For thousands of Australians, home is a Holden or a Toyota parked in a dimly-lit street, and the number is growing. What's forcing them to take such drastic action?
Morgan – she'll only tell me her first name – has parked her beaten-up station wagon opposite a row of elegant 19th-century terraces in Sydney's Surry Hills. It's a narrow street packed tight with BMWs, Audis and a Jeep. It's dusk in this inner-city suburb and the dog walkers are out in force. Morgan, who is 62 with big blue eyes, a mouthful of metal fillings and a slightly crazed laugh, is leaning into the back seat of her car, laying out her bed sheets for the night.
For a homeless person, I tell her, she looks pretty fashionable with her hoop earrings, black blouse, matching skirt and R.M. Williams boots – before realising with a thud how patronising this sounds. "Smell this," she says, sticking her blow-dried, dyed-blonde hair in my face. It's soft and smells like spring flowers. "If you look grotty, people are not going to want to sit and talk to you – but it's not because you're homeless, it's because you smell bad," she says.
Morgan corrects me when I say that she lives in her car. She uses the term "car feral" to describe people like herself.
"Car ferals don't live in their car; they are people who sleep in their car because they don't have a home."Morgan
"We're not on holidays, we're not backpackers travelling around with a home back in Germany."
She says she can't afford to pay rent "to some rich bastard". So her home, while she lives on a $400 weekly pension, is this white Holden Commodore Executive V6 fuel-injected 1997 station wagon, with more than 400,000 kilometres on the clock, a wonky aerial and black gaffer tape wrapped around the bumper bar, from the time when a stranger smashed it with a metal rubbish bin.
"For most ferals, the car of choice is a Toyota Commuter – it's really roomy and they can usually rock on for about 500,000 kilometres," she says. "But for me there is only one car: the Holden."
According to 2016 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data, Morgan is just one among the fastest-growing demographic of homeless people: women over 55. Usually single and unemployed, having spent long stretches of their life out of the workforce raising children, they are without sufficient finances to afford a stable home.
Morgan's bed is a yoga mat, topped by a mattress protector, doona and blankets laid flat along the passenger side, from the folded-down back seats to the rear window – a snug fit for her 162-centimetre frame. "It is actually very comfy because it's firm, with multiple layers of padding," she says. When I ask her if I might sit in her car, she shoots me a sideways look. "Ferals never have people in their cars, other than their nearest and dearest," she says. "It's like having someone in your bedroom."
Morgan bought her current car second-hand from a heavy-metal guitarist in 2012 for about $2000 – and spent the same again making it liveable. It's her bedroom, her lounge room, her mode of transport, her refuge. "It's a glass-and-metal cocoon," she reflects. "When I am in here, it doesn't matter what's going on outside."
A growing trend
Thousands of people – including couples and families with children – sleep in their vehicles every night in Australia, and their numbers are growing. Between 2011 and 2016 there was an 100 per cent increase in car dwellers seeking help from specialist homelessness services, rising from 2722 to 5471 people, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data.
Jenny Smith, chairwoman of Homelessness Australia (HA), attributes the increase to worsening housing afford - ability, a rise in women fleeing domestic violence and the closure of caravan parks near major cities.
"If you've fallen on hard times because of family breakdown or a loss of job and you can't afford the rent, your car may be the most available refuge," she says. "It's harder than ever for peo - ple to find somewhere they can afford to live, while paying bills, groceries and medical expenses. It's not surprising they're turning to whatever relatively safe shelter they can find – and, increasingly, that shelter is their car."
Morgan traces her hard times back to 1989 when she was hit by a car while riding her bicycle in the inner-Sydney suburb of Glebe. Her left arm was crushed. She had been working as a customer service operator at the Commonwealth Bank and living rent-free with friends in a squat in Pyrmont. After the accident, she left her job and went on a disability pension.
"Physically, I was no longer capable of working and emotionally I wasn't ready, either," she recalls. "I went through a bit of a lull."
She holds out her arm, which kinks sharply at the elbow, to show me that it still won't straighten. "Because I have an arm like this, I have to drive an automatic." Not everything about her story is so easily explained.
Exactly why she was living in a squat while earning a steady income, before the accident, is a little hard to follow. She moved around constantly with her Air Force father as a child. As a teenager, she became a rebel of sorts, with blue hair and a job as a roadie for a punk band. After leaving home, she continued her nomadic, alternative ways. A friend suggested she squat with him in Pyrmont. Life was unconventional, but good.
The hit-and-run accident left Morgan depressed, with no job and little money. Soon after, she fell pregnant and gave birth to her son, Ryan. She moved into a housing commission terrace in the suburb where she is now parked.
When plans go awry
Although the terrace was rundown, with starlings nesting in the eaves, she tried to make it a home, doing minor repairs and filling it with furniture. Once a month, she set the table with Irish linen, candles and Royal Doulton bone china and hosted dinner parties, inviting friends and unemployed musicians.
But by 2002, conflict with neighbours, who kept throwing dog shit over her fence, and bird lice drifting down from the roof, became too much to bear. She put her dinner set in storage and took a bus to Byron Bay with her 11-year-old son, leaving behind a life framed by four walls, a floor and roof.
