1 July 2022

Can't stay, but nowhere to go for Wilks Park homeless

| Anna Maskus and Chris Roe
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homeless camp

With few rentals available and long waits for social housing, Aaron and his partner Skye say camping in Wilks Park is their only option. Photo: Chris Roe.

Rough sleepers in Wagga’s Wilks Park have been given four weeks to pack up and move on.

Addressed to “Dear Visitors” at the Wilks Park Primitive Camping Ground, the notice from Wagga City Council outlines the requirement to stay at the ground for no longer than 72 hours and tells long-term residents that “You are now to remove your vehicles/tents from this reserve before 28 July 2022”.

Aaron and Skye Buschmann have been camping alongside Hampton Avenue on the northern side of the river on and off for the past six months.

Sitting by a fire drum with a couple of other residents and several dogs, he explained their predicament.

“To kick us out in the middle of winter, we’ve got nowhere to go,” he said with a shrug.

“There are no houses. There’s nothing available on the market; we’ve tried everywhere. We even went down to Deniliquin to try, but it doesn’t matter where we go.”

Notice to leave

Long term campers at Wilks Park have been given four weeks to relocate. Photo: Aaron Buschmann.

In a statement, Wagga Council’s director of community Janice Summerhayes said the council has been working closely with the NSW Government Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ) to support community members who need accommodation options.

“DCJ and Council officers, accompanied by other support agency workers, recently attended Wilks Park and actively engaged with those who identify as being in a homeless situation, as well as visitors to the area,” she said.

Ms Summerhayes highlighted the DCJ’s role as the lead agency regarding homelessness and noted the council’s responsibility for managing health and safety risks on behalf of visitors of the Park, such as flooding.

This responsibility is behind the conditions of entry excluding camping in tents, swags or any other form of accommodation that is not “self-contained”.

“In the event of a flood, occupants of Wilks Park need to be able to pack up and evacuate quickly and safely,” Ms Summerhayes explained.

Some residents have found alternatives. Others have not, or will not, move on.

Park sign

A sign at the entrance to Wilks Park outlines the conditions of entry to the primitive camping ground. Photo: Chris Roe.

Despite heavy rain in early June flooding parts of the park, including residences, social housing options have not been a popular alternative for some homeless people.

“Housing (Department of Communities & Justice) have been down a few times,” Aaron said.

“They just offer to put you on the list and that’s a five to seven-year wait. There’s Link2Home (homelessness support service), but that’s only good for a couple of nights.

“There’s Micah (St Vincent de Paul’s Micah Hub) but they don’t do housing.”

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Skye said the problem was a lack of immediate options.

“All there is, is a waiting list, so it’s just pointless,” she said.

“We need something straight away, like ASAP.”

Another long-term resident who asked to be identified as “Incognito” said he has lived at the site for “long enough”.

“They’ve just made absolutely no follow through with an option,” he said.

“Sure – jump on a housing list, but in the meantime, ‘move your camp’. What does that actually accomplish?”

He said things like having a pet or a previous criminal record can reduce your chances of finding an alternative.

“If you’ve got past violent offences, a lot of places won’t take you because they have a duty of care to guarantee the safety of other occupants,” he explained.

“So they end up displacing people who are trying to have some stability and providing them with absolutely no choice and it could be driving them back to drugs or drink or whatever.

“Where’s the duty of care?”

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In early 2021 long-term campers at Wilks Park said they were told to either move on or pay a $700 fine, but many remained.

Ben Elliott founded the social media group “Wagga Kind” a few years ago to lend a hand to community members in need and has been delivering food and firewood to the Wilks Park community for the past few months.

He said that unless the police are sent in to forcibly remove the long-term campers, he can’t see what options there are.

“Some of the people will have been down there for months or even years. It’s alright to go in there and say ‘you’ve got to get out’, but I don’t think they will,” he said.

“If they had a bed to go to, they would be there. If they had a roof over their head, they would be there. Wilks Park is a last resort.”

“Incognito” said previous media coverage of their plight generated a wave of community support.

“The public outpouring of generosity has been pretty inspirational really,” he said.

“The actual community of Wagga has shown real common unity and pulled together and donated these tents and boxes of stuff.”

With winter starting to bite, he said times were tough.

“We’re just a stone’s throw from Thredbo here, bloke!” he said. “It’s colder than a witch’s tits doing pushups in the snow.”

Region Media contacted NSW Police and the Department of Communities & Justice but had not replied by the time of publication.

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