by guest author Paul Spooner
“How does it feel, how does it feel
To be on your own, with no direction home
Like a complete unknown, just like a rolling stone?”
Bob Dylan, Like a Rolling Stone
Chris Lacaze was a rolling stone and a rough sleeper.
He was the small guy who rolled his wheelchair around the streets of Byron Bay up until his death on 15th September 2018.
Chris was only 64 years of age and a good bloke.
I first met Chris at Byron Community Centre where he would come to access the disabled facilities.
He always had a smile and a good word to say.
A gentle, caring guy who was down on his luck.
I’d often see Chris setting up a makeshift bedroll in the doorway of the local Vinnies store. A place where he felt safe enough to lay his head down for the night.
Chris would strategically place pieces of cardboard along a guard railing to provide shelter and to establish a haven of warmth away from the cold winter wind and rain.
The last time I spoke to Chris was on my way home from work. He bid me “good night” and I replied, “enjoy the bright evening glow of the moon on Marvell Street”.
More than once I thought about the lack of accommodation options for Chris but I knew that none had really existed for him, especially in this world-renowned tourist town. A town where there are more houses listed on holiday-letting platforms than you can poke a stick at.
On the 7th to the 8th of August this year, Chris was one of the 145 people sleeping rough in Byron Shire. They were counted by volunteers, community workers and council staff for the ‘Snapshot of People Sleeping Rough in the Byron Shire’.
This count had identified that 78% of rough sleepers were male and 22% were female. People were sleeping in improvised tents, cars or with no shelter at all and were found in parks, bus stops, shop fronts, on footpaths and in bushland on the town fringes.
The rate of homelessness in the Byron Shire is twice the national average, while the rate of rough sleepers (measured as a percentage of the homeless) stands at six times the national figure.
A similar street count discovered that there were 278 rough sleepers in Sydney’s CBD.
This shocking revelation revealed that Byron Shire’s rough sleeper population is around 50% of those found on the streets of Central Sydney.
So, what should we be doing about this?
- Open emergency shelter and accommodation options in the Byron Shire
- Fund health, addiction, mental health and employment services
- Establish a local support centre for rough sleepers like the Fletcher Street Cottage
- Employ Public Space Liaison Officers to ensure community health and safety
What actions can you take to make this happen?
- Contact local candidates wanting to be elected to state and federal parliament
- Talk to a Byron Shire Councillor
- Donate to existing support programs via the Byron Community Centre or the Mullumbimby Neighbourhood Centre
I also suggest saying “hello” to the people you see on the street to make sure that they are OK.
Human connection costs us nothing, but means everything to those with so little to call their own.
A couple of days after Chris Lacaze died, a small memorial was held at the Homeless Breakfast, at the back of the Byron Community Centre.
People stood in a circle on the Fletcher Street footpath and spoke about how they knew Chris and the beautiful qualities he possessed, how he had touched their lives and all the things that he had taught them about enjoying life while in the face of numerous difficulties. Many rough sleepers were present along with community volunteers including: long-time homeless advocate Gwen Gould, a couple of women from the Sunday Sustainable Bakery who daily gave Chris a pastry or two, and a local Vinnies Store volunteer.
One person who wanted to be there but couldn’t was Tonya Coren, local doctor and friend to the homeless. More than most, she knew of the struggles that Chris had faced as a rough sleeper.
Without people like these, our community would be a much less caring place to live.
Amongst the volunteers and the homeless who gathered to remember Chris, a collection of $125 was raised to buy a plaque in his memory. It will be located on the wall of the community centre at the entrance to the kitchen where the homeless come to be nourished:
64 years old