Death of homeless man highlights growing problem in the shire

Growing problem: Support workers say the problem of homelessness in the shire has never been worse. Picture: Wolter Peteers

Growing problem: Support workers say the problem of homelessness in the shire has never been worse. Picture: Wolter Peteers

The recent death of a man who was living on the streets at Sutherland has highlighted the problem of homelessness in the shire.

Shire social workers were shaken by the death of a long-term homeless man Robert (not his real name) who had been living rough in Waratah Park, Sutherland since January.

Robert was aged in his mid-thirties and was estranged from his family who lived interstate.

He was brought to the attention of Orana welfare services by Sutherland Shire Council.

“He had a suspected broken foot so we got him to hospital,” Orana executive officer Elizabeth O’Neill said.

“We got him some temporary accommodation in a motel for a week through Housing NSW and hoped to get the support services to work with him,” she said.

“He was back in the street after a week and living in Waratah Park. He was living under an awning at the back of the toilet block.

Homeless concerns: Orana executive officer Elizabeth O'Neill has seen an upsurge in the number of homeless people in the shire seeking assistance. Picture: Chris Lane

Homeless concerns: Orana executive officer Elizabeth O'Neill has seen an upsurge in the number of homeless people in the shire seeking assistance. Picture: Chris Lane

“He would hobble up to our office in Sutherland and have a shower and something to eat but he wouldn’t leave his possessions in Waratah Park for more than a couple of hours.

“We still tried to get him temporary housing.

“He was very depressed so we got him into hospital and they kept him there for a week. He ended up in detox at St Vincent’s Hospital. They tried to get him into rehab.

“But he was released and for a while we didn’t know where he was. Then he turned up at our office looking well because he had been been eating regularly and had been sleeping in a bed.

“He started drinking that night. He couldn’t go back to the park because it was being used for school sports. He needed to stay locally and so we let him live in the stairwell at the back of our building where he could come in and have a shower and something to eat.

“He was released from hospital on Thursday and we found him on Tuesday morning dead in the stairwell.”

Robert’s family sent money for his cremation but did not attend.

Instead of a funeral, Christian Outreach Ministries Reverend George Capsis held a memorial service for the local support workers.

Robert’s story is just one of many in Sutherland Shire and across Sydney.

The first count of homeless numbers the shire showing who is sleeping rough was compiled more than two years ago by Sutherland Shire Council.

But these findings still present the most up-to-date picture of homelessness in the shire.

At the time, social service workers canvassed streets, hospitals, bushland, libraries and parks to seek out the homeless.

They found people were sleeping rough in bushland, cars, tents or in parks.

The average time a person is homeless was 2.2 years.

The longest duration of time for homelessness was 25 years, the shortest duration for three months.

The majority were male, non-indigenous and on disability support. The youngest was 40 and the oldest received the aged pension.

Half of those surveyed required affordable housing with ongoing support, while about 20 per cent required affordable housing with short-term support.

They faced a number of health issues. Some had limited mobility. Others were the victims of attack. Some had been affected by heat stroke, others suffered dental problems.

Many had a combination of three or more accident and emergency or hospital admissions in the past six months. Some had learning or development disability.

Many of the homeless were 60 years or older and had been homeless for six months or more.

Social service workers believe that since then the problem has gotten worse.

The numbers have increased and also those homeless with mental health problems.

But the news is not always bad, Ms O’Neill said.

“Recently we had two long-term homeless men who have just been housed,” she said.

“One had been on the streets for at least 10 years.

“We assisted with their housing application forms for priority housing and we put them in contact with the charity Give-and-Take Sutherland Shire Families which does a call-out on Facebook for furniture, crockery, linen and clothing.”

While these men finally found somewhere to live, the problem of homelessness continues to get worse.

“We have noticed more and more people coming to Orana for help,” Ms O’Neill said.

“We run a breakfast on Tuesday mornings and a lunch on Friday, plus we give away fruit and vegetables twice a week which is provided by Coles plus bread from Bakers Delight, Bourke Street Bakery and Groundbake, and food from Heart and Soul Cafe at Cronulla.

“While some of the people we assist may not be living on the street, for them it can be a choice of paying the rent or buying food.

“In order to be able to afford the rent they need to come in here to supplement their food.

“When we started our breakfasts eight years ago we saw five people a week. Now we see between 40 to 50 people a week.

“When we started our lunch three years ago we had two to three people a week and now we have 20 coming in for lunch.

“We assist about 20 people a week with fruit and vegetables and bread.

“I’ve been at Orana for 17 years and I’ve never seen it as bad. It is certainly getting worse.”

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