Canberra mother Alicia O’Neill has felt her heart break many times over the past four months, but says her distress peaked when her young daughter asked her a painful question.
“Where are we going, Mummy?,” Alicia said her four-year-old asked.
“I don’t know, baby,” she replied honestly.
“Well, Mum, we can’t drive forever,” the young girl responded from the back seat.
Up until then, Alicia had told Mia she was on “an adventure”. In reality, Alicia and her partner Brendon Fuller had been homeless for months, with Mia and her 13-year-old brother Paul in tow.
“It can happen so quickly.
“We have gone to homeless shelters, caravan parks for a week or two, we’ve couch-surfed, we’ve slept in sheds, we’ve slept on floors, we’ve slept in cars.”
The family had to move out of their rental property in March and have had nowhere to call home ever since, surviving on an income-support payment.
Canberra remains Australia’s most expensive capital city for rentals, which Alicia said made it pointless for her family to apply for a property in the private market.
Her efforts to gain public housing, or even emergency accommodation, have been equally futile.
The 32-year-old said she first applied to be added to Housing ACT’s waiting list in 2016, but the government service had since removed her from the list, telling her to reapply.
Housing ACT’s average wait time for a priority case is 375 days — much longer than the national average.
In a message seen by the ABC, Alicia also reached out to ACT Homelessness Minister Rebecca Vasserotti over social media.
Ms Vasserotti was unavailable for an interview with the ABC, but a government spokeswoman said her office could not comment on individual cases.
“Housing ACT supports everyone who submits a public housing application to ensure they correctly provide mandatory documentation for their application to place them on the waitlist,” the spokeswoman said.
“For anyone experiencing homelessness or seeking emergency housing, please contact OneLink.”
However, Alicia said she had contacted OneLink countless times.
“What do we do now? What do we do next? What hope have we got?” she asked.
“We have had pages of places that we have called in Canberra and New South Wales. Everywhere’s books are closed … they’re at capacity with the amount of homeless there are.
Alicia said her partner Brendon had wanted to return to work in construction to help put a roof over their heads but, with so much upheaval, they cannot be sure where he should apply for work, as the family has looked for housing as far afield as Cooma.
The lack of a permanent residence also meant Mia could enrol in kindergarten, while 13-year-old Paul, who has autism, has not attended school for a year.
“My son has talked about self-harm. He went to the doctor at the age of 13 last week and asked for antidepressants because he doesn’t want to do this anymore,” she said.
Alicia said it was heart-breaking watching her children suffer, which was worsened by the stigma of being homeless.
“Some people automatically think that because you’re homeless you’re a bad person, or there’s something wrong with you, or you’re here because of your own problems,” she said.