From life as an international model to homelessness …

Written byChristine Tondorf
Published on21 Oct, 2021
Yellow Jacket

RELEASED October 15, 2021

Charlene spent more than a decade  working as a model on Tokyo’s catwalks but when the pandemic struck, she found herself homeless and sleeping in a car. Charlene’s story is both unique and common. Older women are the fastest growing group of homeless in Australia.

Twenty-five-years ago Charlene made her living modelling clothes in Japan. Today she’s without the designer wardrobe, but the former model is still a six-foot beauty with a flawless complexion and effervescent smile. In 1995 Charlene moved to the Gold Coast, with her husband, a martial arts expert who promoted kickboxing in Australia. The marriage ended a few years later. Charlene is now 52 and when Covid19 broke out she was living in a car around Tweed Heads – she had joined the growing number of older women homeless with no savings or options. There is a myriad of reasons why women, 55 and older, are the fastest growing cohort of homeless in Australia. On average, women retire with 47 per cent less superannuation than men, as well as having lower rates of home ownership and many have taken time out of work to raise children.

Charlene’s marriage was over, her kids have left home, and her health was faltered. Finding an affordable place in northern New South Wales was near impossible. Rents and house prices around Byron and Tweed Heads are at unprecedented highs as city exiles flood regional coastal towns. The country’s regional population grew by 43,000 last year. It is the biggest city exodus since the 1850s and ’60s Gold Rush. Urban Australians are exiting cities at record numbers. The nation’s regional population grew by 43,000 last year resulting in surging house and rental prices outside cities, for example it costs $646 to rent a three-bedroom house in Sydney, $699 on the Tweed Heads.In northern New South Wales, the social housing wait time has blown out to more than 10 years.

Charlene was at the junction of two national pandemic trends. Older women are increasingly prone to homelessness, while northern NSW is under the most severe housing stress in Australia – Byron Bay has overtaken Sydney as the most expensive place to live with a median house price of $2.7 million. The town also has the second largest population of rough sleepers in the state. (Byron Shire has 198 rough sleepers compared to Sydney CBD’s  272.)

Charlene, who lived a champagne lifestyle in Tokyo in the 1980s, never dreamt she would one day be homeless in Australia.

“I guess my marriage went sour on the Gold Coast,” she explains. “My husband had begun a gym and started promoting kickboxing. He was spending a lot of time with people also into kickboxing … I didn’t feel like he was interested in the family and I had no support here.”

Charlene was born in the UK but moved to Japan when she was 18 years old after being signed by a modelling agency scout in London. Towards the end of her marriage, she returned to a childhood love – horses. She found a job at a Gold Coast stable.

“After being around horses again, it gave me the strength to leave, so I just left him and took the kids,” she says.

Charlene, her son and twin daughters lived in rented properties on the Gold Coast for 15 years. Sometimes they lived in apartments at the back of stables.

“Two years ago, it was just me and one of my twins. We were living in a small unit at the stables and the stable was sold. My daughter went to live with a friend, but I had nowhere.

“I knew my children were safe, so I packed up everything in my car and lived with a friend for a few nights then I lived in my car near the Gold Coast Arts Centre, thinking, ‘What am I going to do’. I was still working but I wasn’t happy in the Gold Coast racing industry, so I took off and went down to Murwillumbah and found a job at a stable there.”

Charlene also found a room to rent.

“I paid $150 a week and worked six days a week at the stables … but my back went and I ended up in hospital and I couldn’t work anymore. I had to go to Centrelink.

“While working on fixing my back I began a horticultural course. That was last year, then Covid hit, and I again ended up in my car. The place where I was renting the room got sold.

“All my stuff was in my car for two years. Sometimes I rented a room for a bit, but the places were pretty feral. You couldn’t lock the doors and in one house it used to rain inside, and there was no kitchen.

“At one point I’d been living in my car straight for nine days. That morning a Social Futures mobile homeless support service came – Connecting Home … they found me by the river, and asked ‘Are you okay?’”

Social Futures is a community delivering homelessness and housing services in regional New South Wales.

“I explained that I’d just left another place because I didn’t feel safe. I said ‘I don’t know what to do. I have no money. It’s just me and my car.’

“I had nothing and I was at the point where I needed to accept some help. All the caravan parks were closing up because of Covid. I couldn’t even get a campsite. They put me in a motel room. I could study and be inside. I was there for four months and then a place came up at Tweed Heads [through a community housing provider.

“Having a place to live has given me peace of mind that I haven’t had for years. I’m not stressing about paying the rent all the time or looking for work. I feel I’ve had time to heal myself. I can breathe.”

Tony Davies, the CEO of Social Futures, the not-for-profit organisation that helped find Charlene a home, is calling on all levels of government to address the growing number of homeless outside capital cities.

“In coastal towns like Tweed Heads, Byron, Port Macquarie and Ballina vacancy rates are now between 0.1 to 0.3 per cent, which means it’s pretty much impossible to rent a house in those towns,” Mr Davies said.

“Rental rates are also at record lows in towns like Ballarat and Bendigo in Victoria and Gympie and Bundaberg in Queensland. We have a new cohort of homelessness in regional Australia. People who are often employed, with a rental or home ownership history, yet they have been pushed out of the current rental market purely due to high demand and very limited supply.

“The housing crisis is having a huge impact on regional towns. We hear stories of city people phoning landlords and offering $100 to $150 more in rent a week. Long-term tenants then receive no-fault-eviction notices.”

Mr Davies says the solution to regional housing stress needs to be multi-pronged.

“We would also like tenancy law reforms, the balance between the rights and responsibilities of tenants and landlords must be re-adjusted. At the moment it is weighted in the landlord’s favour.

“I’d also like to see surplus public land suitable for residential development identified and we need to follow Western Australia’s lead and end ‘land banking’ – when blocks approved for development remain empty.

“Planning laws can also be used to create incentives for affordable housing development through ‘inclusionary zoning’ rules where a small percentage of housing lots in new developments are reserved for affordable housing.  This has created 2,000 new affordable properties in parts of Sydney where the laws apply and over 5,000 in South Australia.

“Social Futures is also calling for more investment in social housing to take pressure off an over-heated private market.  New social housing must be targeted to areas of critical need like ours, not just the cities.

“Also, we would like to see a cap on holiday letting – cut the number of days residential properties can be on Airbnb, being leased as holiday homes. This is much needed in regional coastal towns.

”Emergency housing support services must also be strengthened by an injection of funds. If these support services intervene early, more renters will keep their tenancies, stay in rented homes and not find themselves on the street.

“We need action now because the nation’s 180 housing support services will all tell you that the situation in regional Australia is only going to get worse.”