Homeless campers in state forest a semi-permanent community as rental prices soar
Among the caravans and motor homes staying a few days in the beautiful Coopernook campground on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales, there are around eight campsites that have been there longer than their allocated four weeks.
But closures of other campgrounds, due to landslides and flood-damaged roads, leave people stuck in the one spot, having to negotiate with Forestry to extend their stay.
At least two families have had their homes flooded and haven't been able to return, there are children in both camps but neither family wants to speak for various reasons.
But a small group of single men has no such qualms.
A place to belong
Peter has recently divorced after a marriage of 22 years. He has been camping on his site for seven weeks and says it's a peaceful place and the people there feel like a family.
"For me, I needed to have somewhere to go where I could feel I belonged," the 70-year-old says.
"I needed space, I needed time, and people here are in similar circumstances, because of the fires, the floods and COVID."
Walking away from his marriage means he is also losing access to his step-granddaughter, 9, who he has raised since birth.
"It was one of the most difficult things I've ever done in my life because I'd found love in a little girl," he says.
"She was my little princess. I don't want her to ever think that I just walked away without thinking about how much it would hurt her and what it was going to do to our relationship."
Even though he lives close by, he cannot see the child, so he now avoids the street where she lives when passing through the town.
Peter ended up in this campground because he couldn't afford a rental on his pension while continuing to pay off other debts.
Even though he's retired, he says he will be looking at taking up seasonal labour jobs to make ends meet.
"There's a lot of fruit-picking," he says. "I don't plan on just sitting around here and vegetating."
For now, he says, he'll stay a few more weeks to "ground" himself and get his head together.
"I just want to regain strength here and move on. It's a godsend here. [It's] very peaceful."
Stuck here for now
Mick and his dog, Tiny, sit in a sunny spot by a fire with an improvised corrugated tin wind-guard named the Ned Kelly.
He has been living here for six weeks after leaving a private rental where, he says, the landlord had some mental health issues.
Since his recent stroke, he says, the [rental] situation had become too stressful, so he left.
"I went to public housing," Mick says. "They put me up the list because of the stroke, but it's still a two-year waiting list."
Because he has a camper trailer, he says it's considered a home by public housing, which prevents him from getting a place.
"The rents have shot up and you can't really afford what private rentals have to offer," he says.
"Would I want to live here like, permanently? Well, maybe I'll have to. But, I'd like to have a little place."
We're getting ready to launch a weekly local newsletter. Sign up to stay connected with news from ABC North Coast.
Tricks for survival
Mick says he has learned a lot about how to survive, such as where to go for a shower and how to store food, but the biggest challenge is how to keep warm at night as winter approaches.
"I've got three doonas, I've got the fire, I've got my hot water bottle, which is my little dog," he says.
"You rug up, thankfully it hasn't got real cold yet. It gets about 6 degrees [Celsius] in the morning."
Mick damaged his toe getting firewood and he also some other medical conditions so can't really move on.
"We're just stuck," he says. "If there were more campsites open, we probably wouldn't be in this situation.
"We'd be able to move around and wouldn't have any trouble with the powers that be, the Forestry."
Forestry Corporation's Sandra Madeley says there has been an increase in longer-term campers within Coopernook Forest due to its proximity to the highway and regional centres of Taree and Port Macquarie.
"We understand that some people may be experiencing hardship and do our best to engage with compassion by permitting extended stays by campers facing difficulty and providing information to help them connect with community support services," Ms Madeley says.
But, she reiterates, these camping areas are designed for short-term recreational camping by the whole community and do not include facilities suitable for long-term occupation.
"We cannot allow people to camp indefinitely so we do enforce a reasonable length of stay for forest visitors," she says.
Among the campers, there's an unwritten code of "give and take" and a general sense of being mindful of each other's space, Mick says.
"Be good to each other, don't get really drunk and yell out and stuff like that," he says.
"Look after each other. Watch each other's stuff.
"Make sure everyone's all right. If you go down the shop, ask the ones you know if they want anything."
He says if someone is leaving, they might offer their firewood, which he gladly accepts.
Not a choice but grown to prefer it
Eric is a former interstate truck driver and oyster farmer.
He says he's been staying around the campgrounds for three or four years, with his old deaf dog, Lucy, and his other dog, Little Man.
Eric is one of a few who throw a swag down under a shared marquee.
"We do community cooking and play a bit of [euchre] and keep ourselves a bit amused, go and get firewood ... take the dogs for a run on the beach," he says.
Eric says he doesn't mind roughing it.
"I wouldn't feel good in a motel or in a flash place. I'd feel out of place," he says.
"This is our life. This is what we do and this is what we've got."
He maintains a positive attitude, saying there are a lot of people worse off than them.
"I don't really like suburbia much, don't watch TV," Eric says.
"We don't have power so, if you don't have it, you don't miss it."
He's on sickness benefits and has been waiting for knee surgery for the past two years, which has been prolonged thanks to COVID-19.
He's been borrowing a caravan from a mate to find a bit more comfort leading up to his knee surgery next month.
He is hoping to get emergency housing for a few days following the surgery.
"If not, I'll just have to set up here and come back when I get out of hospital.
"No-one's going to give a rental to a bloke who's on the dole, [with] two dogs and no money, just the dole. No, I can't afford it."
He says that, in any case, there are so many people applying for houses, so he doesn't have much of a chance.
"I've got this [caravan], so I'm pretty happy with that for the time being. [I'm] nice and high and dry," Eric says.
"I'd rather be out here."
Story By | Wiriya Sati, ABC