The Blue Gums at the launch (Hamish Dunlop)
By Hamish Dunlop
Hamish Dunlop attended the launch of ‘Somewhere to Live’, a song written and performed by The Blue Gums, Voices for Social Change. The song and accompanying video aim to raise awareness about the impacts of homelessness and housing insecurity in the Blue Mountains and across the Greater Sydney region.
Launching the video in Phillips Hall, Blackheath (Hamish Dunlop)
Singers, volunteers and community members came together at Phillips Hall in Blackheath for the launch of Somewhere to Live. Singers Aaisha Slee and Linna King, Councillor Suzie van Opdorp, Blackheath Area Neighbourhood Centre (BANC) board member Gary Moore and Ailie Banks from the Women’s Health and Resource Centre in Katoomba talked about the social realities and policy issues surrounding housing insecurity. The Welcome to Country was given by Aunty Carol Cooper and the event was MCed by Cherie Brandon from the Blue Mountains Women’s Health and Resource Centre.
Aunty Carol Cooper and Cherie Brandon (Hamish Dunlop)
The project grew from members of the Walanmarra Art Group becoming increasingly aware of how the national housing crisis is impacting the local community. Some are directly impacted by homelessness and housing insecurity themselves. Walanmarra is co-facilitated by Aunty Bev Eaton and creative therapist Sue Wildman. The group banded together to form The Blue Gums, Voices for Social Change and Sue approached musician and composer Lulu Malm to co-lead song writing workshops. Lulu composed the score in consultation with the group. She also played a key role in developing the group members’ vocal confidence, many of whom had never sung before.
Somewhere to Live (Community song about housing insecurity)
Speaking about the project, Sue Wildman said, “We wanted to tackle this issue, but in a creative way. The project aims to give people a voice, to bring them together so they know they’re not alone. We want to create resilience in the community, empower the singers and fuel conversations about housing insecurity. This is truly a community accomplishment. Volunteers, Blackheath Area Neighbourhood Centre and individual people have contributed time, expertise and funds to make it happen.”
The larger issue
Singer Aaisha Slee said the problem of homelessness is no longer a niche issue confined to those sleeping rough. “There is a broader housing crisis with the cost of houses and rent continuing to rise.” It’s a problem Aaisha thinks government at all levels should be acting on. “They [branches of government] are in an unprecedented position of power. We’ve got a Labor federal government and Labor state government and our local government should be pushing for action. We’re calling and we’re singing and we’re marching and in some cases we’re dying.”
BANC board member Garry Moore also says that homelessness is not just people sleeping on the street or in cars. It includes those living in severely crowded accommodation, boarding houses and other marginal accommodation. He says more social housing and affordable rental housing are needed for those on income support and low to modest wages. He thinks crisis housing with wraparound support services that provide pathways out is desperately needed. Prevention is also key, meaning support for people struggling to stay in existing tenancies.
MC Cherie Brandon is a Health Promotion Worker at Blue Mountains Women’s Health and Resource Centre. Cherie grew up in social housing. Most of her adult life has been spent in private rentals, including as a single parent. She said, “Many of those properties were dodgy, and the visceral memory of that constant insecurity has never ever left my skin. We’re talking about housing and it prickles me straight up. It’s in my body and down into my DNA. The effect of insecure housing cannot be overstated.”
She said the single biggest barrier the Health Centre faces in supporting women is access to housing. “Every day we see the impacts of an inaccessible system. A lot of that is about supply and affordability. But it’s also about a private rental system that often discriminates. We see the impacts of women being removed from community and support at the very times they need them the most.”
When it comes to health outcomes, Cherie said rental tenure of at least seven years is required to provide the same mental health well-being outcomes as that of a homeowner. The average length of tenure in New South Wales last year was just 18 months. “So, the impact on mental well-being in our community is palpable, and it’s tangible.”
A scene from the video (Hamish Dunlop)
The right to a home
Singer Linna King talked about the many places she has lived and the quality of some of the social housing. “I’m 71 and I’ve lived in 45 plus flats and houses. Some of the community housing hasn’t been very suitable.” In one place she stayed, she was asked not to go into the garage. In winter, the rats that lived in there decided to move into the house. “It wasn’t a great situation,” she said. “I’m now a grateful resident of Blackheath. I have a unit I won’t have to move out of thanks to Link Wentworth. There is no reason people shouldn’t have good quality, reasonably priced housing. It’s not a privilege, it’s a right.”
The Australian Human Rights Commission describes having a home as one of the ‘most basic’ human rights. This is in part because homelessness can compromise many other rights, such as security, privacy and freedom from discrimination. Despite this, the most recent project carried out by the Commission was in 2009. Human rights are purely theoretical unless effective policy is implemented to protect them, so Blue Mountains City Council has a crucial role to play.
