Single Dad suddenly homeless: how we could help

21 August 2023 11:30AM

After the sale of their long-time rental property, single dad Michael suddenly found himself homeless. He moved his teenage kids into a two-bedroom caravan in Brisbane’s northside, and started searching for a solution. Thanks to our Helping Hand Initiative, Michael is now happily in his own home, not far from the caravan park. With Father’s Day coming up this Sunday, we visited Michael to ask how having a safe place to call home has changed his life, his kids' lives, and his experience as a dad.

The first thing Michael’s 14-year-old son Zane did when they arrived at their new home was whip out his camera phone. “We were walking around the house, and I just remember Zane filming the new place to send to his friends,” says Michael, smiling. Ashleigh, 11, was a little more subdued. She hadn’t told anyone that they’d been living in a caravan, and as a result hadn’t had friends over for a year. But just recently, says Michael, she had a sleepover with her girlfriends in the new house.

It’s the little things that a parent notices: your child not wanting to have friends over. Not having proper space to store their clothes, or not doing their homework because there’s no internet. Skipping school. In the depths of his financial struggle, Michael didn’t have enough money to even send his kids to sport – and for two award-winning athletes, that was a loss felt keenly by all.  For the year the family spent at the caravan park, life was about survival. And survival is not a mode you can stay in for too long before it breaks you.

Thankfully, May 2022 brought the end of survival mode for Michael and the kids, when a three-bedroom unit became available in Bridgeman Downs via the Queensland Government’s Helping Hand Headlease initiative. It was a short drive from the children’s school, tucked into a quiet suburban housing estate, surrounded by gumtrees and friendly neighbours. Their new home is a welcome oasis: it’s cool, quiet, peaceful. Michael mentions a few times how wonderfully dark it is at night-time -- “There’s only one streetlight!” he shows us enthusiastically – and you begin to understand how busy the caravan park must have been. Inside the house and there’s a cosy living room where they all hang out and play Wii tennis on the Nintendo, a generous kitchen where Ashleigh has taken up baking, and their own private bedroom and bathroom upstairs. They all finally have the privacy to switch off survival mode and relax.

Michael shows off his photo board, covered in photos of his teenagers as toddlers
Michael shows off his photo board, covered in photos of his teenagers as toddlers

The factors that led to Michael being homeless made up the perfect storm.  When their previous house was sold by its owner, Michael found himself up against dozens of applicants for a new rental apartment. “I had to prove that my income was three times the rental price,” says Michael. With the average rental cost being around $400, that meant Michael needed to prove that he earned $1,200 a week in income. And, as a house painter, that wasn’t always the case. Michael says he put in hundreds of applications for rental properties. But time crept away, and they had to leave: his furniture was placed in storage, and with nowhere else to go, they rented a visitor’s cabin at the local caravan park. It was extremely basic but between the storage and caravan rental, was still costing him a whopping $650 per week. Michael gave each of kids a bedroom, and he set his bed up in the living room. The three of them shared a tiny bathroom, big enough for one person at a time. “Ashleigh said to me, ‘Well, Dad, it’s better than the car’,” said Michael.

Parallel to this, Michael’s former partner had moved out quite suddenly. She left Michael to care for the children alone, and so alongside his work as a handyman, builder, and painter, he was suddenly a single dad. Costs were banking up. The kids’ health was neglected, and he begun the costly journey of getting them well again. Ashleigh alone needed thousands of dollars of dental work, while Zane’s size 13 feet required special soccer boots. Drowning in debt, unable to strategise his next move, Michael reached out to the children’s school counsellor for help. Through Encircle, a not-for-profit family services group who help people on the brink of homelessness, and then the Chermside Housing Service Centre, Michael was finally offered a head lease on his current unit. He went to inspect the property, and a few weeks later, they moved in.

Nintendo Wii controller
Michael and the kids finally have the room to play Wii games – their favourite hangout time with Dad.

