A new face of homelessness

Happy outcome: Lellah and Ali Woulf with eight of their children and their grandchild at their new home in Hurstville.
Happy outcome: Lellah and Ali Woulf with eight of their children and their grandchild at their new home in Hurstville. Photo: Tamara Dean

Families such as these are swelling the ranks of people forced to seek help from Australia's charities.

If homelessness is our ''national obscenity'' - as Kevin Rudd branded it in 2008 - the Woulf family of Hurstville may be its wholesome flipside: a hard-working, church-going household of mum, dad and nine children who fell on hard times. Even when they were homeless, the Woulfs counted themselves a very fortunate family. They had each other. They had their faith.

The Woulfs never imagined they would become a poster family for the shifting demography of Australia's homeless. The stereotype has long been of a loner, often an elderly male, sleeping rough on the streets or in parks. And yet almost a third of today's homeless are families.

Of the roughly 105,000 Australians homeless, more than 17 per cent are under the age of 12, and 27 per cent are under 18. Many families, like the Woulfs, simply cannot meet the rent. Many are young women with children who have mustered the courage to escape violent husbands and fathers. Family breakdown is commonly the cause, but not for all. Certainly not for the Woulfs.

A place to call their own: Caron Casey, with her son Oliver, is in a new home now but found herself homeless in the past ...
A place to call their own: Caron Casey, with her son Oliver, is in a new home now but found herself homeless in the past year. 

Two years ago, Lellah and Ali Woulf had eight children. Their ninth, Zaharra, was yet to be born. They were a healthy, strapping, sporty brood, proud of their Samoan heritage. Arnold, now 20 and at university, is in the Rabbitohs' under-20s squad and has his sights on first grade. Sarahpheinna, 13, is a representative netballer.

But their father, diagnosed with muscular dystrophy in 2003, could no longer work as a cabinet maker. Lellah had been forced to leave her job as a disability respite centre manager to become a full-time carer.

Then the landlord raised the rent, from $500 to $550 a week. ''There was no way we could pay it,'' says Lellah. They lost their Mascot home.

The Woulfs found refuge at the Wesley Mission's Noreen Towers in Ashcroft, near Liverpool, transitional accommodation for up to 14 families. Four of the Woulf girls shared two bunks. The boys bunked in together, too. By any definition they were homeless, but not on the street.

Many refuges do not accept men, but here the family could stay together. They learned how lucky they were on the scale of misfortune.

Lellah recalls: ''Many of the women were fleeing domestic violence. Some had been living with their families but had been kicked out. Some were divorced or their partner had left them.''


All confronted bleak rental options. This year's Anglicare Australia Rental Affordability Snapshot surveyed 56,414 properties. Less than 1 per cent were affordable for anyone on Newstart or the parenting, aged pension or disability support pension. There wasn't a single home within reach of Newstart or youth allowance recipients in Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide or Darwin. Even for working parents, with two children and on two minimum wages, only 8.5 per cent of homes were affordable.

It was a report last week from the Wesley Mission, Homelessness and the Next Generation, that put the spotlight firmly on families. Wesley's chief executive officer, the Reverend Dr Keith Garner, and other agencies reported families couch-surfing, living in cars, dossing in garages.

Lellah and Ali Woulf, who have been together 24 years, were determined to maintain the pillars of stability in their children's lives. They could have nine months with Wesley, if they needed it, to search for a new rental property. While they searched, the couple refused to uproot the children from their schools, their sports clubs and their pentacostal Bay City Church at Banksia.

Paul Stephenson, 42, sleeps rough on the streets of Woolloomooloo.
Paul Stephenson, 42, sleeps rough on the streets of Woolloomooloo. Photo: Wolter Peeters

Each day they drove a round trip of up to three hours, from Ashcroft to Mascot and back. They could not afford multiple trips across town. So, Ali says, ''Some days we could leave Noreen Towers at 6am and not return until midnight.''

