The working homeless living in vehicles along the Northern Beaches say they are not only increasingly being harassed by locals – with banging, egging or even firecrackers in the exhaust – but feel increasingly squeezed out by Council.
New signs have appeared in the seafront carpark beside Mona Vale Beach in the last fortnight warning “No camping or overnight stays.” They were installed by Council workers on Monday 6 November, and transgressors risk a fine (details here) of up to $1,100 if they fail to move on when directed by a Council ranger.
A number of vans adapted into mobile homes were still parked on the Mona Vale seafront the following day, the occupants we spoke to unaware of the car park’s change of status when Manly Observer drew their attention to the new signage.
Facundo, one of several Argentinian van dwellers temporarily residing in Mona Vale area, told Manly Observer, “We usually stay one night and then move on. I work in this area, but I move around, never camping in one place for more than a couple of nights.”
Previously Mona Vale Beach car park was not an enforced zone. It is one of only two beaches – the other Balmoral – where warm showers are accessible after hours, an essential facility for the working homeless.
Go-go is the status quo
Council claim they are enforcing the Mona Vale no-stay zone in response to negative reports from people nearby. A spokesperson told Manly Observer, “Council continues to field a number of complaints from local residents about car camping. We are required to investigate these complaints and our preference is education over enforcement; however, if a person/vehicle fails to comply with signage, enforcement action may be taken.”
On 30 August, Council updated their webpage where people can dob-in a car camper.
Facundo told Manly Observer, “Most of the van dwellers around Mona Vale are quiet and respectful. We also take care of the amenities because they are really important to us. Sometimes we find the showers broken, toilets blocked, but that’s usually the regular beach users, the people who don’t need the showers and toilets like we do.”
Addressing the issue of homelessness can be a divisive topic. Many of those ‘sleeping rough’ have fallen on hard times due to economic or personal circumstances beyond their control.
Among those without stable accommodation are the ‘working homeless’, many of whom live in vehicles. They often face mistrust, intimidation and persecution.
Manly Observer spoke to a Northern Beaches van dweller, Liz Marshall, who is one of the working homeless moving around the peninsula for work opportunities whilst living in a van, supplemented with occasional house-sits for friends.
These people are distinct from holidaying travellers, backpackers and the ‘grey nomads’ (elderly retirees in motor homes) who are short-term vehicle dwellers and there by choice.
Liz revealed that there is an intolerant element on the Northern Beaches that deliberately terrorise those sleeping in vehicles; using tactics like banging on windows, damaging tyres, igniting firecrackers in exhaust pipes and beeping car horns alongside them in the early hours of the morning.
Facundo revealed that his vehicle had been pelted with eggs when he parked near Pittwater, which he shrugged off as “Just kids having fun.”
But Liz believes this hostility is motivated, primarily, by a negative social attitude: some people believe those who reside in vehicles and tents somehow ‘deserve’ harassment and eviction.
Van goes here
A Northern Beaches Council spokesperson told us, “We understand how difficult it is for people living in vehicles such as vans and encourage them to contact us, so that we can help put them in touch with the relevant housing and homelessness services to support them.”
But Liz Marshall countered: “We don’t need to be ‘fixed’. We have a home – it just has four wheels. We pay tax”.
“We don’t need to be ‘fixed’. We have a home – it just has four wheels. We pay tax.”
“I’m sick of this so-called ‘caring society’ that just wants to make it a problem, then send it elsewhere.”
Liz wonders why people are disparaged for not living in a building, especially as many of those in vans and makeshift shelters don’t have the income to pay the high rents or mortgages that characterise the Northern Beaches region.
“Society should refrain from stigmatising the homeless,” she declared, “because it’s not always about poverty, addiction and mental health.”
On the Northern Beaches there are charities that provide aid and advice to those dealing with addictions or mental health issues. However, the nearest emergency shelter, Ebbs House in Brookvale, run by homeless charity Mission Australia, has only 26 beds divided between two premises – one mixed gender, the other female-only.
But Liz is calling for tolerance and respect for vehicle dwellers, whose needs are distinct.
“There are so many people out there in cars and vans who are low-income working tax payers. They are your waitress, your gardener, cleaner, baby-sitter, handyman, students; all good people just trying to get a good night’s sleep.”
She continued, “People should take the time to talk to us and be respectful. They might be surprised to learn of the challenges we face – such as enduring cold beach showers in winter, locked public toilets, etc.
“There are a vast number of resources available, but accessing them can be very difficult,” she revealed.
Liz’s recommendations include: increase the number of warm shower outlets; allow safe overnight parking; provide leaflets plus QR codes that give information on the dos and don’ts for people living in vehicles; and enable access to public toilets overnight via a Master Locksmiths Access Key (MLAK).
- Turn the hot water on at the beaches. Mona Vale and Balmoral as the two warm water points are insufficient. Over 60 vehicles roll in and out of Mona Vale each day for a hot shower.
- Allow working homeless people to purchase an MLAK key to access toilets at night.
- Allow free overnight parking in beach carparks from 7pm-7am without rangers knocking on windows, threatening occupants with fines. Fine the people terrorising people in vans instead.
- Change the culture and make SAFETY everyone’s concern.
Manly Observer contacted Northern Beaches Council with the above recommendations.
A spokesperson replied, “Council is guided by a Homeless Persons Protocol which seeks to balance the rights of all members of the community, including those who are homeless, to use public spaces.”
The protocol states that Council “acknowledges the rights of all members of the community, including those who are homeless, to use public spaces, whilst also recognising their responsibility towards other members of the community who have the right to live in a safe and peaceful environment.”
The spokesperson continued, “Council’s priority is to find suitable housing options for those in need. Homelessness is a complex issue and we take a balanced and compassionate approach to work with relevant agencies to support the individuals affected.”
Four wheels good, four walls bad
However, this reporter spoke to a number of vehicle dwellers, whom all insisted that living on four wheels is their preferred option to residing in a brick building.
Nevertheless, they want assurances that they will be safe and not treated like unwelcome squatters, especially if their places of employment are along the Northern Beaches peninsula.
Hence why their request for access to public showers and toilets after-hours, to enable personal hygiene for their respective jobs.
Manly Observer asked Council to define whether they have a zero-tolerance policy towards vehicle dwellers who reject being re-homed by housing and homelessness services?
If not, how long can a person stay in an unrestricted parking spot in their vehicle? What are the penalties for resisting? What actions does council take, if any, against those living in their vehicles?
A Council spokesperson replied, “Council’s preferred strategy is to work within our homeless protocols, which involve working with housing and homelessness services to find suitable housing for those who are homeless, such as those living in vehicles.”
Northern Beaches Mayor Sue Heins added, “We understand some people choose to live in vehicles and others have been forced to due to personal circumstances and financial hardship.
“Homelessness is a complex issue, and we take a balanced and compassionate approach to work with relevant agencies to support the individuals affected.
“Sleeping in a legally parked vehicle is not illegal; however, those who are found to be in breach of any parking conditions are informed of this and are given the opportunity to move on.”