Homeless services in demand for Australians on the edge

Full-time cleaner Betty Zimike was left homeless after her rent rose by 50 per cent.

Full-time cleaner Betty Zimike was left homeless after her rent rose by 50 per cent. Photo: AAP

For six months, 65-year-old Betty Zimike would finish a full day’s work cleaning, get in her car, drive to a quiet spot, lock the doors and try to sleep.

After an invariably uncomfortable and scary night, she would get up each morning, go in search of a community shower or one at a swimming pool, and go back to work cleaning at a TAFE college in central Brisbane.

After 14 years of full time work, paying her rent and bills on time, maintaining a car and making ends meet, a 50 per cent increase in her rent had left Ms Zimike homeless and terrified.

“It was very scary. It wasn’t safe. It was like feeling very uncomfortable all the time,” Ms Zimike tells AAP of living in her car.

“You didn’t know what was going to happen next when you slept. You don’t know what’s going to come and knock on your door, and open your door or something.

“Sometimes it was hot, but I had to just lock the door and sleep.
“When woke up and you found yourself all in one piece, you were happy.”

At an age when most people would like to be considering slowing down or retiring, the astronomical rental increases made keeping a roof over her head impossible, said Ms Zimike, originally from Papua New Guinea.

First, her weekly $400 rent went up by $30. Then by another $20. Then it jumped to $500. Still, she went without to make it work.

Finally, she was told her new rent would be $600, and Ms Zimike knew she could no longer make the payments. Then 36 rental applications in six weeks failed.

Now, Ms Zimike is one of an estimated 122,000 Australians who are experiencing homelessness and sleeping rough, living in crisis accommodation or temporary dwellings, or in substandard living accommodations.

Recent federal government data shows that between December and March, the number of people seeking homelessness assistance spiked 7.5 per cent — an extra 6658 clients.

The overwhelming bulk of that came from people seeking homelessness help because of financial stress and the housing crisis – a whopping 83 per cent of the total 95,767 people seeking assistance.

Other research conducted by homelessness support charity Orange Sky supports this, finding one in three Australians have been severely impacted by the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, with more than a quarter sacrificing basic living essentials to make ends meet.

Two in five people are worried about rent or mortgage increases and one in five worry about being able to put food on the table, their data show.

“We’ve been helping more people than ever before in the last few months,” says Lucas Patchett, CEO and co-founder of the not-for-profit Orange Sky which offers shower and laundry services to people doing it tough.

Mr Patchett and friend Nic Marchesi were 20 when they chucked two washing machines and two tumble dryers into the back of a van and started driving around helping people in need.

Nine years later and Orange Sky has 62 laundry and shower services across 41 locations in Australia and New Zealand run by some 2500 volunteers.

While these services result in about 1800 loads of washing and at least 200 safe hot showers a week, it is also a chance for people who are “close to the edge” to be part of a community.

Volunteers who work for Orange Sky “don’t need to be a washing expert”, Mr Patchett says. But they do need to be up for a chat.

“For someone who might be ignored or someone who might be overlooked for a long period of their day, to just have a chat with a friendly volunteer … can have a big impact,” he says.

“It’s about being part of a community and feeling accepted and not judged.”

Reaching out to Orange Sky to use their services and find a friendly face in a very dark time was life-changing for Ms Zimike, who says they “rescued” her.

“There’s no (other) word that will describe it,” she says.

“It is very, very important to the people like me … it is a great support they give.”

Ms Zimike is being put up in a hotel room by the Salvation Army now, but she still stops by to wash her clothes and visit the volunteers who helped her.

“When they rescued me like that, I felt proud of them and … sometimes I just go and check with them,” she says.

This Homelessness Week (August 6 to 13) Orange Sky is asking people to take on the Sudsy Challenge and wear the same clothes for three days straight — to both get an understanding of what that can feel like and raise money for homeless people across Australia.


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