AUTHORITIES are considering how to get $85 million worth of social housing online in the Bendigo region as soon as possible amid concerns about rough sleeping in a suburban park.
The situation in the park, which the Bendigo Advertiser has chosen not to identify to protect those camping in the area, has become an issue for the City of Greater Bendigo because of its role in managing the site.
Issues surrounding the park were raised at a recent ward meeting. Concerned community members have also reached out to the council members and city staff.
The suburb's residents are concerned for those camping in the park, and about how the park's use is affecting their community.
They want to see the park used for picnics and for travellers making their way through the region, to encourage them to spend some time in the community before continuing on their journeys.
But a question remains for one of the people living in the park - the same question he has raised all along. If people experiencing homelessness in the Bendigo region can not stay there, where are they supposed to go?
People have been sleeping rough in the park in question for some time.
Comments on an app for travellers seeking free camping sites indicate the park has been used by people experiencing homelessness for several years.
The prevalence of rough sleepers in the park seems to have increased over time.
People's concerns about the use of the site have grown over time, too. One of the people camping in the park was among those who spoke about the situation in January.
He this month said agencies had been working to provide him with more suitable accommodation, such as a caravan.
The man had been sleeping in a tent.
He said he had been offered emergency accommodation during extreme heat and heavy rain.
The man said he had accepted help when it was offered, and was grateful for it. But the solutions he had been presented with so far were only temporary.
"I need the stability, I really do," the man said.
He remained concerned about what would become of people experiencing homelessness in the Bendigo region - people like him - if they could not camp in the park.
"I think they should have better options, but unfortunately they don't," the man said.
The work under way
Haven; Home, Safe deputy chief executive Trudi Ray said the organisation was working closely with the remaining campers at the site.
Fewer than five people were camping in the park when Ms Ray spoke with the Bendigo Advertiser.
"We are providing wrap-around supports and material aid while we secure them suitable accommodation to meet their ongoing needs," Ms Ray said.
"Each person's circumstances and needs are different and people are free to choose what options suit them best."
Mayor Jennifer Alden said the City of Greater Bendigo was working closely with the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing and registered housing agencies to consider how the state government's investment in social housing could be realised as quickly as possible, and how local government could best assist.
The state government last year announced a $5.3 billion investment in public and community sector homes, of which at least $85 million is expected to flow to the Bendigo region.
More has been allocated in other parts of central Victoria.
"The city recently facilitated discussions with the registered housing agencies and we will continue to work with them, as they will be the bodies to deliver the affordable housing stock," Cr Alden said.
Meanwhile, the City of Greater Bendigo is considering what it can do to encourage the development of affordable housing.
"At this stage, the city is looking at surplus land across the municipality that may be suitable for potential sites to accommodate future affordable housing," Cr Alden said.
"We will look for ways local government can make that process from land identification through to housing construction as efficient as possible, and deliver a great outcome and make a difference for our community."
A Department of Families, Fairness and Housing spokesperson said the department was working with Haven; Home, Safe and other key stakeholders to support and secure appropriate housing options for people who have been staying in the park.
What does the community want?
A man, who requested to remain anonymous, was concerned for the people camping in the park.
"It's just not good enough," he said.
He believed it was a blight on the community that people experiencing homelessness were sleeping rough in a park.
"These people need to be looked after," the man said.
Another of the suburb's residents, who also wished to remain anonymous, said the situation wasn't good for anyone.
"They are vulnerable in so many ways," the woman said of those experiencing homelessness.
"The people there need somewhere where they've got a safe environment to have at least more quality of life than they have got at the moment."
She said the community wanted the park to be a place where people who were travelling through the area felt welcome to stop, rest and recharge before continuing on their journey.
The community wanted the park to be a safe place that encouraged people to visit the area and support local businesses.
The woman said community members had stopped directing travellers to the park's public toilets, if asked where the nearest restrooms were.
One of the community's councillors, who the Bendigo Advertiser has chosen not to name to prevent the park being identified, said the discussion at the recent ward meeting was respectful, but people were frustrated.
They said the suburb's residents wanted to see the park used as a picnic site and rest stop.
The park's reputation has taken a knock, with word about the issues associated with the site spreading via an app.
Residents were concerned, as the park was seen as a reflection on their community.
Community members suggested signage indicating the maximum number of days people could stay in the park before being expected to move on.
But the City of Greater Bendigo does not have the authority to limit the amount of time people stay in the park at the moment, nor can it move people on.
"This would require changes to the planning scheme or local law, which can take up to 18 months," Vicky Mason, the city's health and wellbeing director, said.
"There are no current plans to do this. We continue to work with other local agencies to monitor and support the welfare of people who are using the site long-term."
The ward councillor said it was not the first time the park had been raised with the council, with a proposal to rezone the area in 2019.
Rezoning could enable the council to impose restrictions on the land's use, like limiting or preventing camping.
The councillor said the proposal to rezone the land had not progressed since 2019.
Ms Mason said local laws staff had been attending the park daily to ensure its overall amenity was maintained and accessible to anyone using it.
Ms Ray encouraged anyone who was experiencing homelessness, or was at risk of becoming homeless, to contact Haven; Home, Safe to discuss their housing options.
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