They had no fixed plan or fixed address, sleeping in a tent at a caravan park by the beach and surviving on her disability support pension. After three years, they moved to Melbourne and initially shared a bunk bed in a tiny room in a backpackers' hostel in St Kilda. They flitted between small, short-term rental apartments. During school holidays, they dossed down with friends.
In 2009, after Ryan turned 18 and joined the army, Morgan farewelled him at a city bus station and continued roaming between tents, friends' homes and hostels, or sleeping rough in train stations. For Christmas 2009 she bought a cheap Holden station wagon and drove back to Byron with the tent in the back and a plan to make a home of sorts at the caravan park. But when it refused to allow any long-term residents, she drove in desperation to the beach and parked under the Norfolk Island pines. It was hot outside and she lowered the windows. The date was January 10, 2010 – her first night as a car feral.
The car-dweller community
MORGAN soon became familiar with a close community of car dwellers. Every day at 5pm they parked in a line behind a Byron Bay community centre, leaving gaps so no one was woken by snoring. Morgan sometimes won meat trays at the local RSL, which they cooked on a portable barbecue: "You didn't feel alone, you were never hungry, you were never frightened."
But parking officers and police soon started cracking down on them. Drunks and night stalkers prowled the streets. She once woke to find someone masturbating against her windscreen. In 2012, a huge rock was hurled through her side window while she was out of the car.
When a floodlight was installed behind the community centre, she tried sleeping under a reflective windscreen protector to block out the glare. But she was fed up. "The worst thing about being a car feral is the way others treat you. I have had people take my photograph when I'm sleeping, like I'm an exhibit."
So she drove back home to Surry Hills, to this street where we meet, so fed up that she plans to sell her car for scrap metal. On Morgan's front passenger seat is a plastic laundry basket of dirty clothes and a newspaper opened to a Sudoku puzzle. In the back is a folded clothes hoist and blue Esky packed neatly with muesli, cashews and fruit juice poppers.
"You always keep some supplies in your car, so if something happens, like it's bucketing down with rain or you are too sick to eat out, you've always got something," she says. "But I never keep loose food in the car. You haven't lived until you've had a cockroach bounce over your face when you're sleeping."
The petrol tank is filled with premium unleaded.
"My dad always said to put the best fuel in your car – look after your car and your car will look after you."
Morgan wears silk dresses that don't need ironing, which she washes in laundromats or the sinks of disabled toilets. A bottle of San Pellegrino sparkling water sits by her mattress. She also drinks Evian.
It's the "little bits of happiness" that keep up morale, she says. It's bin night, but she's usually up in the morning before the garbage men do their rounds. In Byron Bay, she would wake at dawn to chittering birds. In Sydney, it's the traffic building to a roar from a nearby main road.
Living this way makes you more primal, she says. "You become aware of the sun during the day, so you know where to park for shade. You are more attuned to nature. I even notice the ripples in the ocean when I know a whale is about to come up.”
"Your life revolves around survival and what makes you happy."
Morgan spends most of her pension on petrol and food, but often skips meals to save money. Her son helps out when she's short for car repairs or registration – but she says that his apartment in Sydney's south is too small for her to sleep in.
Her days pass slowly in cafes or at the library, where she charges the battery in her laptop computer. At night, she listens to bands playing in local pubs, which usually let her in for free.
When she's having trouble sleeping, she lies in her car and binge-watches television shows that her son downloads onto a USB. Her favourites are Vikings and Game of Thrones. The computer screen casts a spectral glow on her face as she stretches out behind the front seats.
"I find it quite annoying when people go, 'Oh, it's a lifestyle choice.' You really think if a person had a choice between living in a cute little terrace house or sleeping in their car that they would go, 'Oh yeah, wow, I really like sleeping in a Commodore.' It's not a choice but there's no point wallowing that I don't have a flat, I don't have a house. It doesn't achieve anything other than putting you in a hole of depression."
But Morgan seems to revel in the life of an outsider. She doesn't trust authorities and doesn't want to be stuck in a housing commission tower.
The causes of homelessness are many
HA's Jenny Smith says there are many causes of homelessness. Some people are fleeing domestic violence, others have a history of substance abuse or mental health problems. Many are stuck on long waiting lists for public housing.
"If you or I lost our job and had health problems, we would probably know half a dozen people who could lend us money or have us sleep in their spare room to tide us over," says Smith. "But if you have had a disadvantaged upbringing and don't have that social capital to draw on, it is almost impossible to get out of that situation."
Through the brightly lit windows of a home across the street, Morgan and I watch a mother at her kitchen table serving pasta to two young sons. Morgan says that she dreams of one day living in a small cottage with a vegetable garden, hosting dinner parties and making clothes on her sewing machine. Still, she has mixed feelings about leaving behind the life of a car feral.
"This car has stood between me and injury on more than one occasion. So part of me will miss it, but part of me is kind of over it as well ..."
When I phone Morgan six weeks later, she's back in Byron Bay and living in a youth hostel. She tells me that she ended up gifting her car to the army for use in training exercises and has since been staying with friends or in hostels, and catching buses.
