Homeless man, Newcastle soup kitchen volunteers say there's no shortage of empathy during housing crisis

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A Newcastle man who lives in an old shopfront and the manager of a nearby soup kitchen say there is a new wave empathy for the homeless as living costs skyrocket and rents soar.

Shane Flemming is one of more than 116,000 people who experience homelessness across Australia on any given night, according to the Salvation Army.

Of those, about seven per cent sleep rough.

Mr Flemming said an untenable living situation forced him from his home at Nelson Bay earlier this year.

He’s been sleeping rough for three weeks in Newcastle’s Hunter Street Mall.

Mr Flemming and four others now call the old shopfront home.

Mr Flemming says there is only so much room in the alcove, but he gives those who can’t be accommodated blankets to take with them.(ABC Newcastle: Andrew Lobb)

“It is pretty cold — two pairs of socks, a sleeping bag,” he said.

“Yeah, it is quite cold.”

Mr Flemming said the alcove had become popular with people sleeping rough, but space was limited.

“Sometimes there are four or five show up, but there is not enough room for them all to stay,” he said.

“I give them a blanket and they go stay somewhere else.”

Mr Flemming has been living in the mall for the better part of a month.(ABC Newcastle: Andrew Lobb)

Mr Flemming said his new home was not ideal, but the generosity and empathy he had witnessed was incredible.

“A fella came last night and he gave me the actual shoes off his feet as he felt that sad and sorry for me,” he said.

“He gave me his brand new shoes, so that is quite incredible, what people offer you while they walk by — blankets, sleeping bags and clothes.”

Mr Flemming said he even received Newcastle Jets A-League gear and a season ticket.

“Yeah, a woman gave me 12 months registration at the Jets, she give me two jumpers, two hats and 12 months registration to the Jets footy club, so that is something different,” he said.

Soul Cafe has 250 volunteers and there are plenty more people eager to help.(Supplied: Soul Cafe)

‘What can I do to help?’

Just up the street from Mr Flemming’s makeshift home is the volunteer-run Soul Cafe.

The not-for-profit operation provides 1,000 meals a week for the needy and vulnerable across Newcastle.

The cafe now has 250 volunteers — more than at any time in its 20-year history.

“People are seeing the needs around them, they’re recognising unusual times with COVID, the housing crisis and cost of living and people are saying, ‘What can I do to help?'” general manager Matthew Ortiger said.

He said it was not just the retired who were pitching in.

“We’re getting volunteers of all ages and we’re probably a bit stronger amongst the female volunteers,” he said.

‘Taking advantage’ during crisis

According to CoreLogic, Newcastle’s rental value index had risen by 10.2 per cent in the year to June after a 10.3 per cent increase the year before.

The average tenant for a freestanding house was now paying $70 – or 12.2 per cent – more than at the same time last year.

The NSW Department of Communities and Justice releases wait-times for social housing each year.

Average wait for most social housing across the Upper and Lower Hunter is five to 10 years.

The new Labor government has promised to create a $10-billion Housing Australia Future Fund and task it with building 30,000 new social and affordable housing properties in its first five years.

John McKenzie from the Hunter Tenants Advice Service says the government needs to act fast.

“Some landlords are taking advantage of the housing crisis and the COVID pandemic and it’s very disheartening to have to work with people who suffering extreme disadvantage because of that,” he said.

He has urged landlords to be compassionate.

“Obviously landlords need a return on their properties and we’re not saying they shouldn’t get that,” he said.

“But $100 a week more, when we’re in a crisis — I don’t think that’s people displaying the best behaviour they could be at such times.”