Every landlord who learned the size of the Woulf family knocked them back, but Lellah says: ''We put our faith in the Lord that he would find a house for us.''

Short of divine intervention, it might be easy to despair at Australia's capacity to tackle this problem. When Labor came to power in 2007, new prime minister Kevin Rudd put it at the top of his agenda. He ordered his ministers to spend a night in a homeless shelter to see how many people were being turned away.

The next year, Rudd struck a four-year, multibillion-dollar partnership with the states to address the national obscenity. This was to be merely a downpayment on his ambitious 12-year plan - to halve homelessness by 2020.

It defined Rudd's leadership in the same way the Gonski education reforms and the National Disability Insurance Scheme have defined Julia Gillard's. All huge social policies; all hugely expensive.

The global financial crisis did not help. Come census night in August 2011, the nation counted 105,237 homeless citizens; that was 49 for every 10,000 people, up 8 per cent from 45 in 2006. The sheer number of homeless had risen by 17 per cent, reflecting the rise in population, the Bureau of Statistics reported.

Statistics can be eye-glazing. On this subject, however, they paint a heart-breakingly vivid picture. Here's a small part of the landscape painted by the peak advocacy group Homelessness Australia: one in every 39 Australian children aged under four sleeps in a homeless shelter; half the people seeking crisis accommodation each day are turned away; two in three children are turned away; almost 80 per cent of families are turned away.

In 2008, the Commonwealth and states committed to build an extra 20,000 social housing units. In December 2009, Rudd's government pledged half - delivered under the economic stimulus package - would go to homeless Australians, or those at risk of homelessness.

In NSW, however, only 3 per cent of the new homes would have more than two bedrooms, says Garner. While lauding the ''great strides at both federal and state level'', he says: ''It is a sad fact that, nationally, almost one-third of homeless people who receive support are homeless families - and that number is expected to grow in the coming years.'' He asks why 97 per cent of the new properties in NSW were built without these families' needs in mind.

Families like Caron Casey's. A single mother with seven children, aged 10 months to 17, she was forced out of her Goulburn home when the landlord sold it. She applied for 30 properties over four weeks. A former property manager herself, she knew the business. Despite a '''perfect rental record'', money in the bank and several references, agents were not interested in such a big family. Caravan parks couldn't accommodate so many children. She asked about shearers' quarters out of town, but the owners wanted $850 a week. She considered pitching a tent in a park. In desperation, she wondered about fostering her older children so she could get a smaller home. ''It came to that,'' she says.

Mission Australia's Community Connections program found her transitional housing. Now, after 40 applications, Casey has found a five-bedroom home in Goulburn for $320 a week. Only now can she look up. She plans an ''errand'' business, delivering groceries, pharmacy goods, ''whatever''.

The circuit breaker of emergency housing is critical, says Garner, but so is the security of a long-term home. Two-thirds of young people who become homeless leave school within a year, according to Homelessness Australia. More than 60 per cent of children accommodated in homeless shelters have witnessed or been victims of domestic violence.

They ''can all too easily withdraw from relationships, disengage from learning and employment, lose trust, and learn behaviours which can cause them to relapse into homelessness later in life'', says Garner. Almost half of homeless people report that their parents were also homeless at some point.

Homeless men have families, too. A 51-year-old father of eight, as quoted in the Wesley report : ''I'm on my own. And because I'm in this predicament, I don't let [my children] know where I am. This is embarrassing … It's degrading and embarrassing.''

The homeless are not always jobless. The YWCA in Sydney operates a Homeless Brokerage Program, aimed at early intervention. Many are facing homelessness for the first time. Most rely on Centrelink benefits but about 7 per cent are in full-time work.

''A single person on $500 a week - double the Newstart benefit - still struggles to find a small apartment or studio for $250 a week,'' says Carol Basile, its manager of community wellbeing programs. ''We have one man earning quite a bit more than that, but he's still struggling.'' Without suitable accommodation, a single father cannot have his children to stay. ''A boarding house or pub is out of the question,'' Basile says.

