At the height of her good fortune, while the tip of a Chesterfield cigarette still burned brightly between her fingertips, Maryanne Van Arkadie had no inkling that one day life would be lived out of a suitcase.
It would have been a severe contradiction to the charmed existence of a woman who once modelled as a Chesterfield girl, when those things were still allowed, and watched the Grand Prix from the top of a Melbourne high-rise, with a glass of champagne.
Until this year, that was the direction life had hurtled.
After modelling, she moved to Rome where she found work at the United Nations in administration. Italy would be home for 25 years.
But in April, with her health declining, she longed for Melbourne.
“I thought, ‘This is a piece of cake. You’ll get a real estate agent to give you an apartment, a unit, and you’ll be right,'” Ms Van Arkadie said.
She arrived home and using her savings as a cushion, searched for a place to live.
But despite countless rental applications, the apartment she hoped for never materialised.
“I don’t know what my problem is,” she said.
“Actively trying to get accommodation in Melbourne has been devastating for me as an Australian and a Melburnian.”
Housing a ‘circuit breaker’ for women in crisis
With great reluctance, she began paying to stay in hotels and motels. It was meant to be temporary, but three months in it had the worrying appearance of permanence.
But on Tuesday this week, when things felt dire, Ms Van Arkadie was rescued by the YWCA.
The organisation found her short-term housing in a former nursing home in South Melbourne, which has been temporarily transformed into a pop-up homeless shelter.
“I slept beautifully,” Ms Van Arkadie told the ABC, after her first night.
“My little savings are coming right down to nothing so this has been a fantastic opportunity.”
Ms Van Arkadie is one of dozens of women over the age of 55 to be housed at the former nursing home. All pay their own way.
“It’s a circuit breaker,” said Jan Berriman, the YWCA’s director of national housing.
“At one stage we had an 80-year-old come and stay in one of our rooming houses and she said when she closed that door, there was such a sense of relief … that was the first time she’s felt safe for 40 years.
“It can make a huge difference to women’s lives by allowing that opportunity to settle, regroup and then get back on track with their lives into long-term affordable accommodation.”
Shelter already buckling under demand
The building, which is owned by nursing home operator CaSPA Care, had been slated for development, but was sitting idle because of red tape.
It was goodwill that turned it into a pop-up shelter.
CaSPA Care rented the building to the YWCA for a nominal fee and the building was cleaned and refurbished by home-builder, Metricon, which installed an industrial kitchen and laundry.
Interior decorating company Guest Group filled it with brand new furnishings, while food was provided by Two Good, a social enterprise company.
“I think many women describe it as being the safest place they’ve had for many years,” Ms Berriman said.
But the shelter, which has been dubbed the Lake House, is already struggling to keep up with demand. It can house only 38 women, but currently receives 40 applications per week.
The YWCA estimates it has to turn away 85 per cent of the women applying.
“There’s a lot of domestic violence coming through,” said YWCA’s Rena Vlahopanagos, who is a team leader in the housing division.
“They’re fleeing the family home with their children. We’re also seeing a lot of mental health,” she said.
“It’s just piling up.”
Last month, a street count found almost 400 people were sleeping rough across five inner Melbourne councils.
Almost a quarter were women, and many were on the waiting list for public housing.
Ms Berriman said the industry was getting desperate.
“Affordable housing supply is a requirement that we’re well, well behind around Australia but particularly in Melbourne and Sydney,” she said.
“If interest rates rise, we are going to see a major issue facing people in home ownership that can no longer afford their mortgage payments.”
‘It makes no sense to have empty buildings in the middle of a crisis’
It’s for that reason that the project needs to have national attention, according to Robert Pradolin, who initially proposed the pop-up shelter.
“Buildings are another form of society’s wastage. We should not allow that to happen while people are sleeping on our streets or on couches or in cars,” said Mr Pradolin, a former property developer.
The South Melbourne project is the first of its kind in Victoria and there is a similar project in Sydney, but Mr Pradolin thinks it could be implemented across the nation.
“It just does not make common sense to leave buildings empty when we have a housing crisis,” he said.
He believes the Federal Government could incentivise the property sector to unlock more empty buildings by giving them a break on land tax.
But he is the first to concede it is only a temporary solution to a problem that could cost billions of dollars if there is no intervention.
“This transition housing is a response to a crisis. We have to be building much more social, affordable housing that the private market does not deliver,” Mr Pradolin said.
“And my generation, if we do not do something we are leaving an intergenerational time bomb for future society.”
This article was published in ABC News. Click below for the original article.