have been homeless ever since.

“What my kids did reflected on me and now I can’t get a house,” Melissa said.

“The kids now have somewhere to live and I don’t. They come down to visit sometimes – they regret what they did to us.”

Tony and Melissa have been drifters ever since, sleeping in tents throughout Echuca-Moama for the past eight months.

Although they are both on Newstart, the couple says it’s just not enough to make ends meet.

And certainly not enough for Echuca-Moama’s consistently high rental prices.

While Tony doesn’t have steady employment, he chops firewood and digs bardi grubs on the side.

As for Melissa, she’s currently dependent on Newstart, but would like a job.

“I love cleaning, I love gardening,” she said.

“I’ve always wanted to work. But because I can’t read and spell, it makes it harder to get a job.”

Even as we speak, she barely keeps still, washing dishes under the tap, raking leaves onto the fire and hanging quilts on the tin fence to dry.

“I tried to get it clean before you came,” she smiles.

There’s another moment when Melissa’s face briefly lights up.

A couple of nights ago, Tony and Melissa were invited to dinner by John Kerr and his family.

“It was a beautiful hot meal,” Melissa said.

“I can’t remember the last time I sat down for a real meal.

“When you’re living like we are, you don’t eat well because you have nowhere to store the food.”

Ask Melissa what she misses most about living in a house and she’ll wax lyrical.

“You don’t know what it’s like to live in a tent until you’ve done it for a long time,” she said.

“You can’t move around, there’s no view – but it’s the only place you can stay warm and dry.”

Throughout the interview, she regularly doubles over with a hacking cough.

It's causing her pain and she knows she should see a doctor about it.

But, she admits, when all you can worry about is what you’ll eat and where you’ll live, health is low priority.

By the time we return later that afternoon, Melissa’s condition has deteriorated to the point that she’s curled in her tent, barely able to move.

Tony is running down the street as we pull up.

“I’m going down to my uncle’s place to ask him to drive her to hospital. She’s in a really bad way,” he said.

By the next morning, Melissa is back at the campsite.

She still looks worse for wear, but after seeing the doctors she had nowhere else to go but back to their freezing makeshift home.

Watching his partner suffer, it’s no wonder Tony’s eyes fill with more tears; the only thing they are not short of.

“All we want is a home, we’d live in a shack,” he said.

“There’s no reason Melissa and I shouldn’t get a house.

“We’re responsible, we’ll take care of it, we’re willing to have our payments straight out of the bank because that way we know it’s paid.

“We're desperate. John's not going to rush us out, but we can't stay here forever. And I just don’t know where we’ll go next.”

HOMELESSNESS: OUR FORGOTTEN FAMILIES

Read more from our politicians here.

Read more from local homelessness services here.

Read more from Moama LALC chief executive John Kerr here.

Read an opinion piece from Riverine Herald writer Charmayne Allison here.