Lisa Shaw is just like you. She's worked hard all her life, provided for her children, and was living the Australian dream.
She never thought homelessness would happen to her.
Now she's a statistic: one of the nearly 280,000 people a year who seek help because they don't have a safe, secure roof over their heads.
"I've never been in this situation in my life and I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy," Ms Shaw says.
The 37-year-old emigrated from England 14 years ago. Family violence forced her to flee a fracturing home on the NSW Central Coast during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The past year has been a precarious mess of fear, stress and crisis.
Homelessness is you and me
Homelessness is a loose term. It encompasses people living in crisis accommodation, sleeping rough on the streets, as well as men, women and children in temporary but unstable housing - including couch surfers - according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).
Poverty is its biggest driver, Homelessness NSW chief executive Digby Hughes says.
"The vast majority of people turning up at homeless services are actually there because of income - or lack of a place they can afford to live in - and they go hand in glove," he says.
The two fastest-growing groups of homeless in Australia are older, single women and families.
"They don't have mental health [issues]. They don't have drug and alcohol issues. They don't have acquired brain injuries. It's basically they can't afford a place to live in and it's entirely scary," Mr Hughes says.
The snowball effect
Ms Shaw survived and fled domestic violence then lost her job during the pandemic. Eventually, she couldn't afford the rent.
"Pretty soon it became quite unaffordable at $450 per week for a mum [with] two kids," she says.
"I've always worked; I was a disability support worker for years and then COVID happened ... the bills just really started to mount up."
As a single mother with two dependent children, Ms Shaw spent a year holding her family together, living in hotels week by week and in Lithgow crisis accommodation west of the Great Dividing Range, just two-and-a-half hours drive from Sydney.
It's been one of the most humbling experiences in my life. I've always felt so thankful for my kids but never any more so than now.- Lisa Shaw, homeless single mother
On the cold August Census night in 2016, there were about 50 homeless per 10,000 of the Australian population, an increase of almost five per cent over four years.
In Lithgow and Mudgee alone, there were 108 homeless people, 157 in Bathurst, 102 in Orange, and 209 in Dubbo.
Across the major towns of the NSW Central West, that's nearly 600 people. Lithgow temperatures plunged 5.5 degrees below zero that August.
Homelessness numbers are expected to rise in the 2021 Census data set to be released in mid-2023.
'Free' to fall
Ms Shaw travelled to the Blue Mountains in September 2021 to visit her daughter. She found a community.
"It wasn't until those two weeks that I started to realise, 'Hang on a minute, what's new? Why am I feeling so great?' And it was because I was free," she says.
"Free from all the head games and heartache."
The Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) says the main reason women and children leave home is violence, making up 42 per cent of specialist homelessness services clients in 2020 and 2021.
We know the answer: a person who is homeless, they need a home.- Digby Hughes, Homelessness NSW
Despite her "freedom" Ms Shaw says the night she became homeless she felt like a failure.
"Not being able to give the people that you love what they need and what they want definitely plays on your mental health and your depression and I do suffer from anxiety from time to time," she said.
Ms Shaw is grateful her children are strong - and stubborn - like her.
"It's been one of the most humbling experiences in my life. I've always felt so thankful for my kids but never any more so than now."
The night life changed
On the first night without a home, Ms Shaw called a temporary accommodation service, was placed in a Lithgow motel, and given a case plan with a 28-day reprieve.
After a stint renting a small caravan on the Central Coast she returned to Lithgow and was set up in crisis accommodation with Providential Homes for six months, before getting work as a live-in caretaker.
In June 2022 she and her kids moved to the Lithgow Women and Children's Crisis Centre, a NSW government-funded refuge run through Lithgow Community Projects.
High demand for services - higher for homes
The need for homelessness services is growing in regional areas, especially at accessible city fringes such as around the Blue Mountains, Ms Shaw says.
The Productivity Commission has found recurrent government expenditure on specialist homelessness services for 2020-21 was $1.2 billion, or $47.49 per person accessing services. Nearly 97 per cent of that went to agencies to deliver specialist homelessness services.
But without walls and roofs to house the vulnerable, service providers are struggling.
"The one thing they can't do is find the houses," Digby Hughes from Homelessness NSW says.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) found in June 2022 the "vast majority" - 69 per cent - of public and community housing was in metropolitan areas in line with the population distribution.
The long odds of securing a home
Ms Shaw continues to check private rentals. But the costs are insurmountable.
"After eight months of applying, applying, applying ... the cost of food going up and just the cost of living - the cost of everything - you stay positive but it's quite hard to keep getting back on that horse when you're told 'No'," she said.
In the year to January 2022, the cost of renting a three bedroom home in Australia increased 13.5 per cent, according to housing affordability campaign Everybody's Home. The purchase price on the same type of property rose 20.2 per cent.
"There are people who've had four walls, have worked, have raised their families, and they now can't even afford to rent," Ms Shaw says.
Simple answer, complex solution
The answer to homelessness is simple.
"We know the answer: a person who is homeless, they need a home," Mr Hughes says.
But there's not enough social or affordable housing.
"There's a shortfall across the state [of NSW] with people waiting two, five or 10 years - and over - for property. And that's just unacceptable," he says.
"How do you actually get on with your life if you're spending all your time worrying about, 'Can I pay the rent this week?' Or if you're living on the street, how can you actually organise education and employment? The stress you're under is overwhelming."
A recent AIHW report shows there were 440,200 social housing dwellings nationwide in June 2021, an increase of less than one per cent over 12 months. The charity Anglicare says by 2036 there will be a shortfall of nearly 730,000 social and affordable rental homes.
"It's a no-brainer: we need more social housing and to inject money into projects where it's just temporary or social housing. It's a must," Ms Shaw says.
"The rich get richer and the poor die trying."
Funding for local solutions
In mid-2021 the NSW Regional Housing Taskforce was established to address housing availability and affordability.
The Regional Housing Fund was launched in February with a $30 million budget to provide housing grants to regional councils, including Lithgow.
NSW Deputy Premier and Bathurst MP Paul Toole says the state body responsible for social housing management, the Land and Housing Corporation, and the agency overseeing public land like parks and reserves would be working together.
"This will see agencies work together to identify suitable land across the state which may be used to ease housing stress in regional NSW," he says.
Homeless but hopeful
Ms Shaw says kindness and gratitude have helped her cope over the past tumultuous year.
"What else can you do? You're on this crazy roller coaster called life and I am so thankful for life - nobody is promised tomorrow.
"I wouldn't want anybody to go through this because it is soul-destroying."
My story: Alanna Tomazin
I'm a 24-year-old journalist and first home builder. Sounds impressive, right?
But on weekends I work a second job pulling beers at the local pub. Some weeks I'm scraping to put fuel in my car and groceries in the fridge.
I grew up in social housing in Lithgow NSW and, with my brother, I've built my first home in the Hunter region, so together we can put a roof over our terminally ill father's head and make sure our mother is looked after.
I wanted to share Lisa Shaw's story because she once had it all. Now, along with so many other regional Australians, she faces homelessness. Lisa is dogged. She has to be positive. And her experiences show you're not alone and there is help.