Poverty and lack of affordable housing cause Armidale's homelessness problem, Jillian MacLeod, from Armidale Women's Homelessness Support Service, believes.
People lack the resources to meet their needs, Ms MacLeod explains. Rent and living costs are high, and government payments like Newstart and Youth Allowance are too low.
"People don't have enough money to feed themselves and pay electricity bills after they've paid their rent, and thus the cycle continues," Ms MacLeod said.
Since its foundation in the 1970s, the AWHSS has supported young women over 16, single women, and women with children who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. It offers all women and children housing support, advocacy and referrals, help finding long-term accommodation, information and advice, living skills, and personal case management.
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In the last month alone, she estimates 120 women have sought help. "They are resourceful and skilled people, who often find themselves in these situations through no fault of their own," she said.
Homelessness has increased 4.6 per cent in Australia, and 37 per cent in the state, between 2011 and 2016, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Last week, Homes North Community Housing CEO Maree McKenzie estimated client numbers increased 15 per cent since January.
Much of the AWHSS's work is outreach; they provide case management to maintain tenancies, or preserve tenancies at risk, and address hardships. They also run the state's second oldest women's shelter, which opened its doors in 1978; and help women with nowhere to stay find brokered accommodation in motels or caravans.
People sleeping rough on the streets - what most people think of as homelessness - is not very visible in Armidale, but there is a huge lack of affordable housing.
Single older women struggle to find homes within their means. Other women might find themselves without a home after their landlord sold the property they rented.
And the cost of living can be massive - particularly in winter.
"Armidale is cold," Ms MacLeod said. "A place with economical heating is hard to get, and the impact of winter goes on past the end of the season, as the bills keep coming from power usage."
The AWHSS provides information about economising power, but many clients have only wood heating. There is little money for wood in emergency funding, or for electricity in the Energy Accounts Payment Assistance (EAPA) $50 vouchers.
"The emergency relief funds run out quite quickly," Ms MacLeod said. "If you've got to choose between keeping your family warm and paying the rent, sometimes people might not pay the rent; they might buy wood. That's a difficult choice for someone to make, but it might lead to their tenancy being in jeopardy."
Nor, she said, is there enough social or community housing. Waits can be long, depending on suitability; and maintenance on properties can delay new tenants entering after previous ones exit.
There's a high demand for AWHSS's own shelter, which houses five families or single women. The shelter is currently full, and the waiting list long.
Ms MacLeod would like to see the government build more properties. Research suggests that Australia has less social housing than it should.
An Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute published in November argued that the country has a shortfall of 433,000 social housing dwellings after decades of inadequate investment, and must triple social housing by 2036.
"We're well below what the research indicated would be a suitable amount for Australia," Ms MacLeod said.
AWHSS also works with Homes North Armidale to provide transitional properties - a good short-term option if people need to re-establish tenancy credentials, but clients still need to find a more permanent home.
Unemployment also creates poverty. The council area's unemployment rate was 6.51 per cent in the December quarter (6.24 for the 2018 year), based on Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, while the Brotherhood of St Laurence identified the New England / North-West as one of the state's five youth unemployment hot spots in March.
"It's all very well for politicians to tell people to just go and get a job," Ms MacLeod said, "but the jobs aren't necessarily there to support them."
The AWHSS provides services in Guyra, Walcha, and Uralla. These smaller communities have less social housing, and fewer available private rentals - but, Ms MacLeod said, the problem is often invisible because there are more cases of couch surfing and overcrowding. Transport to Armidale creates extra expense for people who work or study here.
Ms MacLeod urged the public to be more compassionate, better educated about homelessness, and less judgemental. Homelessness still carries a burden of stigma, and some individuals find the suggestion that it occurs in their community offensive. Homeless people can feel ashamed by their situation.
"There should be no shame in asking for help, or seeing someone receive help," Ms MacLeod said.
Volunteering time, goods, or money also help to reduce the burden of homelessness.
"We're fortunate that people like the idea of helping a women and children's centre, so people often donate clothing and toiletries," Ms MacLeod said. Kitchenware and furniture also help with establishment costs. "That's great, because a lot of our clients come to us with nothing."
If you want to help the Armidale Women's Homelessness Support Service, or need help yourself, call 6772 5352 (24/7), 1800 005 352 (toll-free phone, 24/7), or 6772 5911 (9am - 5pm).