The program that gave Michael this opportunity is called Helping Hand, which works on a simple premise: the Queensland Government lease a private rental property through a real estate agent and sublease it to the applicant. At the end of the lease term, if the lease has been successful, the Queensland Government will work with you and the real estate agent to transfer the lease. That allows people like Michael, who was finding himself unable to get a foot in the door, a grace period to settle in, save some money, and find a rhythm with his finances. Michael had an application in with social housing which was approved, but as he said, “This has given us another option.” Because unlike social housing, Michael is now officially in the slipstream of the rental market, with a proven rental record, and a satisfied property owner who has not only found a single dad desperate for the opportunity to provide safe shelter for his kids – but an expert handyman who, without question or payment, fixes anything and everything he can.

“See that wall there? It had a hole in it,” says Michael, pointing to a seemingly perfect wall. “I couldn’t look at it any longer!” He shows us another wall, that had marks from a television being fixed to it by a previous tenant – fixed. A dripping tap in the laundry – fixed. Smudges of paint from a previously sloppy painting job – fixed. “That tree outside is my next project,” he says, frowning at a gum tree in his front porch. “The roots are going to mess with the concrete if it gets any bigger.”

With broad, tanned hands and the easy-going nature of someone with a lifelong love for fixing and tinkering, Michael is a joy to spend time with. His two kids are shy, big grins but less keen to look you in the eye. They are wary, the lasting mark of a year spent in uncertainty. Michael tells us that during the first lockdown, he had to take his kids to work with him. They’d sit in the car. Some clients would spot them and insist they come inside to watch some TV and have afternoon tea. Other clients would send Michael home, complaining that it was a ‘bad look’ to have the kids on the worksite. You begin to understand the impossible situation he found himself in. But Michael is gracious, and patient, and kind. He is hesitant to complain about anything, and it’s only when we press for details that he tells us more about living at a public caravan park. “It was the park rules that they couldn’t be left unattended, and I wouldn’t anyway,” says Michael.

Photo of a child with a dog
A younger Ashleigh stands with former pet, Lady, at their old rental property. Lady was sadly put down last year.

When Michael started his house-painting business in 2011, Brisbane was hit by historic floods, leaving people like him homeless or living in mould-ridden houses. He gave everyone – every single customer -- a significant discount on his services. When his last home was being sold by the owner, he offered to repaint the entire property, inside and out, in preparation for sale. That’s just the kind of guy Michael is: if he sees a way he can help, he will. Over the course of the interview, it became increasingly obvious that the common misconception of social housing tenants as messy, unreliable, problematic tenants couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s hard to imagine someone more trustworthy and deserving of a home than Michael and his kids. “We are so grateful for housing and owner for giving us a head lease,” said Michael in an email to the department. “We won't ever let either party down and we will take care of the property like it is our own.”

A pen engraved with 'Happy Fathers Day'.
Michael shows off his Father’s Dad gift from a few years ago.

Looking ahead, Michael has a simple plan: increase his income, save some money, and apply for another 12-month lease once his current lease expires. With a safe and secure home base, kids have more stability, and he has home internet and resources to manage his business. His living room leaves bittersweet clues of a loving dad: on an armchair, a stack of video games he plays with the kids (“I turn on the TV and I hear their steps on the stairs behind me,” he says, grinning) and a noticeboard with ‘love’ written across the top, covered in photos of the kids as curly-hair toddlers playing in the yard of their old house. It feels like an homage to a happier, easier time. Ashleigh says she wants to make another photo board soon, maybe a sign of the growing optimism in the family.

It's Father’s Day on Sunday. When asked what he was going to do, his face lights up. “Well, the kids know about it, which is a good start!” he laughs, “But I don’t know what we’ll do. Maybe go roller-skating?” Previously when they went skating, their reward for attending a full week of school, he’d just watch. He says that now they have a bit more money in the household, he’s finally able to afford to join them. “They’ll run rings around me!” he says happily. It’s the little things a parent notices.

If you are experiencing homelessness, or are having trouble paying your rent, the Queensland Government has a variety of services available to assist.

If you are a private homeowner who is interested in leasing your home to the Queensland Government to help people like Michael, we look forward to hearing from you! Click on the link below to find out more about our Help To Home program.