No power. No running water. Blue tarps tied to treated pine poles form the walls of a kitchen covered with scavenged corrugated roofing, a garden gazebo on pallet flooring is the living room, and a 1972 16-foot Chesney caravan provides Elysia* with a mostly waterproof place to sleep.
It is sited in a remote location about 15kms from a town, and the 56-year-old says her place to call home has cost around $400. It is a work in progress, and the items used to craft the home were gathered from kerbsides during MidCoast Council bulky waste clean-up collection events in Taree and Wingham in recent years.
Elysia ignites a burner on portable gas stove to boil water to make tea in the kitchen. It sits on a barbecue next to simple steel benches, and an icebox houses the longlife milk that is poured into cups. A small bunch of freesias fragrance the space, and Elysia shares "they are my favourite flower in the world."
"There's a field of them just down from Bunnings. They just pop up. I make a point of driving past every year to see when they are ready. They smell beautiful and just remind me of good times, when my mum and I used to go walking to pick them where we used to live."
Elysia's mother is no longer living, and the freesias remind her of a time in her life where she felt loved and secure; a poignant reflection as Elysia shares her descent into homelessness, triggered by ill-health, loss of employment and snowballing debt.
It began with a bacterial infection called Q Fever and over six years, Elysia's body became more vulnerable with autoimmune disease, Sjogren's Syndrome, Meniere's Disease, fibromyalgia, and today both her kidneys are compromised with a disease called FSGS.
Deteriorating health impacted on her ability to work full-time as a laboratory pathology officer on the Central Coast, and so she transferred to Taree to work part-time. However, extended work absences due to ill health, created an environment where she says she was "manoeuvred into quitting".
That was six years ago. Elysia was 50 years old, single, no children, renting, no income and living with numerous health challenges.
"It just snowballed to the point where I was overwhelmed with debt that I couldn't repay, constantly being hassled by debt collectors, I had a credit card to pay off, and it all became too much," Elysia said. "I landed in hospital and it was about a week before Christmas when I got the eviction notice."
I landed in hospital and it was about a week before Christmas when I got the eviction notice.Elysia
Eviction and her vulnerable financial situation enabled access to social housing, but she says debt and the increasing cost of medication and visits to medical professionals made it unaffordable, and so her car had to become her home.
"I never thought I could slip through so many cracks in services, and I didn't think that at 50 I would not have a career, not have a home, not have money, not have back-up, be on welfare, and then be homeless as well. I was a well-educated professional.
"You want to pretend how normal everything is to the outside world, while inside you are kind of screaming, 'what will I do now?'
"You've done the rounds ... you've been to Centrelink, you've asked to see welfare officers, you talk to your doctor, and then you fall down the rabbit hole and become severely depressed.
"I think everybody goes through a stage where they think, I just can't keep living like this, it's not worth it, so you do become suicidal, or at least have suicidal thoughts. You don't necessarily want to act it out, but you then have this constant feeling that life is just not worth living.
"I did end up in the mental health unit at Manning Hospital, suicidal one Christmas.
"Christmas comes along, and there is no family, no children, and no partner and you're alone, and you're vulnerable and you think, I just can't do this anymore, I don't want to die, but the pain of living with all of this is too much. So you go to seek help, and they give you some drugs and send you away.
"The help really isn't there so you have to pull yourself together. Some people do, and some people don't."
Elysia says "the reality of living in a car is that you prioritise the things you need first."
You need a safe place to park where you are not going to get bothered by people looking to rob you, people realising you are vulnerable, female and single.Elysia
"You need a safe place to park where you are not going to get bothered by people looking to rob you, people realising you are vulnerable, female and single.
"You have to find safe places and pretend to be normal, pretend to be looking at a map, or pretend to be reading a book. You have all these strategies, such as not being at the same place too often so a pattern is recognised.
"You've got to be close to a toilet and the problem in this area is that public toilets are locked at night. I had a strategy of using a bucket with a sealed lid at night."
Elysia reveals that Taree Central car park was one of her places to park at night.
"They lock it up at night, so you have to hide from security because you can't be seen to be in your car. You watch and wait for when they do the drive around, and that was actually pretty good because once you were locked in you felt quite safe."
Elysia says she also parked at a Taree business that had a lot of pallets out the back and was near a security company.
