a portrait of a man wearing a blue checked shirt and a cap

Welfare agencies hand out tents on the Atherton Tablelands as housing crisis povertys

Most newcomers to Mareeba are enticed by wide open spaces and the promise of at least 300 sunny days a year but, like the rest of regional Australia, it too has a rental crisis.

For Guy Closeset, the lure was the prospect of somewhere better to live than in a tent or beneath the condemned building of a disused school in Atherton.

“[My partner] was kicked out of where she was staying and I didn’t want her to be on the street by herself, so I ended up staying with her,” he said.

The couple had been in the Atherton Tablelands, which has one of the lowest rental vacancy rates in Queensland, at 0.2 per cent.

Mr Closet was already living precariously, having lost work when the pandemic broke out.

“I was staying with my mum but I was more couch surfing,” the experienced warehouseman and laborer said.

“I was sleeping in the front room, you know, and then I met my partner.”

A crowded market

The move to Mareeba, a larger centre, has allowed Mr Closet and his pregnant partner to live more securely in a caravan at a tourist park, at a cost of $260 a week, while they search for a house.

But Mareeba’s rental vacancy rate is only marginally less tight – 0.3 per cent according to the Real Estate Institute of Queensland.

Robert Larkin says it’s become difficult to find properties for those in need.(ABC Far North Queensland: Christopher Testa)

“A lot of properties that were rented are now being sold, and the new owners are living in them,” Robert Larkin from Mareeba Community Housing said.

Mr Larkin, a housing supervisor who works with those experiencing homelessness, said his organization had about 200 clients on its books at any one time.

He knew of one woman spending 60 per cent of her income on rent.

No emergency accommodation

The shortage of available rentals has made it harder for housing organizations to provide emergency shelter for those in need.

Many have resorted to handing out tents to families with nowhere to go.

Miriam Newton-Gentle, ministry worker and leader of the Salvation Army on the Atherton Tablelands, said the lack of crisis options magnified the problem in the rural area.

“One of the big things is we have absolutely no emergency accommodation,” she said.

“We’ve got small hotels and motels but they can’t take people long term, so when people are rendered homeless, they are absolutely homeless.”

A blanket has been left beneath a wooden staircase of a Queenslander-style building
A camp set up beneath an abandoned building in Cairns.(ABC Far North Queensland: Brendan Mounter)

Mr Larkin said caravan parks were traditionally the “go-to” accommodation crisis of choice for providers in the Tablelands as they were an “easy transition for people who are sleeping rough”.

“But right now, caravan parks are full because we have a lot of travellers coming through with their own camper wagons and so there isn’t as much available,” he said.

“This is probably as tough as it’s been.”

A shortage of homes

The closest crisis accommodation to the Tablelands is in Cairns, just a short drive away.

But Far North Queensland’s largest center is battling the same problem and places are hard to come by.

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