It might be easy to despair, but Homelessness Australia's chairwoman, Narelle Clay, refuses to. ''Yes, it was an ambitious target,'' she says, ''but I still believe we can halve homelessness by 2020, if - if - we keep the pressure on.'' That pressure, Clay says, needs to stay on homeless services, housing provision and job creation. ''The stimulus funding was an amazing and positive strategy during the economic financial crisis, but to address homelessness and the increasing lack of affordable housing, we would need to keep a stimulus-like strategy going long-term.''

Clay agrees with the federal Housing and Homelessness Minister, Mark Butler, who points to evidence of progress.

Butler notes the brighter spots in the last census - ''a 13 per cent drop in the rate of people sleeping rough and a 14.5 per cent drop in .., indigenous homelessness''.

Butler says: "Too many families in Australia find themselves without a safe place to call home … That's why the Australian government has made reducing homelessness a national priority, and invested more than $26 billion since 2008 in housing and homelessness services.''

As well as the newly built social housing, another 80,000 homes have been refurbished, including 12,000 that would have become uninhabitable. Butler says the federal government has just committed up to $159 million in transitional funding to ensure the national partnership on homelessness goes on, contingent on the states and territories matching it.

More than 40 prominent Australians, heads of charities, unions and welfare organisations have told the government it can do something more - in the budget next week. In an open letter, arranged by the Australian Council of Social Service, they demand it raise the Newstart and other allowances, and index them to wages.

''At present, 2.2 million people live below the poverty line in Australia, including 575,000 children,'' says the council's chief executive, Dr Cassandra Goldie. ''Increasing Newstart by $50 a week will help lift more than 1 million people out of this despairing situation, and provide a welcome stimulus to the economy, because every single cent will be spent on mere survival.''

What of the Coalition, the likely government come September? Spokeswoman on housing and homelessness Marise Payne says it will release its policy before the election but ''is committed to combating the causes of homelessness'' and supporting homeless Australians.

Asked if it could commit to existing levels of funding, she says: ''With our gross national debt heading towards $300 billion, we can only wait and hope that Labor doesn't make things too much worse before the September election. The Coalition, if elected, is committed to getting the budget back under control and delivering a strong, stable and accountable government.''

The Woulfs, meanwhile, are not the kind of family that despairs. Their prayers for a home, they say, were answered after three months at the Wesley Mission's shelter. Family friends had been planning to sell a six-bedroom home in Hurstville. Instead, they kept it and rented it to the Woulfs for $500 a week. Its market rental value would have been $750 to $1000.

''They were so generous,'' says Lellah. ''It's a beautiful home.''

With their nine children now aged four months to 23, and a granddaughter, the Woulfs bargain-shop at Costco, Aldi and through their church, which sells food at cost. ''We have massive pots,'' says Lellah.

Every Monday night, they sit down to a family meeting. ''We explain how hard life can be, that we can take nothing for granted,'' says Ali. They prepare the children for the inevitable day that his muscular dystrophy confines him to a wheelchair. For now he is industrious. He cleans the house, works in the garden. ''I have to set an example to the kids,'' he says. ''They won't find me in front of the TV when they come home from school.''

Each day, Ali and Lellah do volunteer work. They drive a 15-year-old autistic girl to school. ''We have been so fortunate,'' says Lellah. ''We had to give something back.''

Lellah's next words move Ali to tears. ''Ali is the rock of the household. It was so frustrating for him, not able to work, to provide for his family. Soon after we lost our home, Ali lost his mother and had to fly to New Zealand.

''We had no money. We literally had nothing. But Ali stood tall. He set an example for us all. Today we have this home. It's a wonderful ending to the story. We look at more disadvantaged families, with no clothes, with no roof over their heads. We have to be grateful.''