Once a day, Julie Martin walks to a tap about 50 metres from her house, fills a big bucket of water, and then lugs it back to her home.
She lives in the Mara town camp, on the outskirts of Borroloola in the remote Northern Territory. Her house was built as temporary, emergency accommodation after Cyclone Kathy tore through in 1984. Thirty years on, it has no power or water, and no bathroom or kitchen.
Martin has a broken collarbone from a car accident. A falling flour drum left her with three pins in her foot. As a result, she struggles to lift heavy weights. But her partner is suffering with a blocked valve in his heart (he is due to get surgery in Adelaide soon), and so it's left to her to fetch the water they need at home.
When she needs the shower or toilet, she goes to her niece's house across the road. She has set up a makeshift barbecue with a metal barrel and grate outside her house. A wheelbarrow storing kindling is nearby.
A few houses down, in another post-Kathy shelter, her father is suffering from dementia. "He goes around swearing at people," she told BuzzFeed News. "He wasn't like that before."
Martin told BuzzFeed News she felt stressed and was "struggling" to look after her family.
Borroloola is a remote town with a population under 1,000, about 700km from Darwin on the McArthur River, near the Gulf of Carpentaria.
In its four town camps Aboriginal people are living in houses that lack basic amenities, or are overcrowded or in disrepair.
Darilyn Anderson lives in the Garawa One camp, south of Mara and across the river. She lives with her sister and her kids, and her partner Gadrian Hoosan and their child.
She grew up in her parents' home next door, which has the same layout as her new place: two bedrooms; a small room serving as a kitchen, lounge and living area; with a toilet, shower and laundry out the back. The houses are rusty and too small, she said.
Lizzy, who also lives at Garawa One and asked her for surname to be withheld, told BuzzFeed News she shared her three-bedroom house with nine others, including five kids she is raising. But that is nothing compared to the family, now living in Darwin, who had about 20 people in a two-bedroom house.
The kids sleep in Lizzy's room with her, she said. "I have to tell them to sleep early so we can get some sleep and go to work and school. But you have to step over people on the way out, you know?"
In some houses, overcrowding means children are not able to sleep at night and wander the streets instead. At school, teenagers will sometimes sleep for hours on the classroom floor.
Lizzy, who works at the town's safe house, also said overcrowding causes domestic violence. "When there's too many people in the house and the food is not going around and people are drunk, that's when the DV starts," she said.
Overcrowding can also cause sickness. "There could be someone with the flu, you're in close proximity," Conrad Rory told BuzzFeed News. As well, Lizzy said many of the houses had plumbing and sewerage problems.
A 2017 review of the Northern Territory's town camps found that 34% of houses in Borroloola's town camps were in "very poor" condition, and a further 25% were in "poor" condition.
“All houses have varying levels of dilapidation, from cosmetic repairs, cleanliness and hygiene, through to structural concerns,” the report found. Cleanliness was a “serious concern” and houses showed breaches of the Residential Tenancies Act from both tenants and landlords.
Anderson and Lizzy both told BuzzFeed News they believed housing was the top issue at the federal election for Borroloola residents.
The issue is also not limited to Borroloola: in 2014-15, more than half of Indigenous Australians in very remote areas lived in overcrowded houses.
The Northern Territory government has promised to spend $1.1 billion over 10 years addressing remote housing, including building new houses and expanding living spaces.
In its April budget, the federal Coalition committed to pitch in $550 million over five years, as part of the National Partnership on Northern Territory Remote Aboriginal Investment. The government had earlier been in a stand-off with the NT government over funding.
A spokesperson for Indigenous affairs minister Nigel Scullion told BuzzFeed News providing adequate and safe housing was key to improving health, education, employment and social outcomes in all Australian communities.
Labor’s Warren Snowdon, who represents the NT’s remote communities as MP for Lingiari, told BuzzFeed News the deadlock over remote housing that meant Borroloola did not get new housing had been broken, and that the “poor Commonwealth policy of successive governments” had now changed.
If elected, federal Labor would work in cooperation with the NT government, Aboriginal organisations and Aboriginal communities to address remote housing, and would partner with the NT government on funding, he said.
Labor has pledged to address overcrowding by committing an additional $550 million over five years from 2023-24, doubling the Coalition’s promise.
The Country Liberal candidate for Lingiari, Jacinta Price, did not respond to a request for comment.
In Borroloola, the Commonwealth is currently delivering 12 new houses after the community has spent years waiting, and following a visit from special envoy on Indigenous affairs Tony Abbott. The NT government has promised 38 more.
Martin is among those who will get a new house under the NT government plan.
So is William Charlie, a Garrawa man living in the Yanyula camp. His two-bedroom, corrugated iron house is in disrepair, and he doesn’t know when the new one is coming. Although his oven is broken, he is waiting for his new home instead of asking for repairs.
He says he is “excited” for the new houses, but is sad some Elders are no longer around to see them.
“All the Elders wanted to see this place grow up before they passed on,” he said. “We haven’t got many Elders left.”
Hannah Ryan is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.
Contact Hannah Ryan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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