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Welfare agencies are distributing tents on the Atherton Tablelands as the housing crisis worsens

Written by Javed Iqbal

Most newcomers to Mareeba are lured by wide open spaces and the promise of at least 300 days of sunshine a year, but like the rest of regional Australia, it also has a rental crisis.

For Guy Closset, the prospect of a better place to live than in a tent or under the condemned building of a disused school in Atherton was alluring.

“[My partner] was thrown out of the place where she was staying and I didn’t want her to be on the streets alone so I ended up staying with her,” he said.

The couple had been in the Atherton Tablelands, which has one of the lowest vacant rental rates in Queensland, at 0.2 per cent.

Sir. Closset was already living precariously after losing her job when the pandemic broke out.

“I lived with my mom, but I couch surfed more,” said the experienced warehouseman and worker.

“I slept in the front room, you know, and then I met my partner.”

A crowded market

The move to Mareeba, a larger centre, has allowed Mr Closset and his pregnant partner to live more safely in a caravan in a tourist park at a cost of $260 a week while they look for a house.

But Mareeba’s rental vacancy rate is only marginally less tight – 0.3 per cent according to the Real Estate Institute of Queensland.

A man wearing a patterned shirt stands in front of a farm
Robert Larkin says it has become increasingly difficult to find properties for those who need them.(ABC Far North Queensland: Christopher Testa)

“A lot of properties that were rented are now being sold and the new owners are living in them,” said Robert Larkin from Mareeba Community Housing.

Sir. Larkin, a housing supervisor who works with those experiencing homelessness, said his organization had about 200 clients on the books at any given time.

He knew of a woman who spent 60 percent of her income on rent.

No emergency stay

The lack of available rents has made it more difficult for housing organizations to provide emergency shelter for the needy.

Many have resorted to handing out tents to families who have nowhere to go.

Miriam Newton-Gentle, ministerial officer and head of the Salvation Army on the Atherton Tablelands, said the lack of crisis options was exacerbating the problem in rural areas.

“One of the big things is we have absolutely no emergency stays,” she said.

“We have small hotels and motels, but they can’t take people long-term, so when people become homeless, they’re absolutely homeless.”

A rug has been left under a wooden staircase in a Queenslander-style building
A camp set up under an abandoned building in Cairns.(ABC Far North Queensland: Brendan Mounter)

Sir. Larkin said caravans were traditionally the “go-to” crisis accommodation for providers in the Tablelands, as they were an “easy transition for rough sleepers”.

“But right now caravans are full because we have a lot of travelers coming through with their own motorhomes and so there’s not that much available,” he said.

“This is probably as hard as it’s been.”

Lack of housing

The nearest shelter to the Tablelands is in Cairns, just a short drive away.

But Far North Queensland’s biggest center is struggling with the same problem and places are hard to come by.

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Javed Iqbal

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