Pete Thompson is homeless. He sleeps in a van and for around 11 months he has found a semblance of place and community at Wingham Riverside Reserve.
His hands and body are marred by a genetic geriatric condition that impacts his physical and emotional health, and over 47 years Pete has endured numerous traumatic life events that have shaped his world view and understanding of what he needs to live - it is not typical, it is not a home with four walls.
A home means a sense of security, stability, privacy, safety, and the ability to control living space, according to the Council to Homeless Persons. During Homelessness Week, August 4-10, Pete chose to become visible to our community with the hope that it would be a catalyst for increasing community awareness, empathy and may stop MidCoast Council from forcing him to leave the reserve - the place that he calls home.
Wingham Riverside Reserve in Farquhar Street is Pete's place of residence because it is close to a small community of people who look out for him, there is limited access to public amenities, and it is free. A disability pension is his only source of income, and Pete shares that even with the numerous challenges of living in a van - such as the struggle to keep warm in winter and cool in summer, food storage and privacy - he says it is "the only way I can live independently, and I cannot afford to live any other way."
Pete is articulate and angry as he asserts that MidCoast Council rangers "want him gone from the reserve".
Earlier this year, and in recent weeks, Pete says MidCoast Council rangers ordered him to leave. He says council's ranger was "very overpowering and dominant" as he stated that "I had to leave because my van does not have a factory-fitted shower or toilet in it."
I can't afford a Winnebago, that's $100,000. And because of that, I have to leave and I can't live there any morePete Thompson
"My support network is in Wingham, I have been in Wingham for 11 years, my grandparents are both buried in Pampoolah Cemetery, and without my support network of friends I will be a suicide statistic.
"Because of my post traumatic stress I can't live with anyone because of the impact it has on them ... and if you were to put me in a house with four walls then I am going to suicide.
"Living near the brush, there is something different every day. In January I saved the lives of two teenagers, a young boy and a young girl, who had decided to enter into a suicide pact. Basically by the time I realised what was going on and found them, he was in a really bad way so I called the ambulance, I rendered medical assistance."
Pete acknowledges that many people may not understand how he needs to live and shares that his experiences of council and community cause him to hold the view that "people do not want homeless people living anywhere near them."
"They want us to be invisible, to not exist, and the reason they (council) lock all the toilets in the area is to force every homeless person to the one toilet that is open. Once they (council) get you to that toilet, they know you are homeless, and that's when they will work to remove you out of the area.
"It's like they don't think we have a right to exist."
Pete says he raised the issue of locking the toilets throughout the MidCoast Council area with the council rangers, and was told council locks the toilets to prevent vandalism. The toilet at Wingham Riverside Reserve is not locked because of an arrangement between council and Wingham Advancement Group.
MidCoast Council confirms toilets in urban areas are locked at night.
"They are locked because of the impact of vandalism. A total of $252,000 was spent last year in Taree on repairing the impacts on vandalism in our parks and open spaces alone. Vandalism is a significant cost to council, and as a result, to the community," a council spokesperson said.
Pete argues that it is illegal for MidCoast Council to lock public toilets under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992. He contends that as he has a genetic geriatric condition and is in receipt of a disability pension, that locking toilets creates unjustifiable hardship for homeless people.
"Locking toilets is not lawful as vandalism is a crime and restitution can be claimed under victims of crime legislation. There is no hardship to council."
Pete cites Division 2 section 23 Access to Premises in his argument that he has a right to access the toilets and to be at the reserve.
"In relation to the toilets it says, 'It is unlawful for a person to discriminate against another person on the grounds of the other person's disability, and by refusing to allow the other person access to, or the use of, any premises that the public or a section of the public is entitled', and then in relation to staying here, it says it is unlawful 'by requiring the other person to leave such premises or use such facilities'.
So basically, by locking the toilets each night, they are refusing me access to a public facility as a disabled person, and the reserve is also a public facility, so how can they order me to leave?Pete Thompson
"They want me out of there. I think the ranger is just doing his legal duty according to the council, but is not taking into account that I am a disabled person physically and mentally. He doesn't believe the Disability Discrimination Act applies to me in any way shape or form, and that's giving him the power to oust me without going to any federal court for determination - which I can't afford."
A spokesperson for MidCoast Council repeats the ranger's advice to Pete that "the locking of the toilets does not constitute an offence under the Disability Discrimination Act."
MidCoast Council does not have a specific policy or position on homeless people and its rangers operate within the NSW Government's Protocol for Homeless People in Public Places.
"If they do come across a homeless person in the community they provide them with a list of contact numbers for agencies such as the Samaritans and the Department of Housing to access emergency accommodation options," the council spokesperson said.
"However, there are instances when we do have to move people on. This occurs if they are in areas where they are at risk, or present a risk to the community.
"The reserve is for overnight stays only, this has been a long standing arrangement and endorsed in the plan of management for the reserve.
"As it is signposted in this way, it is the role of the rangers to enforce compliance, and it is on this basis that council is able to move people on.
"Rangers enforce this by asking people to move on. If the person fails to move on when asked, and rangers chose to enforce this, it would become a police matter."
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