How different would your life be without a comfortable night sleep? If you had to keep an eye open throughout the night, or risk losing what little belongings you had? Fighting the elements each night. How would you function at work or interact with others? How would you care for your children? Would it affect your decision making and mood? 

Homelessness in Australia is what theorists call a ‘wicked problem’. Every contributing factor is a symptom of another, making it near impossible to solve. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. 

Until recently, most Australians gave the issue little thought because they believed simplistically that homelessness was something that only impacted people fleeing domestic violence situations or those with substance abuse problems. Some even ignorantly believed it was an issue confined to so-called ‘vagrant fringe dwellers’ who chose homelessness as a ‘lifestyle’. 

But during the past three years, in the wake of COVID-19, a perfect storm has developed to pull the rug out from under middle-income households. Homelessness does not discriminate. Australia is being forced to sit up and take heed, as hundreds of ordinary families find themselves homeless through no fault of their own. In the four years to 2021/22, there was a 29 per cent spike in homelessness in regional Queensland. In 2021, according to Census data, there were 408 homeless people living in Bundaberg. 

The cause? It’s a chicken and egg cycle where all the factors are intertwined, and if you fix one problem you risk making another worse.  

Financial stress. There are almost 68,000 households in the federal electorate of Hinkler, where 46.7 per cent of renters and 14.6 per cent of mortgagees are in financial stress. Landlords are increasing rents due to rising interest rates and other costs, which are largely caused by inflation. Women over 55 are the fastest growing cohort of homeless Australians, due in large part to having limited income and minimal superannuation after separation. 

Lack of social housing.  Hinkler, which spans from Hervey Bay to Bundaberg, has the greatest need for social housing in the country – requiring an additional 4900 homes. This means there are more low-income families living in private rental properties, rather than government housing, thereby reducing availability of general rental stock.

Population growth. In 2021, Queensland recorded its highest net interstate migration since 1994. Some of those 57,000 new Queenslanders, as well as many existing residents from the south-east corner, have made the move to Bundaberg. Bundaberg’s population is forecast to grow from 98,000 to 120,000 by 2041. An influx of cashed-up buyers to the Region, has pushed up house prices. Long-term locals seeking to capitalise on strong market conditions are selling their investment properties. As a result, many tenants are being evicted by the new owners who want to live in the house or convert it to a short-term tenancy.  

Short term tenancy. Off the back of overseas travel restrictions, a record number of landlords decided to let their investment properties out for short term holidays via sites like Stayz and Airbnb, rather than accommodating long term tenants. Brisbane City Council plans to impose higher rates on these properties, while the New South Wales State Government has capped the number of days a property can be listed short term. Despite being criticised for being a so-called stick approach, in holiday destinations like Byron Bay it’s already led to many properties returning to long term tenancies. 

Supply shortages. There is a shortage of tradesmen, and there are lengthy delays in receiving materials and building supplies from overseas. Some building companies are booked up to two years in advance. While new Bundaberg residents wait extended periods for their new homes to be built, many are taking up accommodation that would normally be occupied by tourists and renters, resulting in the lowest vacancy rate our Region has ever seen. 

Development constraints. The Property Council of Australia (PCA) said council planning processes that bring land to market were ‘unacceptably slow’ in Queensland, taking more than a decade in many cases. In 2022 they released the special report, A Home for Every Queenslander, which found that councils were increasingly introducing measures that reduced the overall yield in greenfield developments and increased development costs, making it a less attractive investment prospect. 


The PCA has warned that the 2032 Olympics in Brisbane will only make matters worse across the state and ‘the time is now to forestall what could be the biggest housing crisis in the State’s history’. They and many other organisations have advised governments against any policy or taxation moves, fees or red tape that would disincentivise investment by mum and dad landlords or professional property developers. 

Crush Magazine wrote to local politicians and asked them what they are doing to address homelessness in the Bundaberg Region. Their responses varied greatly. While each level of Government has a role to play, the vast majority of housing related responsibilities falls to the State Government. The Labor Government’s capital expenditure on social housing decreased from $414.2 million in 2017/18 to $314.6 million last financial year.

