In the dark of the night, on a humid March evening, Cherylene Campbell opened the rickety front door of her dream house to security guards and was handed a reminder.
- A mother of two teenagers was given two weeks to vacate public housing following allegations of anti-social behavior
- Tenants are usually given at least 60 days’ notice
- There have been eight evictions since January this year, compared to just one eviction between 2018 and 2021
She was to be in the housing court the very next morning to defend herself against numerous allegations of anti-social behavior.
In a matter of minutes, Ms Campbell and her then 14-year-old son were given two weeks to vacate and find a new home in a pocket of Australia where people remain on a waiting list for public housing for up to a decade.
“We tried to get a place in Darwin, so Taylen could stay at school. We tried all the hostels but they were all full. Then, at the last minute, we took what we could and went to Katherine,” Ms Campbell said.
“We just took clothes, my phone, and my chair. That’s all we could take.
The Northern Territory government did not respond to questions by the ABC regarding the whereabouts of Ms Campbell’s belongings.
Decade-long wait for home
Behind a tall wire fence, in a northern suburb of Darwin, the yellow walls of the rundown government-owned home were starting to peel. But to Ms Campbell, and her two teenage sons, the home was a dream come true.
They had waited 10 years for the three-bedroom house with disability access, moving between crisis accommodation centers, public houses, and hostels.
“We finally felt like we could get our life on track. We wouldn’t be homeless, but I think I jinxed myself.”
In a tumultuous couple of months – from September 2021 to March 2022 – while residing in the house, Ms Campbell said she lost both her sister and her unborn baby, which she miscarried at six months.
She said she was in the middle of a dispute with her ex-partner and she was still getting used to using a wheelchair after her leg was amputated.
To make matters worse, a neighbor was filing a string of complaints to the NT government’s Department of Territory Families and Housing and police were turning up at her door.
“She complained about TV late at night, or the boys playing video games… she said I drew a lot of attention to my house, she was complaining about my visitors, my family and friends who would come to help me clean the house or fix the garden because I can’t do it, “she said.
“We couldn’t even have a BBQ without her complaining.
‘Heartless and uncompassionate’ evictions on the rise
Phil Andrews, a solicitor at the Darwin Community Legal Service who has been advocating for Ms Campbell, said evictions of public housing tenants were on the rise in the NT, despite a critical shortage of affordable homes and some of the highest rates of homelessness in Australia .
In the four years between 2018 and 2021, just one public housing tenant was evicted, a spokeswoman from the NT government confirmed.
But since January of this year, there have been eight evictions.
“We’re currently facing three or four of these sorts of cases on very similar grounds,” Mr Andrews said.
“One is a guy with seven children who keeps on getting noise complaints because kids are watching cartoons,
“If anyone from [public] housing comes to us who has been evicted for anti-social behavior, we look into it because there are a lot of systemic issues involved. “
Mr Andrews said his clients often felt victimized and discriminated against by housing staff, and questioned what appeared to be a recent shift in government policy to clamp down on neighborhood disturbances.
“There’s the common trope… [that] it’s impossible to evict a tenant from housing. So I think [the government is] trying to show everyone ‘No, we’re serious about anti-social behavior’. “
A spokeswoman from the Department of Territory Families and Housing said, “It is a requirement for the government that each tenant has a transitional plan to leave the public housing system. This transitional plan will include alternative accommodation.”
Government pays private lawyers to cut eviction time
Ms Campbell said arguments often broke out with visiting family members after she told them they couldn’t stay at her house.
And two requests for mediation were rejected by her neighbor.
Ms Campbell said the first eviction letter arrived in March while she was at her sister’s funeral.
An application had been filed by executives in the Department of Territory Families and Housing and, at a hearing she did not attend, the Northern Territory Civil and Administrative Tribunal gave her and her son 60 days to be out.
But then, following further allegations of anti-social behavior the government briefed the matter out to a private law firm to have the 60-day period reduced to two weeks.
In the Northern Territory, there is a 60-day notice period for the end of all tenancies.
Ms Campbell was able to attend the second hearing, but at that time had no legal representation and she said she felt powerless.
“I was at the court by myself… I didn’t have any support to tell my situation. I was nervous. I felt ‘I’m alone here.'”
Kate Worden, the Minister for Territory Families and Urban Housing said the government had “tightened up” its visitor policy, and sharpened its focus on pre-tenancy to “ensure new tenants have the skills and knowledge to be good public housing tenants”.
“The vast majority of public housing tenants are good tenants but there is a small proportion, along with their visitors, who are disruptive,” Ms Worden said.
“A range of tools are used to respond to complaints about anti-social behavior in public housing tenancies including the Red Card, Visitor Management and Acceptable Behavior Agreement policies. These policies ensure tenants can be held to account for their actions through NTCAT, who are the decision-makers for terminating a tenancy, not the government. “
Evicting into homelessness
Ms Campbell is the first to admit she has a checkered history and a traumatic past.
When she moved into the public housing in Malak, she was bound by an Acceptable Behavior Agreement for six months following 51 allegations of anti-social behavior from a previous residence.
But Mr Andrews said eviction, at a time when affordable homes were scarce, was not the answer.
You’ve got someone who’s using a wheelchair, who’s gone through a huge amount of trauma in her life… and to say, well, because you had some people over and they were drinking and having an argument you, therefore, deserve homelessness, “he said.
“These are ongoing problems from a lack of secure housing… and [evictions are] just going to push the problem to the next house where this person might have friends or family staying. “
For the next two years, Ms Campbell and her son are banned from applying for government public housing, but they hold hope a residence with wheelchair accessibility at the St. Vincent de Paul Society’s Bernard Street housing will become available soon.
Since being evicted a couple of weeks ago they’ve stayed in four different places, and are currently sleeping on a family member’s couch.