Homelessness ‘worse than ever’ across Sydney
NEARLY half of all people seeking help from a major homeless shelter in Sydney's inner west are women escaping domestic violence as support services are stretched to the limit.
One of Australia's most respected figures on tackling homelessness says the hidden scourge of society is "worse than ever" in the Harbour City.
Reverend Bill Crews, who has been supporting homeless people for five decades, said nearly 40 per cent of those seeking support from his Ashfield shelter were women who had hit the streets due to domestic violence.
"This is a huge problem for our society," the 75-year-old, who was named one of 100 National Living Treasures in 1998, said yesterday.
"We find women, many of whom are aged over 40, sleeping in their cars with their kids in the inner west just to get away from abusive husbands or partners.
"They just refuse to put up with the abuse and would rather be living in their cars and the street than putting up with it, which they would once do years ago.
"The government's billion-dollar commitment to tackle homelessness could be allocated to this part of the problem alone."
Latest data from the Inner West Council and City of Sydney's homelessness street count shows a growing number of people sleeping rough.
Since 2016, the number of rough sleepers in the inner west has risen from 23 to 30 this year, while an estimated 66 people were staying in temporary and crisis accommodation.
People were rough-sleeping in a range of locations including parks, footpaths, cars, tents, shopfronts and behind offices.
City of Sydney's street count earlier this year revealed 373 people were sleeping rough and 522 were in crisis and temporary accommodation.
But this doesn't tell the "real story", Rev Crews says, with the "hidden" homeless figure "much higher" and the number of marginalised in society at crisis point.
"I've never seen it worse," Rev Crews said.
"Homelessness has always been a problem in the city, but (the numbers at) the other places we go to across Sydney are going through the roof.
"Our food vans go out past Liverpool, and we're seeing more returned servicemen and women who are struggling with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), as well as more asylum seekers in need of help."
He said it was "extremely hard" to work out the full extent of the problem.
"I've been in the inner west since 1970 and one of the things that's happening now is the rise of the hidden homeless," Rev Crews, whose Exodus Foundation serves up to 1000 meals a day across Sydney, said.
"Many years ago you were either homeless or not. But that's changed now, because people couch surf or others who don't want to be found."
As the NSW Government commits to halving homelessness by 2025, latest data shows the massive cost of homeless people to the health, welfare and justice systems.
The Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute says a homeless adult in Sydney can cost the health, welfare and justice systems up to $44,000 a year.
Across Australia, it's estimated there are 116,000 homeless people, including 44,000 youths.
*Maria couldn't take another beating at the hands of her husband.
She says life on the streets was preferable to being "constantly abused" and "run down" at home.
Now aged in her early 50s, the mother of a teenage boy says that, in many respects, the "mental torture" was worse than "being a punching bag".
"*John has a problem with the drink and I used to hope it would get better, but it never did," Maria said.
"I used to take all the abuse and try to keep the family unit together for the benefit of my son. But I started worrying about him with the verbal abuse. My husband used to be so critical of us, mostly when he was drinking.
"And it's had a terrible impact on my son and he's become very depressed.
"I know other women in Sydney and the Central Coast who have gone through similar things. It's such a big problem, but it doesn't get talked about enough.
"Something more needs to be done to recognise how bad it is."
*Maria and John are not their real names.
The Exodus Foundation was born out of the winnings of a horse race and a little old lady donating the proceeds of her family's jewels.
Rev Bill Crews recalls the day in 1989 when ad mogul John Singleton rocked up ready to donate in a big way after a good day at the track.
"I remember John turning up and saying, 'I've just won all this money, what would you do if I gave it to you?'" he said.
"I said 'I'd open a soup kitchen'. He said, 'call it Loaves and Fishes and here's the money'. We opened the next day with 80 people and we've never had less."
He said another anonymous donation also helped get Exodus up and running.
"A little old lady heard I was helping feed and house the needy on the pews of the (Uniting Church) here in Ashfield," Rev Crews said.
"She sent me a letter and a cheque for $10,000. She said, 'you're not to ring me, write to me, you're to have no contact with me at all, because when my family find out, they'll be very angry with me.
"So that's how Exodus began - and we haven't looked back since then."
Now with 30 staff and 2000 volunteers, 70 of whom are on deck each day serving meals or providing healthcare, Rev Crews' Exodus Foundation is one of Sydney's largest frontline charities.
It runs the Loaves & Fishes free restaurant, serving up to 1000 meals every day. And it also runs a free dental and medical clinic, provides help and support services such as social workers, chaplaincy, counselling and food-parcel assistance.
"We're trying to treat the needs of people today," Rev Crews said.
"Firstly, the meals are a honey pot. People come and we speak to them and see how we can best help them.
"There are so many issues that we try to help people with, not just food. Whether it's a doctor, mental health or dentist support.
"Just the other day we had two homeless old guys came in to eat at our restaurant. They both got a meal; one ate and then gave his false teeth to his mate so he could eat."
He said the biggest battle his team faced was to "keep it kind", because the inclination was to "give somebody a meal and move them".
"That does something for them for that day, but it doesn't do anything for them holistically. We have to remember we are dealing with human beings," Rev Crews said.
Rev Crews laments that today's society has made people "more anxious" and "isolated".
"We've forgotten the art of getting on with each other," he said. "Years ago, we knew who all our neighbours were and you learnt how to get on.
"Nowadays, though, with people being so isolated and busy in society, we've forgotten how to get on and we don't know our neighbours.
"We really need to be addressing this loneliness epidemic."
He said he once subscribed to the mantra that "homeless people like to live on the streets" - but not anymore.
"The truth is that they don't," Rev Crews said.
"There are so many changes in society and many feel displaced. I worry that society is getting crueller and more self-obsessed.
"The way we treat the poorest and most marginalised in society is an indicator of who we are as people.
"And I welcome the commitment by the Premier (Gladys Berejiklian) to take the issue of homelessness seriously and to try to halve it (by 2025)."
'LOVE IS ALL YOU NEED'
Rev Bill Crews is a decorated figure, having been awarded an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) and being named as a National Living Treasure.
But, as great of an honour as they are, he prefers to focus on the gifts he has received from the less fortunate.
"I've been privileged to see the most beautiful parts of people in the most damaging of circumstances," Rev Crews, who first visited the Wayside Chapel in Sydney's red-light district of Kings Cross in late 1969 and ultimately became involved in voluntary programs, said.
"And the real privilege is seeing how people realise the most important thing in life is love.
You know, love is all that matters.
"Often you only get to this point of realisation when at the bottom yourself."
Having started the Life Education Centres - which are now all over Australia, Hong Kong, Thailand, New Zealand, England and America - with Rev Ted Noffs in the late 1970s, Rev Crews continued to reflect on the lessons he's learnt in life.
"Adversity can either break you or break you open," he said.
"And when it breaks you open, you become the loveliest person imaginable."
Asked what had driven him to help the needy for the past 50 years, he said: "(Melbourne-based Catholic) Father Bob Maguire and I sit and chat at various times, and one day he said, 'Bill, we've been to the Mountain Top and when you've seen the incredible beauty in humans that's hidden behind the curtain, it just keeps you going'.
"And that says it all for me."