He has one of the best-known faces in the city, but few people are more unseen than the Newcastle homeless man.
The ranks of those on the streets have swollen, volunteers say, and each sunset brings unease for those seeking shelter for the night.
Most of the city’s homeless live quiet, peaceful lives, but a turf war has made the old Newcastle Post Office a virtual no-go zone.
HIS name is Peter.
In the absence of another name, that is what the woman who feeds and cares for Newcastle’s most recognisable homeless man calls him. It took two years for him to speak to her. Few get that far.
Samantha Banks, founder of Newcastle Night Angels, sees the best and worst of people on her city’s streets.
The internet teems with footage of Peter; an online cottage industry has formed around YouTube clips of “the Newcastle bum”, or “Newcastle hobo”. People train their mobile phones on him. Some nights, Ms Banks is his only defence.
“When I first started, there was a guy peeing on him,” she said.
“I grabbed him and screamed ‘look what you’ve done. This is a person’.”
That he’s a person, and matters, is the last thing Peter hears each night that Ms Banks holds his hand and tucks him into a pallet of blankets between shopfronts on a city block. To her, he’ll say goodnight back. It was through Ms Banks that Peter declined an interview with the Newcastle Herald but gave permission to use his image.
“He doesn’t read the papers.”
The outer limits of Peter’s days are a few blocks that he walks, hair long and greasy, clothes rotting and ribboning until he can be cajoled into a trim and an outfit. Pedestrians and commuters stare, cross the street and wrinkle their noses. Some exchange looks.
“There was a guy peeing on him. I grabbed him and screamed ‘look what you’ve done. This is a person’.”
- Samantha Banks, Newcastle Night Angels founder
Those who offer notes, cigarettes and shoes are blanked or rebuffed with a raised hand. A press photo of a visiting politician with Peter ghosting through the background led to accusations of a stitch-up. One Christmas Day, a reporter armed with a box of chocolates went in for a photo.
“Pete threw them at him,” Ms Banks said.
The mystery of one of Newcastle’s most seen, least known men gives rise to theories. He’s really rich, is one. He’s a fake, accuses a YouTuber who “caught” him eating a store-bought snack. He’s no stranger to tragedy, is the consensus.
Ms Banks knows what her friend confides but that isn’t what matters to her. Bearing sandwiches, juice boxes and bananas (his favourite), she and her team are ever ready to shield Peter from the next storm, carload of slurring well-wishers or group of kids seeking a target to spray-tag.
In the five years to the 2011 census, homelessness in NSW grew by one fifth and, while the figures since then are rubbery, support groups say the problem is growing.
“It’s got worse since then,” Homelessness NSW interim chief executive Digby Hughes said.
“They are frightening figures.”
“It’s got worse. They are frightening figures.”
- Homeless NSW interim chief executive Digby Hughes
Homelessness in Newcastle and the Hunter is driven by the familiar spectre of unemployment and a lack of affordable housing.
On the social housing waiting list, the wait for a one bedroom flat in Newcastle is two to five years. The wait for a two bedroom flat is a decade, as it is in the Lake Macquarie and Port Stephens districts. Neither Muswellbrook nor Scone have anything for two years.
There are quirks of geography at play, like an influx of out-of-towners into Newcastle because all the cheap rooms in some towns have been taken by workers on coastal road projects. Others board trains, lured by Newcastle’s reputation of friendliness to rough sleepers compared with Sydney.
To the long-term unhoused like “Sharky”, 50, fishing from Queens Wharf most nights, a flotilla of recruits has been added. Some recent arrivals to the dilapidated old Newcastle Post Office, where Sharky had been sleeping, have brought a new layer of tension.
“These people come in here making a mess, shooting up, doing drugs, pulling bongs,” Sharky said.
“No one can go there now.”
“No one can go to the post office now.”
- “Sharky”, homeless man
Some of Sharky’s nightly fishing companions have been forced from their dwellings by rising rents, others are itinerant young “travellers”.
Billy, 23, dreams of heading north for a while. Years of toxic family fighting culminated in him leaving home a few weeks ago.
Even before the post office turf war – which volunteers, who now steer clear, blame on a few belligerent drug users – he felt the strain of sleeping rough.
“I don’t see myself as homeless. I’m only homeless for now,” Billy said.
“There are people heaps worse off than me. But what I’ve found is you never get a good sleep. You finally nod off and people come past making a racket, being smart arses. Some of the cops are all right, some of them hassle you.”
The worst time, says Brian, 38, off the drink and ice for a week now and hoping it’s for good this time, is the window from 5pm to 9pm.
“That’s the worst time, especially when you’re trying to get clean. It’s really tiring. If you were at home you’d be watching TV.”
Brian holds down a job with an understanding boss as he wrestles a multi-pronged addiction.
“That’s the worst time [5pm to 9pm] especially when you’re trying to get clean. It’s really tiring. If you were at home you’d be watching TV.”
- Brian, homeless man
It culminated in Brian attempting suicide in Sydney’s Kings Cross by overdosing on synthetic cocaine.
He learned long ago to avoid group politics, but has found a sort of integrity on the street. Give a cigarette today, you’ll be offered one tomorrow.
On his first night, a fellow sleeper offered “a blanket, brah”.
“He didn’t have to do that.”
It’s not all gloom, says Edson Santos, a volunteer with Night Angels.
Those who gather at the volunteers’ hatchback for tea, coffee and sandwiches bro-hug and backslap and greet each other with cackled joy.
“Sometimes I find them less depressing than my friends,” Mr Santos said.
You see them at Hamilton Station in the evening, moving in groups, sharing smokes, beanies, jackets, a dog or two among them, making for the benches and nooks of the platform in the setting sun, stepping around the baseball capped young men from Hamilton South who prowl the car park after dark.
“Sometimes I find them less depressing than my friends.”
- Edson Santos, Newcastle Night Angels volunteer
Pete Toogood, in his 50s, has been riding the train between towns since it became clear his accommodation in Sydney wasn’t safe. He’s from Melbourne. He never meant to end up in Newcastle.
“I barracked for Essendon,” Mr Toogood said, lighting up a cigarette.
“I used to get to every game at Windy Hill. I used to be a member.”
A kind of homeless person’s daytrip can be unlocked by sneaking onto a train and stepping off at Gosford or Central. Some ride as far as Wollongong. A brush with the guards is costly and traumatic, and can be deftly avoided with a well-timed trip to the toilet.
The recent storms haven’t been so bad, a man named Ricky said, if you’ve been able to find a dry stairwell or a piece of plastic. The rain clears the streets, added his friend, and lengthens your odds of a stray kick in the ribs. He made a point about “the Asians” stopping to take photos, but didn’t find much support.
It can be hard to sort the homeless from the rest. Night Angels’ Caitlin Bate, handing out sandwiches in Ziplock bags with her son Nathan, has quickly figured out who is in need and who is a drug dealer to be fobbed off without so much as a bottle of water.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics identified 26,224 people aged 12 to 24 as homeless in the last census, but that didn’t include those who stay with friends or extended family rather than live on the streets.
“Neither the ABS nor other researchers have been able to establish a robust method to more reliably estimate homeless youth staying with other households,” the report said.
“This is a major concern for policy makers and service providers.”
Sleeping at friends’ places keeps you going, agreed Luke and Dean, two teenage mates sharing an ecstasy comedown, until the offers of couches dry up.
Uptown, Peter ended his vigil in a bus shelter and went to bed with his shoes on. Samantha Banks finished her cigarette and cupped his grey head in her hands.
“Ah, Pete,” she cooed.
“Everyone knows you.”