"You could park your car there and actually not be seen, and having the routine patrols gave me a sense of safety.
"I was surprised by how easy it was to slip into the mode of living day by day; it was a shock, but I think within all of us we have this survival instinct."
Elysia describes living in her car as being "like Groundhog Day."
"A lot of the time when I was in my car things were really blurry, I found the days just merged into one because it doesn't matter whether it is Saturday, Sunday or Thursday, every day is exactly the same, it is like Groundhog Day.
"When you are in your car you are scared all the time. You think ... what am I going to eat, where do I go tonight to be safe, and go to the toilet? It's that basic. You don't think about tomorrow, there is no planning ahead.
"When you are homeless you feel useless, you are not contributing in any way to society around you, and you are not used to that feeling, and you don't want to feel like you are an abuser of the system.
"I won't go to any of the soup kitchens or meal places. Pride is a difficult thing for me, especially when you come from the background that I had, and so the hardest thing I found was needing to ask for help as I'd never done it before. I have a reached a point now where I will ask if I need help, but you still feel bad, embarrassed and humiliated by it."
Elysia says there is little empathy for homeless people in the community.
"The average punter thinks all homeless people are long term unemployed, dole bludgers, mental health crazies, drug addicts or criminals. That's the general perception.
"Even though homeless people end up looking very similiar, because we have so little, we all come from very different backgrounds, and the reasons for homelessness are so varied."
A few years ago Elysia progressed from her car to couch surfing. It was an improvement from living in her car but says "you feel like an intruder and that you are interfering with other people's lifestyles."
"Even though people are very, very kind and tolerant, it's still not your own space."
Couch surfing evolved to living in a caravan when her friends had to move from the rural rental property.
"The owners moved back but when they learned of my situation they said I could stay on the property if I could get a caravan."
The reality of no running water, no power, or access to a toilet did not deter Elysia and so she bought a 1972 Chesney caravan that had been completely stripped inside.
"The price was right at $250, and I made a deal with these people to pay it off at $50 a fortnight, because I could not have afforded it otherwise.
"It didn't have doors or windows, I didn't know it leaked as well, but for $250 I really didn't expect much at all.
"I managed to get plywood, MDF and stuff salvaged from different places, and started to fix the inside. I got lots of paint from the tip shop - which is free - and then was able to accumulate just enough furniture and a bed.
"It became home, and the first night I slept in there I thought I was royalty, I did! It felt so good because everybody needs their own space.
"I have finally fitted out my little caravan, and feel so lucky, absolutely lucky because I have so much more than somebody who is homeless and living in their car.
"I made myself a bathroom out the back with louvre doors from the tip shop for next to nothing, a marine ply pallet floor, there's a port-a-loo in there and a horse shower which runs off a gas bottle, and the water comes from one of the big blue horse barrels.
"You feel like royalty, you have a place to wash yourself, you've got a warm comfortable bed to sleep in that is your own - sure you need a lot of silicone for the leaking roof but it is my own space."
A goat, a dog and chickens keep Elysia company, possums come through the kitchen every night, nesting swallows, feather tail gliders and echindas also call her little patch in the Manning Valley home.
It is peaceful. There is birdsong and Elysia says she is happy.
"This is a massive step up from homelessness. I don't live with a day to day mindset anymore, I have hope and that is a huge shift. When I don't have money, if nothing else I have got eggs to eat and I bake my own bread, I'm far better off than I was."
Elysia says "there is a huge and growing need for affordable housing" and knows there are more and more women aged over 50 finding themselves in housing crisis.
"I have been contacted by other women in my age group whose husband has left them for a younger model, or whose husband has died. They have no financial security, can't find a job, and are fundamentally in the same position I am at my age. It's really, really scary."
Today Elysia's sole source of income is Newstart Allowance, and she says her mutual obligation requirements prove challenging given her living conditions and health. Two applications to secure the Disability Support Pension have been denied, and she despairs at the prospect of trying to navigate the appeal process a third time. It is a stress that weighs heavily on her mind and health.
"I'm realistically looking at only another four or five years of decent life left, and then I really don't want to face dialysis. When the time comes I will have to make some hard decisions, but for now, I am thankful for a place to sleep that is safe, peaceful and my own."
* Name changed to protect privacy.
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