AS I walk through the Miners Rest Caravan Park, on a hot Australia Day afternoon, the sun dances between the trees. The lack of development makes the park feel slightly relaxed and beachside-like. This place seems to run on an alternative time to the outside world.
The first thing I notice in this run-down place is the presence of two narrowly focussed police officers. I do a mental check. No I’m not doing anything wrong, keep walking like a normal person. Though it’s obvious they’re not looking for me.
I wander further. In the heat and warm dust of the park path, the residents seem to blend with their outdoor furniture. Many are making the most of the sun. The clothing of choice is football shorts for men and singlets for women. My shoulders are the only two covered, as far as I can see. Eyes glance up at the obvious outsider, then down.
Caravan number 5, home of John and Sylvia. I knock cautiously on the hand-fabricated door made of pieces of 2 x 4 and shade cloth. “Hello?” John responds. I tell him I’ve heard the caravan park’s days are numbered, due to a major redevelopment, and I’m looking for a resident’s insight.
He insists I come inside. “Take a seat. Would you like a cup of tea?” I make myself comfortable in the handyman-fashioned lean-to. The place is nice.
John Carson has called this caravan park home for almost three years. He says he downsized from his three-bedroom family home in nearby Corinella when the kids grew up, to be closer to his studies at Wonthaggi TAFE.
Regarded by most of the residents of the caravan park as a good guy, John is an interesting character (his family moved to Australia when he was young to escape their relatives’ IRA connections) and strongly opinionated. Which brings us to the proposed development: a petrol station, hotel and three fast food outlets on the corner of McKenzie Street and White Road.
John recalls a dispute with the manager of the caravan park, “This may be your shit-hole, but it’s my home!” he told the manager. Like many of the residents in the caravan park, he simply can’t afford to move out. This is a needed refuge, he says. Without it, many can see themselves ending up on the street.
Across the state and country, caravan parks are being sold for redevelopment, mostly as apartments. As Southern Cross University academic Rod Caldicott noted in a 2013 study, many of Australia’s caravan parks are situated on prime beachfront land. For the owner, selling up for residential redevelopment is a whole lot more profitable than operating a caravan park. Of course the proceeds go to the owners of the park – not the individual owners of caravans and homes.
The Miners Rest Motel and Caravan Park doesn’t fall into the beachside category, but it is situated on a landmark site on the main highway that marks the entrance to the Wonthaggi township. The caravan park isn’t much visited by travellers but provides a permanent home for some of Bass Coast’s most vulnerable residents. For most of them, this is a last resort.
In early February, Realestate.com.au showed just six one- or two-bedroom places for rent in Wonthaggi, with prices ranging from $220-$330 a week. All required a month’s rent ($956-$1430) as bond.
Jessie (not her real name) lives at the Miners Rest Motel with her two sons. “I can’t afford my own place,” she says, “and no-one wants to share a place with a mum and two kids.”
Later, when I catch up with Trevor Tointon, the manager of the caravan park, he says it’s hard work running this place. “It’s like being on the farm: you start work when the sun’s up and finish when it goes down.”
Trevor is unsure about the future of the caravan park. He doesn’t know what he’ll do himself, let alone the 40-plus people he currently caretakes for in the park.
“Everyone needs a place to live, their own space. Many of the people here couldn’t fit in to share houses, let alone pay their bond in advance.”
Across the street from the Miners Rest, resident Mark Robertson says the eight-square metre sign advertising the servo and takeaways will illuminate his lounge room. He objects to the proposed development for several reasons.
“Why does Wonthaggi need another service station? It’ll make the fourth in a one-kilometre radius. And the food. We have a McDonalds, KFC, Subway, now they want three more fast food facilities. And they want to sell fuel next door to a bottle-shop? Come on!”
He mentions the proximity of the fast food outlets to a kindergarten, primary school and high school, meaning hundreds of kids will walk past them every day on their way to and from school.
Then there is the increase in traffic. The flow of traffic from White Road on to McKenzie Street is already busy enough; the placement of the service lane into the service station is obviously going to make it worse.
Mark also objects to the impersonal face that a service station and fast food outlets present to travellers. It could be any highway in Australia. He would like to see this landmark site remain recognisably local, alluding to Wonthaggi’s rich history and culture.
The local ward councillor, Cr Brett Tessari, sees the developments as reasonable due to the nature of the site, between a residential and industrial zone, but did not wish to comment further.
Regardless of the merits or otherwise of the development, Mark Robertson says the residents of the motel and caravan park are going to need somewhere to go, and he doesn’t know of anywhere local available.
A local priest has similar concerns. “The Miners Rest Caravan Park is the dumping ground for a handful of government organisations,” said the priest, who did not wish to be named.
“So many families are moving down from the city because they can’t afford rent there, and when they can’t find work here, the caravan park is where they end up.”
He suggested the need for more homes to be rented out by welfare organisations, paired with community development and re-integration services, to help people reconnect with the community.
Cr Geoff Ellis said declining funding for public housing by state and federal governments over many years meant the Miners Rest Motel was the only emergency accommodation currently available in Bass Coast and South Gippsland. “Homelessness is increasing everywhere as affordable and subsidised housing decreases. The waiting list is huge – people spend years waiting in insecure accommodation, couch surfing, sleeping in cars, hanging around in malls.”
The latest statistics from the Victorian Housing Register show a total of 1273 people waiting for public housing in the Inner Gippsland area in December 2017, although there are no figures showing how many of those were waiting for housing in Wonthaggi or Bass Coast.
According to a note to applicants on the Housing Commission website, “You cannot choose a specific suburb to live in. This is because social housing properties are grouped into areas. Preferred areas are made up of neighbouring suburbs and towns that are linked by public transport.”
Confusingly, Wonthaggi is in a housing area that includes Dalyston, Smiths Beach, Sunset Strip and Yinnar. Depending on their circumstances, applicants might also be offered a place elsewhere in South Gippsland or La Trobe Valley.
John sees eviction from his comfortable park home on the horizon. Before then, he and Sylvia hope to save enough money to start renting privately in the area when the park closes.
Tom McNish is studying journalism at Deakin University.