Left to Right: Sue Wildman, Sara-Jo Gylany, Glenda, Erin Fry, Aunty Bev Eaton, Lulu Malm, Councillor Suzie Van Opdorp, Aaisha Slee, Jane Ferris, Jane Ives (other members of the Blue Gums not included in this photo are Edwina Keene, Sinclair Howard, Kylie Maxwell) (supplied)
Blue Mountains City Councillor Suzie van Opdorp understands the importance of having a home. She has spent much of her life working in sexual assault services and in women’s health. “I grew up in public housing. We had unstable lives because of my Dad’s mental health issues. We lived in different places and at times were homeless.” She says whilst Local Government cannot resolve the housing crisis on its own, better regulation and compliance and lobbying state and federal government are the tools local councils use to affect change.
Ms van Opdorp identified Airbnb and vacant properties in the Blue Mountains as significant issues. She said that recently Mayor Mark Greenhill issued a public statement about the impact of short term rentals on the availability of rentals in the Blue Mountains. The purpose was to seek clarification on a review of short-term rentals, including Airbnb, currently being undertaken by the NSW government. “We don’t have a shortage of houses. As of the 2021 census, there is a 10.5% vacancy rate in the Blue Mountains – about 3566 houses. 900 of these are used for short term rentals. In line with Mayor’s statement, I support reforms to potentially reduce the number of days that houses can be used as short-term rentals in the Blue Mountains.”
In 2022 Blue Mountains City Council called on residents and non-residents who have rental properties to help alleviate the housing crisis by offering long term rentals. Mayor Greenhill said, “While we value visitors to our Blue Mountains region and the boost this brings to our local economy, we need to balance this with the need for quality housing for our local community. As with many parts of regional Australia, we are currently experiencing a critical housing shortage in the Blue Mountains, forcing people into homelessness.”
The challenge for youth
Ailie Banks is the Gender Equity Coordinator at the Blue Mountains Women’s Health and Resource Centre. As with other speakers, she has lived experience of homelessness. At 32, she says her generation is the first in a long time to see a decline in living standards. Working predominantly with teenage girls, Ailie is often asked to speak on their behalf, as a young person. “Me being considered a young person is simply a reflection of my generation’s inability to exit a state of perpetual dependence. We can’t get work that pays enough and is secure enough to get a liveable and stable home.”
She says that her generation was sold a dream incompatible with the world they live in. “The reality is that we often accept casual work with its associated insecurity regardless of our expensive qualifications. We accept what it takes to be a renter, the paperwork that stops short of our DNA profiles. We can’t hang our art on the walls or change the colour of the paint. If you have animals or children, it becomes harder again. Who knows? The children might draw on the walls. Ultimately, your right to have a home is judged by the sum in your bank account.”
Ailie believes no succession planning has been done by previous generations: “You are our bosses, our parents, our politicians, our landlords, you have collectively made decisions to stifle our growth, to keep us casual, to keep us paying your second mortgage, to outbid us at the auctions, to prioritise profit over planet. Uncompromised, unregulated growth is unsustainable, and we need to start challenging those who believe they’re entitled to more than what they need.”
She hears from the teenagers she works with and has surveyed the young people who follow her on Instagram. One of her questions was, ‘Do you see yourself living in the Blue Mountains in five years?’ The overwhelming response was absent of overseas adventures, moving in with friends or being able to pursue desired education. One 15-year-old summed it up: “I will probably still be here living with my parents because I can’t afford a place to rent.”
Cherie Brandon speaking to the audience at the launch (Hamish Dunlop)
If the statistics are not enough, let us hear the voices of those who are homeless and experiencing housing insecurity. Let us listen to the people who work alongside them. As Aisha says, it is something that requires action now. The Blue Gums, Voices for Social Change ask you to keep the conversation about homelessness going. To speak to your politicians about housing as a right and not a privilege. They argue that we can all contribute to a tapestry of voices that speak to human dignity and a society that cares for its most vulnerable.
Volunteers, Blackheath Area Neighbourhood Centre and individual people supported the creation of the song and the accompanying video. Murray Sheldon did the initial recordings in Phillips Hall. Sue and her partner Giles Hamm provided funding for the video production. Giles did the videography and he, Sue and Andrew Galeo edited the video.
Lulu and her son Tobias Priddle, a Melbourne-based producer , arranged the instrumentals and produced the track. Paul Glass participated in the writing workshops and played the didgeridoo, creating a backbone for the song. Blackheath Area Neighbourhood Centre supported the hall hire and catered the launch through bushfire local economic recovery funding.
Information aboutHomelessness, Services and Support in the Blue Mountains can be found at: https://www.bmcc.nsw.gov.au/homelessness/services-and-support-blue-mountains
This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.