Veronica Tilmouth will do anything to make sure her family members have a roof over their heads — and usually that means sleeping on her kitchen floor.
- Laramba, a remote community north-west of Alice Springs, suffers from a severe housing shortage, overcrowding and water quality issues
- Residents have launched a lawsuit against the Northern Territory Government, the second NT community to do so
- The NT Government’s Housing Minister said there had been historical neglect, but improvement works are planned
Ms Tilmouth’s home — a small brick, three-bedroom house — sits in Laramba, on the edge of the Tanami Desert.
It is a house that usually has more than 10 people staying in it, including her son, her nieces and nephews, and their children.
Her bed is a thin, foam mattress covered in toys and kids blankets. It lays a couple of metres from her kitchen sink and doubles as a lounge during the day.
“Too many people [live] here,” she said, as she watched four of her great nieces and nephews play in the small front yard.
The other rooms are filled with mattresses and bedding for other family members who, without her, would be homeless.
There are about 40 homes in the remote community, 250km north-west of Alice Springs, all managed through the Northern Territory remote public housing system.
Those homes need to accommodate around 350 residents.
It can take years to secure a place, according to residents, meanwhile there is no option to privately rent or buy.
In the summer months, the region is excruciatingly hot and in the winter, bitterly cold.
Shelter is critical to survival and often families are forced to pile into the small, aging homes that litter the community.
For years, Ms Tilmouth was also living with a series of maintenance issues; a leaking sewage system, taps that did not work, and a toilet that would not flush, she said.
Tradespeople could take weeks or months to come out.
Veronica Tilmouth’s grand-niece and nephews play outside her home. (ABC News: Isabella Higgins)
The community’s water supply also contains potentially toxic amounts of naturally occurring uranium.
The water used in every home contains more than double the amount of uranium than is recommended in the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines.
According to data previously obtained by the ABC, the NT Government has been aware of it for at least a decade.
“For the little kids, we need it to be better,” she said.
But, for the first time in years, the grandmother is hopeful change might be coming: The community is suing the Government over the state of its public housing and water.
“Every landlord in Australia has a responsibility to ensure that the premises they provide to their tenants are safe and habitable,” solicitor assisting Australian Lawyers for Remote Aboriginal Rights Daniel Kelly said.
“We say that houses that contain drinking water with elevated levels of uranium are not safe and habitable and we say that houses that have long-term issues with plumbing, electricity, lack of air conditioning in a desert environment are not habitable.”
The small Indigenous community of Laramba is located north-west of Alice Springs. (ABC News: Chris Taylor)
The lawsuit was filed this week by The Australian Lawyers for Remote Aboriginal Rights group on behalf of residents against the Northern Territory Housing Department.
Laramba will be the second community to sue the Government for failing to provide reasonable housing after residents of Santa Teresa, a community east of Alice Springs, won an important test case earlier this year, and were paid thousands of dollars in compensation.
“These are not isolated issues,” Mr Kelly said.
“The remote housing crisis in the Northern Territory has been going on for almost two decades.
“People are desperate … this it seems to me the only way that people can hold the Government to account.”
Mr Kelly said they had been approached by other Northern Territory communities interested in similar action.
‘Too many people’
Stephen Briscoe lives in one of the most overcrowded homes in Laramba.
His bright blue, three-bedroom concrete bunker is home to four generations of his family.
“About 14 or 15 people live here … some sleep in the kitchen,” Mr Briscoe said.
“I’ve got too many people, it’s way too crowded, too many grandchildren stuffed in here.
“It’s a bit hard … some people have to sleep outside.”
Stephen Briscoe squeezes four generations of his family into his home. (ABC News: Isabella Higgins)
He was cautious about getting his hopes up about the outcome of the legal challenge.
“I’ve been reporting that my sewage is full and stinky, and it’s been there nearly since Christmas [with] no change,” he said.
Nearly one in five Australians are struggling to afford a house to live in, according to data from the ABC’s Australia Talks National Survey.
The problem is most pronounced in the NT where more than 37 per cent of residents said they were struggling to afford a home.
The Territory also has the highest rate of people who have been homeless, about 18 per cent compared to the average of 12 per cent.
Figures from the Northern Territory Council of Social Services suggest 81 per cent of homeless people are living in overcrowded homes.
Mr Briscoe is also in charge of night patrol in the community and often sees up close the social problems overcrowding can cause.
“We’ve got homeless people living around here,” he said.
“My brother-in-law, he’s living here with us for now. It’s not good … and yeah, [it] makes me sad.”
Stephen Briscoe’s children and partner are four of the 16 people who live in this house. (ABC News: Isabella Higgins)
In a statement, Northern Territory Minister for Housing Gerry McCarthy said he recognised there had been historical neglect of remote housing, but said improvement works were underway in many communities.
“In Laramba 23 homes have been upgraded [since 2016] and three new homes are planned for this year, with work on two already underway,” he said.
He said more than a $124 million a year was spent on essential services in Indigenous communities, with 27 homes in Laramba set to receive major works.
Responding to the issues surrounding uranium in the water, he said the NT Government put “significant effort” into providing safe drinking water.
A Northern Territory Department of Housing spokeswoman said it was working closely with contractors to ensure repairs and maintenance issues were done in a timely manner.
The Australia Talks National Survey asked 54,000 Australians about their lives and what keeps them up at night. Use our interactive tool to see the results and how their answers compare with yours — available in English, simplified Chinese, Arabic and Vietnamese.
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