Pete Thompson directs his gaze straight to the lens and gently smiles.
It is a radical shift in behaviour for the Wingham homeless man, and it is in response to "overwhelming and generous support from people in this community."
The Manning River Times revealed Pete's fight with MidCoast Council about his choice to live in a van at the reserve, and exposed the potential impact on homeless people of the council's decision to lock all public toilets in urban areas, with the exception of Wingham Riverside Reserve.
Last week Pete did not feel safe or comfortable to show his face in photographs taken for the story, and admits to feeling "very, very nervous about becoming visible to the community in the media".
This week he stands face forward for the photograph and says, "this (story) has changed how I see everything, I used to think there were more bad than good people in the world, but now I see there are more good than bad people."
Pete chose to become visible to our community with the hope that his story would be a catalyst for increasing community awareness and empathy for homeless people, and may stop MidCoast Council from forcing him to leave the reserve.
On August 8 at 6pm Pete's story appeared on the Times' website and on August 9 at 5am it appeared on the Times' Facebook page. Pete knew the publication times but did not know what to expect from the community in response to the story, and what the consequences could be from the choice to spotlight his fight with council.
Six days on, Pete smiles as he speaks of reading pages of individual comments by members of the community in response to the story. On every measure of digital stories - reach, engagement and reaction - Pete's story generated unprecedented statistics, and the impact of reading so many comments that reveal compassion, empathy and support sees Pete speak with enthusiasm, and he fights tears as he talks.
"You know before this story I thought I was homeless and invisible, and all of a sudden, no, it's the opposite way around, I'm highly visible and people do see everything. There's good and bad to that, but I can't believe the support for me that has been revealed in the community," Pete said.
Pete says he tries to keep the area clean and "look out for people" and cites a recent incident as an example where "a P-plater was giving an elderly lady a hard time."
"Her husband was in the van with terminal cancer and all he wanted to do was fish, and they chose this spot because the lady could see where he was, and if he was in trouble or not.
"Then that idiot comes along, and all she said to him was slow down. Well she got a mouthful from him, if you know what I mean, and I got the police straight on to that and I haven't seen him back.
"Everyone sort of helps everyone around here. I'll stand up for an elderly person and someone else will actually stand up for me."
Pete speaks highly of police and says "they are a group of fantastic professional people that are here when I need them."
"I don't know what sort of speeds they do from Taree to get here so fast, but I tell you what, it would be high speed!" he laughs. "I can't fault the community or Taree Police on how they have treated me."
It was once said that society can be judged on how it actually treats its weak, its vulnerable and its elderly. This community absolutely sparkles like a diamond in those three aspects.Pete Thompson
Pete also shares that police sent him a text message to check on his wellbeing after the story appeared online.
"The police here are caring, absolute professionals."
The community comments reveal an awareness of his long term location at the reserve, and his positive contribution to the many tourists and other homeless people who pass through the area.
"I know people see the things I do, but I had no idea they would actually remember them and share them.
"I may not be able to use my hands anymore, but for the tourists who come here with electrical problems, I can say, 'look mate, this is how you do it', and I help them to fix it themselves. They are really appreciative, and I don't get to see them again because they usually move off or go back home overseas."
Pete acknowledges there are people who don't think he should be allowed to stay at the reserve, and numerous Facebook comments on the social media post on August 9 sparked conversations about homelessness, mental health, free camping, MidCoast Council regulations, and the costs of staying at showgrounds or caravan parks.
"Some people will never understand homelessness, while others will have full understanding of the complex issues - it's just the way it works.
I'm hoping my story and challenging council's choice to lock local toilets in the area at night will raise awareness about homelessness and improve things for a lot of people.Pete Thompson
"Homelessness has always had a stigma to it, but what I've found is that people don't consider the homeless to be criminals anymore; it's more that they see them as the vulnerable people that they actually are.
"Most people are one pay cheque away from being homeless. If they miss a pay cheque they just can't catch up, miss a few pay cheques and you're out of your rental accommodation, you're homeless. It's hard and it's getting worse."
MidCoast Council is aware of recent community conversations on social media about Pete and the management of camping at the reserve.
A resolution of the former Greater Taree City Council in September 2012 sets the rules in relation to how the space is to be used, and "as such council's rangers are obliged to enforce this resolution," says council's Director of Liveable Communities, Paul De Szell.
The resolution limits the use of the space to overnight parking for self-contained vehicles only, and any change to the management of camping at the reserve would need to be resolved by the elected council.
"However as reported, this particular person has been living in this location for a lengthy period of time, which indicates our staff have been trying to work with him, rather than against him."
If you are vulnerable or know someone who is, the following list of service providers can offer professional help and support.
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