Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories
Christy Stewart is a domestic violence survivor, daughter of the Stolen Generations, single mother to three young boys - and determined to help.
The 27-year-old Wiradjuri woman is also homeless.
"How can anyone live any kind of stable lifestyle, let alone have a job, if they do not have a home?" she says.
"That's insanity; it can't happen."
Australia's homeless are among the most vulnerable groups in society and their numbers are swelling.
Between July 2021 and March 2022, special homelessness services nationwide recorded an increase of 13.2 per cent in clients.
More than one quarter of those clients are Indigenous Australians - who make up just 3.2 per cent of the population - and over 60 per cent are women.
Ms Stewart calls it the "big homeless pandemic".
She personally knows dozens of Indigenous people who are also homeless, including her sister, her nephew, his partner and their children - all of whom are staying at her mother's two-bedroom flat in the regional city of Newcastle north of Sydney.
She says she wants to help others who are "in this horrible situation" by finishing a community service course.
'A matter of national urgency'
The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Housing Authority says Australia "is heading for another Indigenous housing crisis" requiring urgent attention.
But Change the Record executive officer Sophie Trevitt says the crisis is already here.
"We're in the middle of an Indigenous housing crisis right now, full stop," she says.
Ms Trevitt says the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have further entrenched existing inequalities and housing is key among those.
"Across every domain, if there isn't adequate housing, you have people in already vulnerable situations put into situations of real danger," she says.
"We've seen a decline over the last decade of commonwealth funding for First Nations housing, whether that be regionally in the bush or in towns or in the city."
In 2008, the Council of Australian Governments allocated $5.5 billion under a 10-year program for remote Indigenous housing. But this has not been renewed since it expired in 2018.
The new federal Labor government has pledged to spend $200 million for housing repair, maintenance and improvements in remote Indigenous communities over the next five years.
But Ms Trevitt says these measures are grossly inadequate.
"$40 million a year is on the table now compared to a historical $550 million," she says. "That's a massive shortfall."
Trapped below the poverty line
Ms Trevitt, who is also ACT co-chair of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights, says inequality is "baked into housing policy, just like it's baked into the social security system".
"The social security system fails to operate as a safety net but instead, is set below the poverty line. It drives people into poverty and traps them there," she says.
Of all Indigenous Australians aged between 18 and 64, nearly half - 45 per cent - rely on a government pension or allowance as their main income source.
The median weekly household income for Indigenous people was $553 in 2018-19. For non-Indigenous households it was $915, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
Anglicare's recent national report Rental Affordability Snapshot shows 2021 saw a "sharp fall in affordability for households living on the minimum wage" and "the lack of affordable rentals is hurting households on low incomes".
The report says single parents on the parenting payment are only able to afford 0.1 per cent of rental properties across Australia. Single parents on Jobseeker can't afford any of the rentals available.
"If the basic job seeker payment is so far below the poverty line that people are having to choose between paying rent, buying fuel, or buying groceries," Ms Trevitt says.
"When you force people to make these impossible choices, they are always going to lose."
'Having breakdowns weekly'
Across Newcastle and Lake Macquarie in NSW, the median weekly rental is $595.
Ms Stewart has been living in the region for the past 18 months with her three sons, Kordell, 10, two-year-old Christopher, and Elias, aged one.
The family is forced to move from motel to motel across different suburbs every two nights, sometimes daily.
"That's how it is with housing; they'll only pay for two days at a time," she says.
Her family is on the Aboriginal Housing Office's (AHO) priority waiting list but Ms Stewart says it's a minimum two-year wait.
Her eldest son, Kordell, has had to change schools four times in the past year-and-a-half alone.
"The constant moving and not knowing where you're going to be tomorrow has really paid a massive toll on him. He's having breakdowns weekly."
Waiting in limbo
Ms Stewart is one of many Indigenous families from the NSW Hunter region calling Awabakal Enterprises daily from cars, refuges, the streets and other people's couches.
"There are over 25,000 Aboriginal people across the Hunter region and we're struggling to meet the demand to service our own community," chief executive Sean Gordon says.
Since COVID, the housing crisis has worsened for Aboriginal people, particularly in Hunter, he says.
Awabakal Enterprises once focussed on helping Aboriginal people relocate from other parts of NSW to Newcastle for greater opportunities.
But their core business is shifting to emergency assistance as the cost of living spirals and housing affordability plunges.
"It's now because they don't have a roof over their head and the majority of them are families," Awabakal Enterprises senior property manager Stevie Alo says.
In early July, there are up to 60 people on the waitlist for Awabakal-owned properties. Some of those have been waiting since 2015.
The estimated waiting time for an Aboriginal Housing Office (AHO) property in NSW is nine years.
Ms Stewart has stayed in a domestic violence refuge and applied for over 40 houses in just six weeks. But it's not enough.
She spent $15,000 on motels before being placed on the AHO priority list.
Her days are spent juggling full-time mum duties, housing applications and paperwork to remain eligible for crisis accommodation.
"To stay on the housing priority list and to stay at the motels, I have to pay 50 per cent of my motel stay for them to help with the other 50 per cent," Ms Stewart says.
'I'm not going to hide who I am'
"Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are disproportionately renters, and we know that they face significant discrimination when trying to secure tenancy," Change the Record's Sophie Trevitt says.
"Therefore, they have been locked out of the private housing market and are reliant on public and affordable or community housing."
Ms Stewart says, due to her fair skin, non-Indigenous people often "class you as one of them until they know more of your story and that you are Indigenous".
"I had multiple of my aunties tell me - don't put down that you are Aboriginal on your application because they're going to be very biased towards you."
But Ms Stewart said she's not going to hide who she is.
"If they're racist, they're racist. I don't want to deal with a racist homeowner," she says.
Sean Gordon from Awabakal Enterprises says Indigenous people face racism on a daily basis in the private property market.
"We've got families that have jobs that are quite capable of paying market rent but are being denied the opportunity because of their Aboriginality," he says.
Solving the Indigenous housing crisis
Indigenous people need to be empowered economically to make decisions for themselves, Mr Gordon says.
And that means having control over what happens on Aboriginal lands - without being required to seek approval from governments.
"Now we've got ownership of those properties, we are more empowered economically because we are able to leverage off the asset to make decisions on that land which are in the best interest of our communities," he says.
Awabakal Enterprises says it has more than $35 million in property projects - in planning, development or under management.
Ms Stewart says the people in charge of funding should be on the ground, engaging with Indigenous communities and witnessing first-hand their day-to-day struggles.
"Not the people sitting behind their desk and who are having the conversations about all this money when they don't even know the people that it's going to help and impact."
My story: Fleur Connick
I live and work on the traditional lands of the Awabakal and Worimi peoples and I know I'm one of the lucky ones.
But Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are at the extreme end of Australia's housing crisis and they live in our community. We should all care and champion the solutions coming from Indigenous communities.