"I do miss the car, though," she says. "It feels like an amputation."
In Lake Macquarie …
ON A bright day in Lake Macquarie, south of Newcastle, I meet Cindy Prior and her partner, Anthony Cuskelly, who have been living together in their car for the past four years. In the glove compartment of their old grey Holden sedan sits a worn directory of welfare services and a pink DVD holder in which Prior, 31, keeps photographs of herself as a young girl, smiling, with her hair in pigtails.
In the back seat is a black garbage bag overflowing with clothes, a worn copy of the Women's Weekly Experience Australia guidebook and a plastic bucket of unwashed potatoes. "Here, let me make some room for you," says Cuskelly, 45, pushing the bucket to one side. Cuskelly wears tracksuit pants and a T-shirt over his lean frame. Prior's hair is pulled back and she's missing a tooth in the top row. They're both wearing dark sunglasses. It's a glary afternoon and they're tired after another restless night in their car.
We're going for a drive. I meet them at the headquarters of Macquarie Care's Our Backyard program that provides a secure parking area there for people sleeping in their cars overnight, along with access to showers, food and toiletries.
Community program manager Peter Di Girolamo says they receive about five cars a night. Their guests are usually men with underlying mental health issues, who have lost their jobs or been kicked out of home. Housing affordability is also a growing problem in the area. "This is not a solution: it is a Band-Aid fix," he says. "We just want to be a place where they can relax, chill out and not get moved on by other people."
Cuskelly opens his car boot, which is packed tight with blankets, a gas stove and a tent, for the times when they camp overnight in nearby bushland. Most nights, he and Prior sleep in their sedan side-by-side – she curls across the back seats while he lies atop a bed of clothes stuffed into the recess beside her. Having sex in the car is "manageable but hard", Cuskelly says. Adds Prior: "I get worried about people looking in the windows, so I cover them up with jumpers."
We drive, with the petrol gauge hovering above empty, to a mint-green housing commission weatherboard where Cuskelly's mum lives. Prior sits in the front passenger seat, her feet sharing the footwell with a jar of sugar.
"We're always moving. It is too depressing sitting around in one place for too long. But you think you're moving and you're not."
We park on the ragged front lawn, where they spend many nights, sleeping with the car cloaked in an old tent cover for privacy. Cuskelly says his mother doesn't want them staying inside the house, as they don't get on. He sits in the driver's seat rolling cigarettes, while Prior tries to download movies on her tablet computer, using the house's wireless internet connection.
The path that brought them to this life is littered with family breakdowns, foster homes, poverty and crime. They met at a friend's place, fell in love and soon after, in 2012, had a baby who died when he was a day old. Five months later, they were evicted from public housing, in part because of a dispute over rent, they say
Their days are a struggle from one welfare payment to the next. They sometimes resort to scrounging for cigarette butts or discarded fresh food in supermarket bins. Prior says she is tired, upset and angry about living in a car. "It makes you lethargic, it just drains you." Rainy days are better. They have coffee and cigarettes, and watch a movie on their computer. "We put the tent cover over the car and lock the world out. It's nice to go away," says Prior.
As we drive off, she pulls her childhood photographs from the glove compartment and talks about having been in the school choir, about wanting to be a famous singer with a recording career, riches and a mansion. "You just assume when you're young that you're going to be all right," she says.
ONE CONSTANT that defines the car dwellers I come across is how different their stories are. Support service workers tell me about women and children fleeing family violence, forced to huddle together across their back seat. I hear about a female solicitor down on her luck, who slept in her car for several weeks. And a family of four – with two teenage sons –who have been dossing in an old bus, without a bathroom or electricity, on a property near Windsor, west of Sydney, since their house burnt down.
I speak on the phone to a woman in her 60s who lives with her husband in an old caravan in Sydney's far west that they tow behind their car. He has dementia and suffers from constant anxiety but she doesn't want him in a nursing home. "I want every moment with him I can."
A change of fortune
IT'S LATE afternoon when we return to Our Backyard. Cuskelly and Prior have missed out on the prime parking spot, next to an external power point. It's been grabbed by Ben Campbell, an unemployed builder's labourer.
The 35-year-old has been sleeping in his car for about two months, since a family dispute with his brother forced him to leave the home where he had lived with his mother. A subsequent road-rage incident left him stressed and unable to work. Securing emergency housing through government departments is "next to impossible", he says.
Campbell seems bewildered by his sudden shift in fortunes. "You can go from having a normal life one day to this the next – homeless and sleeping in your car." He shows me how he sleeps, with his knees bent along the back seat of his Barina. By his bed is a plastic tub filled with muesli bars, paper plates and apples. In the boot is a 12-volt solar charger, Wi-Fi dongle and folded picnic table.
Some nights he parks near a creek and fishes for his dinner. Other nights he comes here to eat and sleep. He's made a life of sorts in this small white sedan.
"It's horrible, but I'm really optimistic, even on my bad days," he says. "I'm unsure about what's going to happen next but I'm hopeful that things will work out. If you can be happy with nothing, you can be happy with anything. It's the only way to get by."