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Few would realise that homelessness is a real issue for some Maleny residents. Now, thanks to the crusade of a group of determined and compassionate locals, that is being addressed through Compassionate Housing Affordability Solutions Maleny (CHASM). 

by Judy Fredriksen

Homelessness is slowly becoming an untethered blight on Australian society. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, “older women (those aged 55 and over) was the fastest growing cohort of homeless Australians between 2011 and 2016, increasing by 31%”.

St Vincent de Paul Society Northern Diocesian president John Harrison says 21% of the homeless population are over the age of 55.

“It is actually a growing segment of the homelessness market, and it’s typical of this situation where a woman has been divorced and often finds they have no superannuation and they have to live on Newstart,” he says. 

This is not news to Maleny local Margaret McKenzie, chairperson of CHASM, who adds that in Maleny, Airbnb is another culprit, pricing people out of the rental market. 

Growing up in a large Catholic family where it was second nature to take in ‘strays’, Margaret has a wealth of community service experience, having served with both federal and state governments.

When she became aware of the housing issues in Maleny, she was eager to help. 

“Doing my volunteering at the Neighbourhood Centre, the centre provides emergency relief to people in need. That can be food, utensils, linen, tents if they are sleeping rough, or a swag. So through the statistics that we collect there, I could see how many people were in need. 

“One year, there were 80 people. Now they didn’t all stay homeless for the whole year, but when I looked at the figures for that year, I was shocked at just how many people were in that homeless category. 

“They were sometimes sleeping rough, sometimes they were couch surfing, sometimes they were sleeping in their car. Sometimes they would get somewhere to stay for a few weeks and then that would fall through,” she explains. 

“They are all different age groups and there were women and children. There was a father and several children living in a car.”

At this point, Margaret is quick to dispel any misconceptions that Maleny’s homeless people are all drug or alcohol addicts. 

As she clarifies, some are working and studying. Sometimes their assets have been depleted through divorce. Artists, performers and young people who work in the service industry are the lifeblood of Maleny’s tourism, but can be on irregular incomes. Mostly the homeless are people who are simply struggling, priced out of the market, she says. 

“Airbnb has removed so much of what was affordable rental accommodation in town, and so a lot of people have had to move away.”  

It’s easy to see why. A quick Google of Airbnb shows that Maleny has an extensive listing of properties where visitors can expect to pay around $100 a night while the typical weekly rent in Maleny is $365 for a unit, or $435 for a 3-bedroom house. 

The Newstart allowance for a single person or someone aged over 60 is $604 a fortnight, not nearly enough to cover the weekly rent of a unit. 

“The Neighbourhood Centre and the Maleny Rotary Club facilitated some research in 2014 which indicated there was a growing problem with homelessness in Maleny,” shares Margaret.

“Following on from this, the Neighbourhood Centre held a community consultation in 2015 to discuss the housing issues affecting the town and explore some possible solutions. CHASM came out of this process.”

CHASM followed up by investigating possible options for providing affordable rental housing to locals. Eventually, an agreement was reached with the Maple Street Co-op to put a small relocatable home in the Co-op’s community garden. This would be a win-win situation for both CHASM and the Co-op which was looking for someone to help with its vegie garden. 

They had the land, next they needed a house. 

Margaret and her fellow band of CHASM workers then busily set about raising money and securing grants which would see the project to completion. Along the way, they took every opportunity to promote their project and encourage others to be part of the solution. 

With some help from local builder, Ross Meneely, and the Whitehouse Foundation, a relocatable house was purchased and installed in the Maple Street Co-op’s community garden in October 2019. 

Once all the utilities are connected, Margaret expects the rent on the relocatable home to be about $180 per week, half the cost of a regular unit.  

But that doesn’t mean their quest is over. This is only the beginning, says Margaret, and there are plenty of ways the community can help.

CHASM welcomes cash donations but also asks residents to think about renting out a spare room. Or if you have some space, think about putting a relocatable house in your backyard – CHASM can help guide you through the process. 

Hence the project name: Invest in your own backyard.

“Have compassion for people who are on hard times. It doesn’t mean they are bad, it just means circumstances have left them in a difficult situation,” says Margaret.

The house will be open for public inspection on two Saturdays: February 22 and 29, from 10am–2pm. 

If you think you can help in any way, please contact Margaret McKenzie on 0412 322 103 or call at the Maleny Neighbourhood Centre, 17 Bicentenary Lane, Maleny.