Without providing any level of detail, State Member for Bundaberg Tom Smith told Crush Magazine the Palaszczuk Government was investing in strategically-planned programs aimed to construct more social and affordable housing across Queensland and Bundaberg. He said his office had been on the frontline, helping house people with ‘much success’. “The responsibility to drive better outcomes for those facing hardship in the immediacy falls to the local members. While other elected officials ran after the media, I visited those faces of vulnerability and despair (at Lions Park near the airport),” he said. “All levels of government need to support the private sector as it recovers from the economic pressures of a global pandemic.” 

State Member for Burnett Stephen Bennett, a former builder and Rotarian, has spent the past eight years calling on the Palaszczuk Government to build more social housing, reduce red tape and taxes on development, release land and partner with the private sector.  “In mid-February there were 810 people in the Bundaberg and Burnett electorates on the waitlist for social housing and 93 per cent were very high need,” he said. “The wait is up to two years – you can’t place people in houses if they don’t exist.” He said the State Government had announced a social housing fund two years ago, but no construction announcements had followed, and so the same fund was re-announced in February this year.  

Federal Member for Hinkler Keith Pitt pointed to the $326.6 million the State Government had received in 2020-21 from the then Federal Coalition Government under the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement. “How that funding is utilised is determined by the Queensland State Labor Government, and it should be disclosed how much of this funding has been spent in this Region,” he told Crush Magazine. 

Bundaberg Region Mayor Jack Dempsey said Council was one small part of the larger picture, and highlighted the work they do in the background which extends beyond the typical responsibilities of local government. He said land availability, forward planning, catalytic infrastructure and development incentives put the Bundaberg Region ahead of other local government areas, resulting in local economic growth of 5.37 per cent between 2020 and 2021, compared to 2.31 per cent across Queensland. As at December 2022, Council had approved 2700 lots ready for development, but construction has been hampered by material shortages and trade workloads. Council owns and operates two community housing facilities. Their neighbourhood centres support people through the housing application process and Council actively contributes to state-wide and regional advocacy campaigns. “A collaborative approach is the only way to ensure meaningful impact,” Jack said.         

Caring locals are taking matters into their own hands, forming various action groups and charities across the Region. Thanks to one committed group of residents, businesses and Council, who believe that a good night sleep can make a world of difference, Bundaberg will soon have its very own Sleepbus. 

Sleepbus founder Simon Rowe developed the bus from a Japanese pod hotel concept. Each bus has up to 20 secure, climate controlled, sleep pods with a lockable door and toilet. Everyone is looked after with overnight volunteer caretakers and CCTV surveillance, as well as under bus storage for belongings and pets. 

Queensland Health Mental Health Service Integration Co-Ordinator Jade Law is part of the local working group that helped fundraise the necessary $100,000. After a few fundraising events, Bank of Queensland Bundaberg and RJZ Homes came on board as major sponsors, each donating $10,000. It was an anonymous donation of $50,000 late last year that secured the Sleepbus for Bundaberg. It is expected to be in operation by Winter 2023. 

“The current situation has put such high demand on support services that were already stretched here. We have no women’s shelter. We have one domestic violence shelter. The men’s shelter only has 20 beds,” Jade said. “The Sleepbus is not something that will replace proper services or address the problem in the long-term, but it offers people somewhere safe to sleep right now. If you are experiencing a crisis, you need a good sleep. People who have utilised these buses are able to think clearer and make those high-functioning decisions of what their next steps are.”

The working group is seeking volunteers to fill roles such as drivers and housekeeping. Fundraising efforts will continue to cover any ongoing costs and potentially a second bus.

The sleep bus isn’t a silver bullet, but it’s a start. Only one thing’s certain – homelessness is a complex, wicked problem that all three levels of government, leaders, the private sector and community groups need to work together on if we are to have any hope of fixing what is quickly becoming the single biggest, and most shameful issue of our times.  

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