Advocacy, Employment, Families, Housing

One man’s story of how he became homeless in Byron Bay

Written byChristine Tondorf
Published on16 Nov, 2021
Fintan Photo

Released November 16, 2021

Ten years ago, Fintan was a family man with his own home in northern New South Wales, earning a good living as a carpenter. Last Christmas he was living in a homeless shelter in Byron Bay – the town with the largest homeless population in the state outside of Sydney. Why did Fintan end up homeless? 

Fintan was born to Irish parents, who arrived in Australia during the post-war surge of migration. He was born in Sydney in 1968, but his mum and dad separated when he was three – his father took his older sister with him to Tasmania and Fintan stayed with his mother. 

“Mum became part of the whole hippy movement and when I was five, mum moved up with me to Nimbin,” Fintan explains. 

He was a child of the Age of Aquarius festival, the alternative thinking and lifestyle event organised by the Australian Student Union in 1973 that transformed Nimbin, a once quiet dairy community into a 1970s hippy mecca. 

“I was out at Nimbin until I was nine or 10 and then Mum got a housing commission house in Mullumbimby. My mum was a very loving mother, but it was a tough life and mum was poor and She had a string of bad relationships. Mum had children to three other fathers, so I have three brothers with three other fathers.” 

Fintan says moving into social housing as a youth changed his life and gave him a first taste of stability.  

“Going to Mullum was a defining time of my life, we went from the chaos of the hippy scene to having a proper house and I made long-term friends as a teenager,” he said.  

“I had gone to 19 different schools with my mum moving around, before I got to settle down at Mullum High. Mum chased casual work in different areas for years – like fruit picking, we went everywhere, even down to Tasmania.” 

Fintan finished school in Mullumbimby and began studying psychology at the university in Lismore but dropped out in first year. 

“I was a mad surfer at the time, and I had an opportunity to work in a surfboard factory, so I learnt how to make and polish surfboards.  

“I was also a musician – a guitarist and singer – in my early 20s I started performing. My first gig was in Byron’s Railway Hotel. I’ve played everywhere, Melbourne, overseas, numerous snow seasons, lots of corporate stuff in wine bars.  

Fintan met his long-term partner when he was in his late 20s. 

“When I was 32, we started having children and I had an opportunity through my younger brother to do an apprenticeship in carpentry.” 

Fintan was glad to move away from his life as a musician and surfboard maker into stable work. 

“I had regular money and I didn’t have to travel and do that kind of stuff,” he said. 

He worked as a carpenter on building sites for 11 years. He and his brother built two duplexes in Pottsville and moved in with their families, with the intention of later selling them to finance their next building project. 

“But then I went to Fiji with my family on a holiday and I injured my neck surfing. I was 42. 

“After I injured my neck, I couldn’t work anymore. I was rehabilitating for a year. Down one my side, I had a lot of weird nerve damage, and my blood pressure went through the roof. I was getting dizzy spells. 

“It all became stressful – we were selling the duplex. We were having open days almost every Saturday, so it had to be spotless, and we had young children.  

“It was a typical cliché car-crash story – my relationship was breaking down, my home was disappearing and my youngest brother, who I was really close to, got cancer and passed away also over that same period. I felt like I had a mental breakdown to accompany my physical breakdown.”  

Fintan went onto a disability pension. 

“It’s not a full pension because I can still perform as a musician, but I can’t work full-time in construction. I do 16 hours a fortnight as a performer. At that point I also put myself on the list for a housing commission house. I knew I would never be able to work in my profession and I had been making good money, and I knew a bank would never again give me a home loan.” 

After his relationship ended Fintan returned to renting. 

“All I could afford to live in was double garages, converted to accommodation but there are a lot of those in Byron,” he said. 

“I was determined to stay in the area. My family are here – my children, brothers and mother. When I settled in Mullum as a child I made real friends. I still regularly see the best mate I’ve had since I was 14. He lives locally and we have coffee. This is my home.” 

While renting in Byron, Fintan shared custody of his three children with his ex-partner.  

“The kids would be coming to stay with me – there would be four of us in a double bed when they were small. I rented whatever I could, but as they got bigger I knew it wasn’t sustainable.” 

Two years ago, Fintan’s two older children, now teenagers, elected to live with him full time 

“We ended up homeless last Christmas. I was renting the area underneath a house. It was nice but tiny. It had two bedrooms and a tiny kitchenette and a tiny bathroom. I slept on the floor in the kitchenette area and let the kids have the bedrooms. They had to step over me to get to the bathroom. It again was a double-converted carport, and I was paying $500 a week, $1,000 a week. 

“We had received an eviction notice to be out in summer. It was the worse time for finding new accommodation. I’ve always had perfect rental references. I’ve always paid my rent. The guy we rented from was turning it into a yoga studio so that was the reason we had to go. He gave us three-months’ notice that he was starting this business.” 

But Fintan could not find another place to rent in northern NSW. Australia’s regional population grew by 43,000 last year – it’s the biggest urban exodus into the regions since the 1850s and ’60s Gold Rush, and northern NSW is one of the most desirable places to live in the country. Byron Bay has overtaken Sydney as the most expensive place to live in Australia with a median house price of $2.7 million while Tweed Heads is the most expensive place to rent.  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  

When Fintan could not secure a new home, his children went to stay with friends and family. 

“I just had to take care of myself. I stayed a few nights at a campground in a tent. A friend had recommended the Social Futures service to me, and one of the Social Futures workers said to me at that point, we have a room in an emergency accommodation house. It was fantastic to have a room and I stayed there while looking for other rentals. 

“Around March they found us a transitional house and then around August, they found us a permanent [social housing] house locally and my teenagers are now there with me. 

“In all honesty, I’m in shock. Part of my mind has always had to be thinking about where we are going to be in a year or a year-and-a-half as a single father with my two teens and the youngest, who also comes and stays as often as he can. I’m so used to living with that housing worry.  

“The kids now have their own bedroom. I have my own bedroom. We have never had that, and we now have the security of knowing we are not going to get kicked out. It’s amazing. It’s a wonderful feeling.  

“The Social Futures workers take what they do to heart and over the period of being homeless they gave me a room and a base. They did everything they could to help me.” 

Fintan’s teenage children are completing school and he is still working part-time as a musician.  

“I’ve started writing and playing my own stuff. I still do solo, and I’ve got a band thing happening.”