Boarding Houses Of The Inner West - A project by Jo Wallace



11th November 2016

Introduction by Laura La Rosa
Images by Jo Wallace

If you’re an avid Newtown Festival-goer, there is one clear message the organisers want you to have this year, that being, to “have a heart”.

Brought to you by Newtown Neighbourhood Centre (NNC), the non-profit event - set to take place this Sunday 13th of November - will raise awareness and much needed funds to support local residents of this unique community many of us are lucky enough to frequent or call our stomping ground. 

Humans Of Newtown Exhibition

Those familiar with the adored faces and nuances that comprise the extraordinary Newtown neighbourhood, are likely to know of local photographer and storyteller, Jo Wallace; better known to some as the founder of Humans of Newtown. Within the festival’s Heart Zone, Jo will exhibit a visual documentation of residents of some of the 400+ registered boarding houses in the Inner West; home to over 6,500 people at high risk of homelessness.

It’s a different take on her usual street-styled portraits, and one that casts necessary light on a topic close to Jo’s “heart” – that being, the reality that any of us could be just one life-changing event away from severe financial vulnerability. While Jo’s humble and selfless ways continue to shine through her lens, this project also serves as a personal contemplation of life’s turbulence, having recently fought cancer. 

With that, we were lucky enough to grab some time with Jo, where she generously divulged her strong connection and love for the Newtown community, and her objective behind this more-than-worthy project.

You’re well known to local Newtown residents, best known for Humans of Newtown, which you recently turned into a published book. How did the documentation and subsequent exhibition for Newtown Festival come about?

Well, my house backs onto Camperdown Park so the festival pretty much comes to me every year! Unfortunately though there is a bit of a disparity between the cause of the festival, and its iconic and eclectic vibe. It’s renowned for being a fun day, with lots of great art, music, entertainment, as well as the opportunity to showcase great creative talent and food from our vibrant and inclusive community we know and love. 

Some years ago Newtown Neighbourhood Centre asked for a gold coin donation upon entry, which people were happy to give, but no one really knew why they were donating. Many people also know where there centre is but have likely not set foot in the place, let alone understand the work they do.

It’s been a challenge for the festival for some years – how do you promote a fun day out while telling the story of homelessness and lack of affordable housing? So, I offered to try to find a way to connect the two. I hope that through art (photography) and storytelling we can show people one viewpoint that outlines why the festival exists.

I’m also hoping that people will read about it beforehand and dig a little deeper for the cause that any one of us could face at any point in our lives. Often, people don’t realise how frighteningly close any of us could be from doing it rough or ending up on the street.

Can you tell us about the connection with Newtown Neighbourhood Centre and what they do for the community?

The exhibition will showcase one of the programs that NNC offers which is their Boarding House Outreach Service. Ultimately, NNC help those marginalised in our community and this service is just one many of their programs.

The boarding houses are privately owned but NNC reaches out to those people and seeks to ensure they’re OK - helping them to access any necessary services should they need to. I was blown away by just how important this service is to the boarding house tenants, having met with many of them throughout this project.

Many of these tenants expressed that without NNC they’d likely be on the streets. I grew up in poverty myself and believed that I’d have some kind of idea as to what these people are experiencing, but I really didn’t.

I’ve also just been through treatment for cancer, and well, I realised that no one is adverse to getting dealt a bad hand in life. I feel like a consistent thread amongst the stories I heard, was a lack of family around to provide consistent support. I don’t have family in Sydney myself, and am very, very dependent on community support – in a different way to the boarding house tenants, but the community really rallied around me during cancer treatment and I don’t think I could have got through it without that. I know they are very different things, but I do realise how important community is to these people. They can often be socially isolated due to a range of factors, so to have the community reach out on a regular basis is critical. They’re not asking for much and what they need is often the basic things that we all take for granted. Housing affordability is of increasing concern and we are also starting to see the demise of some of these dwellings, making it an increasingly critical initiative. 

How has the project been different from your most commonly known work of documenting people out-and-about?

Oh so different! For a start, when I approach people on the street, I choose who I approach. I try to ‘read’ people before I approach them.

With this project, I was on their turf – I was a stranger coming into their space and enquiring about their lives. I was very aware of that but also hugely grateful that they were willing to disclose their personal stories and allow me to photograph them – often not in very good settings either.

All nine subjects that I photographed and interviewed were incredibly kind, polite and just really wonderful people. I know from these conversations that many of them don’t have frequent visitors - it’s not the kind of space that’s conducive to bringing your friends home to.

You’ve been a Newtown resident for more than 20 years – your connection must be so inherent by now. I dare say you’ve seen a lot of change over those two decades, particularly with inflation, and the overall culture shifts over time?

I get asked this question a lot! Yes, there are changes but no, Newtown is still the same for me.

Gentrification happens anywhere. I’ve lived here for nearly two decades but also spent a lot of time here as a student where I studied at Sydney Uni. I still love the diversity here, the acceptance, and the creativity. I love that we have some famous creative people in the area that could probably live anywhere in the world but they choose Newtown. I love the collective heartbeat of Newtown too – I feel that people really look out for each other here and that everyone is accepted. I’ve been lucky with my blog which is reflected in its ‘following’. The community takes care of itself. I have a ‘no dicks’ policy but I think a lot of the followers do too, so generally they’ll jump on and comment if someone says something cruel or out of place.

As I mentioned earlier, through cancer treatment I really did feel the love that comes from such a tight-knit community. There are also new people coming through Newtown as well, which is great. And there’s always something weird going on locally - I hope that never changes…

How can the broader community get involved or help in some way?

If people aren’t able to attend and donate to the festival, they can always volunteer at the Neighbourhood Centre or make a donation via their website. Every little bit helps.

There are a decreasing number of boarding houses as landlords continue to cash in on increased land and property value. The average cost of a room in a boarding house is between $190 to over $230 per week, and the conditions are less than ideal in most instances, and appalling in others. The City of Sydney street count in August found 394 people sleeping rough, which was up from 352 the previous year. 58% of residents pay more than 50% of their income, and people are generally considered to be in housing stress if they are paying more than 30% of their income on rent. It’s not easy for many of these people to simply live somewhere else and it really is often just one step from sleeping on the street. 

If you don’t have family accessible or nearby, then you’d hope for a good community that supports each other. I think we’ve got that in the Inner West, and I hope by telling these tenants’ stories that more people reflect on the thought that people in our community benefit highly from love, and sometimes, a bit of a hand.

There is no limit to love – we all have more to give so let’s share it around.

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Laura La Rosa