‘Ordinary’ people in Shepparton struggle to find rentals as backlash grows over housing project

Mary was still grieving the death of her husband when she realized she could no longer afford a house.

For decades they lived on a hobby farm in Arcadia, on the outskirts of Shepparton, where they raised six children.

It was the house she and her husband Jock built together after leaving Scotland in their twenties in search of adventure.

After Jock’s death, however, Mary soon learned that she could not maintain the vast property alone.

She searched for weeks, but was among a growing number of people squeezed out of the area’s rental market by soaring house prices.

Mary finally found the only place she could afford: public housing.

Jock and Mary moved to the Victoria area in their twenties, looking for a new adventure.(Supplied: Winringham)

Need more social housing

Shepparton currently has the highest homelessness rates in the Victoria region, with 5.6 homeless people per 1,000.

In 2020-21, homeless service Beyond Housing saw the number of Shepparton families it supported increase by 17% over the previous year.

Mary, now 89, has found her new home in a block of units provided by Wintringham, an organization that supports frail elderly men and women who are at risk of homelessness.

But a new proposal from Wintringham and Beyond Housing to build 30 social housing units above a council-owned car park in Shepparton’s CBD has drawn widespread backlash from nearby residents and businesses.

This includes opposition from a local independent school, which fears the development will place high-risk adults alongside vulnerable pupils.

“Misguided” fears

Wintringham deputy chief executive Michael Deschepper said public concerns about the project were misguided.

“I don’t understand what their concerns would be,” he said.

“The project must align with the requirements of urban planning [and] which could be located next to any building in any community.”

A sign in front of a school
Shepparton ACE Secondary College is close to the social housing project.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Charmayne Allison)

He claimed the community’s fears were due to “an outdated and unfair stereotype” about homelessness.

“And in this case, the language used to describe social housing tenants has been quite disgusting at times.”

Greater Shepparton City Council recently held a two-day development hearing, after receiving more than 700 submissions.

He said he would review all submissions and make a decision at an upcoming board meeting.

Looking for homes away from violence

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfarethose most at risk of homelessness are youth, First Nations, seniors 55 and older, and children with care and protection orders.

Those who have experienced family and domestic violence also top the list.

Shannon (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) is one of them.

A homeless man sleeping on the street
Shepparton has the highest homelessness rates in the Victoria region.(Unsplash: Jon Tyson)

She found herself suddenly homeless four years ago after a relationship with her roommate broke down.

With no affordable rental in sight, Shannon began couch surfing with friends until she could find a home.

Sometimes she had nowhere to sleep and wandered around Shepparton all night, staying in the well-lit streets to avoid danger.

After three months, she was finally given emergency shelter by Beyond Housing.

Three years to find housing

Although she was placed on the priority list, however, it would be another three years before Shannon found a safe home.

She said she entered into an abusive relationship during this time and feared for her life.

But with nowhere to go, she couldn’t escape.

“Whether I liked it or not, he would be there,” Shannon said.

A parking lot full of parked cars
Shepparton social housing has been proposed for the site of a council-owned car park.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Charmayne Allison)

It was only late last year that she was finally placed in safe and stable accommodation, somewhere hidden from her former partner.

“I’m actually excited about the future,” Shannon said.

But Shannon said she had several friends who were still trapped in abusive relationships due to lack of housing.

“There is a huge need for more social housing in Shepparton, especially with the rise in domestic violence,” she said.

“There are a lot of normal, ordinary people who need a place to go.

“Homelessness does not discriminate.”

New house for great-grandfather

A man is sitting in front of a house with a dog
Anthony McClure has moved into social housing with his dog Miss Rio after suffering a medical incident.(Provided: Beyond Housing)

After a long career as a station manager, 80-year-old Anthony Mr McClure never imagined he would face housing disputes.

But after falling out of bed and injuring his back, he began to struggle to pay his rent and medical bills.

Six months ago he and his dog, Miss Rio, moved from privately renting to one-bedroom accommodation with Beyond Housing in Benalla, about 45 minutes east of Shepparton.

His daughter lives just 300 meters up the road and the great-grandfather knows he can rest easy in a home he will have for the rest of his life.

“It was wonderful,” he said.

An elderly woman is doing a karate pose
Mary’s new home is just down the road from her son’s karate school.(Supplied: Winringham)

Mary also lives just down the road from her grandchildren and around the corner from her son’s karate school, where she is fifth dan.

“We need more social housing like this in Shepparton,” she said.

“I never thought I would live here, but I have a house. I have a roof.”

Long waiting lists

However, more than 1,500 households in Shepparton are languishing on long waiting lists for social housing, and almost 900 are waiting for priority access.

Rent affordability figures from urban public policy consultancy SGS Economics and Planning show Shepparton rentals are ‘seriously’ unaffordable for singles on benefits.

Nathan (whose name has been changed to protect his identity) experienced this when he moved to Shepparton for a fresh start, after being caught up in the “bad crowd” in Sydney.

He hadn’t lived in the Goulburn Valley long before his roommate was sent to prison.

A homeless man is lying on a seat.
The homelessness rate in Shepparton is equivalent to 5.6 people per 1,000.(ABC News: Giulio Saggin)

Declining mental health

Unable to pay rent with his small pension, he has no choice but to move into a boarding house.

“I kept having my stuff stolen,” Nathan said.

His sanity exploding, Nathan attempted suicide.

“I felt so hopeless,” he said.

Finally, this year the 34-year-old moved into his first stable home in over a decade.

But he said he was one of the lucky ones.

“Few people come back from poverty,” he said.

“A lot of people are still on the streets in Shepparton, it’s an ongoing crisis.

“But everyone deserves a roof over their head, no matter who they are.”

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