‘I’ve got nowhere else to go’: As winter draws in, dozens are sleeping rough in Ballarat

<span>John Cleeland is homeless and living off a disability pension in his caravan on the outskirts of Ballarat.</span><span>Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian</span>
John Cleeland is homeless and living off a disability pension in his caravan on the outskirts of Ballarat.Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian

An old black billy hangs above a doused fire at the front of John Cleeland’s caravan, nestled on the banks of Lake Burrumbeet. The afternoon sun peeks through the surrounding eucalypts, casting its light across the waterfront, as Tank the french bulldog keeps guard.

Cleeland has been living on the lake’s foreshore, 30 kilometres north-west of Ballarat, for about four months. His van is decked out with cooling, heating, a washing machine and oven. His disability pension funds the diesel in his tank. He says he’s self-sufficient.

“I choose to live this way. I don’t consider myself homeless. Far from it,” he says.

“There’s no way I’m going to be able to afford that in town. Here I’m living. I’m barely going to exist out there.”

There are about a dozen campers currently living at the lake. A few metres away from Cleeland, Dana Lyall has set up base with a menagerie of pets keeping her company. She’s just invested in a diesel-powered heater to take the edge off the crisp Ballarat nights. Whatever the solar panels can’t power, the generator will.

“It’s just a beautiful spot. Peaceful,” she says.

Lyall has been living at the lake on and off for the past six months while she takes care of her mother in Ballarat. She relies on jobseeker payments and suffers from ongoing health complications, so says renting is not realistic.

“I’ve got nowhere else to go. It’s free camping here for up to 28 days, but if you keep your area nice and tidy, they understand,” she says.

“If I paid rent I wouldn’t have enough to live. I’ve been lucky enough through the help of my mum to have this caravan. I’d hate to think what I’d be doing otherwise.

“I’m comfortable here. I’ve got all I need. It feels like home.”

Darrylene McBain moved to the lake just over a week ago after setting up camp at the Slaty Creek campgrounds in Creswick, 18 kilometres north of Ballarat, where she was prospecting for gold. She says her new spot is “perfect”.

With her mum in Mount Beauty and a sick grandchild in Melbourne, McBain says it was important she had the means to travel.

“You’ve got two options: you can live in a home, or afford to drive,” she says. “So you lose a lot, and then you’re stuck with what we’ve got.”

“We look after our family, even though we’re homeless.”

‘Homelessness doesn’t discriminate’

More than 70 people are currently known to be homeless in Ballarat.

If I paid rent I wouldn’t have enough to live

Dana Lyall

Last month, a report released by Council to Homeless Persons showed the number of working Victorians seeking support from homelessness services has grown by 14% in the past two years, including 330 people in Ballarat alone.

Luke Thomas, whose name has been changed for privacy reasons, was camping in local bushland for nine months before he moved into Peplow House, a crisis accommodation service run by Catholic Care in Ballarat. Thomas has schizophrenia and was struggling with substance abuse and gambling, and was no longer able to afford his mortgage or hold down a job.

“Homelessness doesn’t discriminate,” he says. “If it doesn’t affect you directly, it will affect your family and friends and those close to you. This has caused stress for my father and mother, who are always wondering if I’m going to come home or if I’m sleeping rough.”

Thomas says more funding is needed to address the root causes of homelessness, as well as investing in more housing stock to keep prices “half reasonable”.

The current median rent in Ballarat is $400 a week. The maximum fortnightly jobseeker payment for a single person is $762.70.

According to Anglicare’s rental affordability snapshot for 2024, there are no advertised rental properties anywhere in Australia that would be affordable for a single person receiving the jobseeker payment, and just 0.1% of rental listings were affordable for a person on the slightly higher disability support pension, for which the maximum fortnightly payment is $1,064.

More demand than supply

James Treloar, the homelessness and housing support manager at Catholic Care, says the housing crisis in Ballarat has become much more visible in the last six months.

“There is a lot of building and investment in housing, but we’re playing catch-up on decades of under-investment and we’re paying for it now,” Treloar says.

Peplow House was running on a $100,000 deficit last year. Ballarat’s Soup Bus, a volunteer-run organisation serving meals to those in need, is also struggling to keep up with rising demand.

“We need to look after programs in existence, not just roll out new ones,” Treloar says.

Reid’s Guest House, a crisis accommodation facility in Ballarat, announced last month that it would be closing its doors as it was “no longer fit-for-purpose and doesn’t meet the standards required of modern rooming houses”.

The accommodation facility, operated by Ballarat Uniting for more than 20 years, had 15 rooms with capacity to host up to 60 guests.

“To continue operating a program like Reid’s it would need to be located in a purpose-built facility,” Uniting’s Jenny Ham says. “We cannot build or purchase [on our own] – we would need to partner with government or other organisation.”

The mayor of Ballarat, Des Hudson, says until recently homelessness had been fairly invisible to the majority of Ballarat residents.

“It’s important to note that being homeless is not a criminal offence,” Hudson says. “There might be other behaviours which might be an issue, but it’s not about moving people on. It should be about connecting them to services and the provision of services.

“When those are all exhausted, that’s really unfortunate.”

According to the state government, 1,811 people and families were placed in social housing in rural and regional Victoria last financial year.

As of March 2024, there were 48,620 new applications on the Victorian housing register. Applicants are asked to list up to five locations where they would like to live. Almost 2,800 applicants had registered interest in the central highlands district, which includes Ballarat.

Some 197 homes have already been built in Ballarat as part of state government’s housing programs and another 191 are promised. A Victorian government spokesperson says the state is investing more than $13m in homelessness support services in the central highlands region, and was “working closely with specialist agencies to support people who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness”.

Treloar says people experiencing homelessness, particularly long-term homelessness, often found it difficult to receive help.

“When [these men] come to Peplow, they’re at their lowest ebb,” he says. “Often their family supports have completely melted away so they’ve got nobody left.”

Thomas says that for him, living rough had become “almost a self-care mechanism”.

“You get addicted to being homeless after a while. Your self-worth is lowered and you can get used to the lifestyle.

“I had jobs, I had money in the bank, then to go to have nothing, you get used to that life.”

• In Australia, support is available at Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, Lifeline on 13 11 14, and at MensLine on 1300 789 978.