‘You don’t have to be a low-life’
A CLOUDLESS blue sky yawns above a sports complex, where giddy children are playing on jumping castles and obstacle courses, lining up for sack races with their beaming faces painted with tigers and butterflies. It's your classic, wholesome family scene - but it's not something many of these kids get to experience on a regular basis.
They are "housing people", as one mother puts it. There isn't any spare money for fancy, stimulating activities. In many cases, they're lucky to have a roof over their heads.
It is mostly mothers and children at this free community day in Sydney's west. Jennifer Hudd, 45, tells news.com.au she often feels a looming sense of dread as the school holidays approach. "Come the last week of school, they're all ... they come in and it's, 'Mum, what are we doing for holidays?'"
The teaching aide desperately wants her two girls to aim high, to believe that they can do anything they want, just like their peers born into privilege. That every opportunity is available to them, even after a few unfortunate life events left the family homeless.
"Just because you're a housing person, born a housing person ... you don't have to be a low-life, you can put yourself up the top," she tells news.com.au.
For families with no safety net, a few wrong steps can mean losing everything. Jennifer and her children ended up in a refuge after she lost her job and was "booted out" of her home with nothing but a backpack.
"It was hard at the time," the single mother admits, adding that as a Pacific Islander, she was reluctant to ask her family for help, and was determined to get back on her feet alone.
Many of the women fled family violence with their children, moving into refuges before being placed in public housing. Caroline Morley, 36, left an abusive home with her son Reece, now five, and moved into a shelter before being placed in a tiny unit.
"Reece has ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), he draws on my walls, spills a lot of stuff all over my carpet, but it's home," she tells news.com.au. "We were living in the unit for six or seven months, which isn't really a life for a boy growing."
Sara Hassan*, 35, resorted to living in her car with her sons shortly after giving birth, after she left a violent relationship. She and her boys, who are eight and 20 months, still have nightmares about it today and, like Reece, one has ADHD.
"At the time, we were living in the car and it was just hard," she tells news.com.au. "It was about eight years ago but it still hits hard when we think about it and the struggles we went through.
"I felt I couldn't really go to anyone for help, and that's when you kind of get this idea of - you can't get help, so you don't look around or you don't ask for help because you think there isn't any.
"There was a lot of support. Not a lot of people realise that there is support out there if you just take that step in doing something about it and not feeling like you have to stay. I suppose everyone is different, every situation is different of course."
Sara is now on a pension and hopes to do a course before finding a part-time job once her youngest is two.
One mum, Zena Taha, says she's seen it from both sides because she works for the Department of Human Services as well as living in public housing. Despite her husband working long hours as a security guard, the family struggled because they had four children and were living in a two-bedroom apartment. "My kids were always fighting, they were bored they had nothing to do," she tells news.com.au. "There was no play area, no backyard."
The family was moved from Bankstown to Punchbowl and finally have some space. Zena said she's grateful after hearing how tough some families have it.
"I deal with them face-to-face on a daily basis," she said. "You tend to hear a lot of emotions, a lot of families are really struggling to make ends meet - they're struggling to put food on the table. You feel sorry for them because there isn't much you can do. All you can do is refer them to the agencies.
"I don't know how families do it, there really isn't that much out there.
"It's the school holidays and we've got nothing to do."
There aren't many free events like the one we're at in disadvantaged Blacktown, organised by Mission Australia, Evolve Housing and not-for-profit St George Community Housing. The organisers say many residents don't have much money for entertainment after paying for essentials, meaning the holidays can be a time of huge stress and anxiety for stretched parents. Even worse, it can leave children feeling isolated and overlooked.
Mission Australia Housing executive and director Chris Bratchford said the organisation was aware "it can be challenging for some young people to achieve their potential" without support. "All young people deserve a chance to unwind and have fun during their school holidays, regardless of their background or family circumstances," he added.
Fast-talking Jennifer said she wasn't going to let her children forget it, and said they were studying hard and excelling in sport, with her eldest MK, 15, playing basketball for NSW.
"Ialso wanted to teach my children it doesn't matter where you've come from, it doesn't matter where you are, you got to represent," she said. "There is light at the end of the tunnel and there is hope out there.
"Yeah, I live in housing, but guess what? I have a job, I have kids in high school, representing in sports - you don't have to be a low-life, you can put yourself up the top."