If you’ve ever been to Newtown Festival, you know that it’s a one-of-a-kind ordeal. A yearly event organised by the amazing people of the Newtown Neighbourhood Centre, it’s a date that has always held a prime position in the Inner West calendar. And it always will.
It’s a time and place where everyone is welcome, which is why it’s so easy to fall in love with – but for all its street cred, many festival goers would never have had the pleasure of meeting the locals who work so hard to put it on.
Liz Yeo is the woman in charge of Newtown Neighbourhood Centre, a driving force behind the organisation’s numerous programs seeking to help the most desperately vulnerable members of our lively community.
Ahead of the big festival, we sat down to find out what else the NNC has been up to.
Outside of the spectacular Newtown Festival, Newtown Neighbourhood Centre does countless wonders for our beautiful little community.
HAPPY: Hey, how are you? What are you up to at the moment?
LIZ: I’m getting excited as we race towards the 2017 Newtown Festival! We’re also getting ready to celebrate a big milestone – the 40th anniversary of Newtown Neighbourhood Centre!
HAPPY: Awesome! For all that you do, I think there are still too many people in Newtown who wouldn’t know that the NNC exists. For them, could you run through what you do on a day-to-day basis?
LIZ: At NNC we provide a wide range of programs and services, particularly focused on people at risk of homelessness and/or social isolation. Every weekday we are open to provide information and referral services for anyone who walks through our door, and they can also access a phone, computers, printing etc. About 70 percent of the people who seek assistance have issues related to housing. There are also a range of activities which are on offer at the Centre, like tai chi, the knitting group, art group…
We have a team of staff who outreach to around 250 people living in Boarding Houses throughout the Inner West – these residents are at risk of homelessness as some houses can be in very poor shape, and they do not have the same rights they have in other forms of housing. They assist them to find more suitable housing if needed, or to retain their housing if it is appropriate. They also support Boarding House residents in relation to other issues such as health, education, employment and community connections. We also work with people in social housing in the Newtown area, and have recently started co-ordinating a monthly outreach to rough sleepers in Newtown, working with other services in the area.
HAPPY: I heard that last year, you helped almost 500 people find housing, which I think is pretty incredible. What do you think is a major misconception, or just a point of false information, around homelessness which you want to get the word out about?
LIZ: I think a major misconception is that homelessness means sleeping rough on the streets – while this is a very public sign of homelessness, there are growing numbers of people who are the ‘hidden homeless’. These people may be couch surfing with friends or acquaintances, or sleeping in their cars. The other issue is that it often seems to be one incident or trigger such as an accident at work, or the loss of a job or relationship, which can cause someone to become homeless, especially with the current cost of housing in Sydney. The reality now is that while some people may be more at risk, anyone can become homeless.
HAPPY: Is there somebody’s story that you would like to share?
LIZ: We recently assisted Sam and her daughter Marina. They are a good example of the situation I described. When Sam’s husband left them, they were in private rental and could suddenly no longer afford the rent. For a while they relied on being able to stay at friend’s places but this was not a long term solution. Eventually they ran out of options. They were even told when they called a helpline for accommodation that nothing was available and they might need to find a tree they could sleep under. They went to Lentil as Anything to get a meal, and someone there suggested they come up to the Neighbourhood Centre.
Our team were able to provide them with face to face support and information, and to link them up with the right people in housing. Within a matter of weeks they were placed in social housing. The waiting time for social housing in NSW is normally around 10 years. When I ran into Marina at the Neighbourhood Centre the other day she told me that even though she had a really bad cold she could not wipe the smile off her face. She said it just feels so good to go to a place that is home at the end of the day.
HAPPY: What can the average resident do to help?
LIZ: There are several ways in which local residents can get involved. You can donate to support our work, attend our events (like the Festival), shop at our Saturday markets, hire our rooms, become a volunteer and visit someone who is socially isolated, or sign our petition on the website for more affordable housing for Sydney!
HAPPY: What other campaigns are you running at the moment?
LIZ: Along with many other organisations and the Sydney Alliance, we are continuing to support the ongoing campaign for higher affordable housing targets in all new developments in Sydney. In their draft plans the Greater Sydney Commission has included a 5 percent target for affordable housing in these developments, and we think it should be 15-30 percent. Sydney needs 100,000 more affordable homes.
We are also currently involved with the Tenants Union Renters Rights campaign, seeking an end to ‘no grounds’ evictions of renters.
HAPPY: Your government funding has been dropped this year, which I think is quite terrible. If people wanted to lend a hand, where is the best place?
LIZ: The way government funds community organisations has changed significantly with changes like the NDIS reforms. This has led us to close our small disability program, and has impacted our overall funding level. If people would like to support what we are doing they can simply jump on our website and hit the donate button, or give generously at the gates at Newtown Festival!
HAPPY: We’re very thankful for Newtown Festival! Can you tell us a little about how the it all started?
LIZ: The Festival started just a year after NNC started, so next year it will be a 40 year old festival – something we think is a pretty amazing feat – to have a festival that has run continuously for all that time and is almost middle aged! It was started as the major fundraiser for the Neighbourhood Centre, and we are always humbled and so thankful for the incredible generosity of everyone who performs and gives their time for our cause.
HAPPY: I really love that you’ve made the music program 100 percent local this year. Where or when did that decision come along?
LIZ: Earlier this year we got a bunch of people together who have been involved in the festival as partners, sponsors, volunteers, or stallholders. We went back to the basics of why we do the festival and what we want to achieve through it. Obviously a key goal for us is to ensure that the Festival does raise a significant amount of money. But we also want to promote a Newtown story in all we do. We love this place. We love the fact that so many musicians, and artists and other creative people call Newtown home (even if sadly they can’t all now afford to live right here!). So with the new team working on the event this year we agreed to ‘bring back the local’.
HAPPY: What are you looking forward to most this year? Are there any surprises still in store?
LIZ: I am really looking forward to the diversity of inner west bands who will be performing this year – I am sure as always I will discover something or someone new – maybe there is a future Sarah Blasko or Whitlams about to be discovered. I also always love the Newtown Locals, who bring their amazing food creations to the event, and then donate all they make to NNC. As for surprises, that always has to be a secret!
HAPPY: And where will be able to find the NNC at this year’s festival? I hope you get to have fun there too!
LIZ: This year we will be in four locations across the site, so that we have the best possible opportunity to interact with lots of festival goers. We will be able to give people information about the festival day itself, as well as about our work, and we are hoping that even Marina and Sam (who I mentioned above) will be with us for some of the time. We will be selling Jo Wallace’s fantastic Humans of Newtown book as well as the Newtown Locals t-shirts and the Newtown Festival water bottles with proceeds from all of these things coming back to NNC!
HAPPY: Well, we’re certainly looking forward to it! Thanks for all that you do.
Newtown Festival is also looking for enthusiastic and passionate people to help spread the good word about NNC and help out at the festival. Previous experience with the festival is great but not essential – new people are always welcomed!