NSW homeless outreach program is getting rough sleepers off the streets in Tweed Heads

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It was late at night and drizzling, and Barry Wood and a friend were “getting wet” in a tent they shared on the side of a road in northern New South Wales.

“A big blue van pulled up and two burly guys jumped out and scared the hell out of me,” said Mr. Wood.

The “powerful guys” were members of a homeless outreach team that patrols the streets of Tweed Head.

“That moment changed my life,” he said.

A man smiles as he stands at the front door of a home.
Sir. Wood has moved into a home after several years of living on the streets.(ABC North Coast: Emma Hannigan)

The former lifeguard had been “sleeping in the bush trying to survive” for more than two years.

“You get run down by it and try to scrape through every day,” he said.

Homelessness took a toll on Mr Wood’s health.

“I have bad knees and a bad elbow and I just couldn’t get them fixed. I couldn’t get my teeth fixed so I couldn’t eat properly,” he said.

“My father committed suicide. I thought this might be the easy way out of it too.”

Mr Wood is one of more than 100 people who have been housed in Tweed under the NSW Government’s self-proclaimed outreach program.

The district was already experiencing a post-COVID housing crisis when it was hit by floods in February.

Calls for the funding to be extended

While funding has been extended for two years, Tweed Shire Council wants the outreach program to become a permanent service.

“We know that people cannot deal with the situations that caused them to be homeless until they have the certainty of having a roof over their heads,” said Councilor Nola Firth.

“Otherwise they spend all their time thinking, ‘How do I stay safe? Where’s my next meal coming from?'”

The program runs alongside other community service providers, such as Social Futures, a non-profit organization whose caseworkers hit the streets several times a week to find potential clients.

“It’s about meeting people, being respectful, polite, engaging with them,” chief executive Tony Davies said.

“It’s about working with people to identify their own strengths and resources so they regain their confidence to re-engage with other services and get back into the housing system.”

Holistic approach key to success

Wood said his case manager helped him with practical things like paying fines and going to the dentist.

The outreach team also organized activities including surfing, fishing, art classes and barbecues.

He said the connections he made with other vulnerable people through these made him feel part of the community and ultimately changed his life.

“It makes a big difference to your mental health because you have something to do, something to look forward to,” Mr Wood said.

“It brings us together so we connect, talk and help each other.”

Davies said 92 per cent of those housed had been able to maintain an ongoing tenancy.

“That’s over 110 people who were sleeping rough, now in permanent accommodation.

“They are well on their way to taking control of their lives, getting back to work and being part of the community.”

He said caseworkers’ priority was getting people into temporary housing, and the department was working quickly to house them longer term.

“Then caseworkers provide wrap-around support that essentially enables them to reset where they are so that they can maintain a stable tenancy in the long term,” Mr Davies said.

A man and a woman stand in a backyard and smile.
Mr. Wood checks out his garden with friend Gayle.(ABC North Coast: Emma Hannigan)

For Barry Wood, it has been transformative.

“My little one-bedroom unit is great,” he said.

“I have a lovely garden going. I have a cat and the grandchildren love it. I feel safe now.”

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