SELINA Steve is camping on the banks of the Murray River with her 13-month-old son because she has nowhere else to go.
After leaving an unstable relationship, the 44-year-old thought she would be given government housing in a month. That was more than four months ago.
She had an immediate offer of accommodation — a Wangaratta unit with no laundry or kitchen facilities, for $140 a week.
But with alcohol and drugs common in the area, Ms Steve said her campsite at Barnawartha, down a dusty dirt track, was a safer place for her child.
She has been told she may have to wait two years for public housing.
She said she has met at least 15 other homeless people doing the same thing during her four months of camping by the river,
When she had a home, a well-paying job as a security guard and a new car, she wondered how people could find themselves without somewhere to go. Now, she understands.
She gave up her job just before her son was born and was not working when her relationship broke down.
“Everything in my place was brand new but I made a bad choice and I’m paying a very high price for my decision,” she said.
Ms Steve said a tree branch crashed to the ground just three metres from her while she was holding baby Jesse in her arms.
“It’s a nerve-wracking place,” she said, after recounting how many times had she felt unsafe.
She said she had felt how nice it would be beside the river when she set up camp but she hadn’t thought she would be there for Christmas.
Red and gold tinsel adorns tent poles at the camp site and Jesse’s toys are heaped in the plastic paddling pool he bathes in with water from the river.
Water covered the entrance road after the river had swelled and Ms Steve said she might have to pack up to avoid the risk of being trapped.
She said while she had always enjoyed camping, she might never go camping again once she moves on.
“Usually when camping, you can go home when things get bad, but I haven’t got a home,” she said.
“The heat has made me realise how bad this can be.”
When there are fire restrictions, Ms Steve can’t turn on a stove to cook dinner or heat a bottle for Jesse.
On Monday when the temperature soared to 40-plus, she was given a night’s accommodation in a motel.
Other than that, she’s frustrated the Department of Human Services told her finding public housing could take two years.
A department spokesman said he would encourage Ms Steve to ask again immediate accommodation.
“What’s the point,” she said.
“I just think of all the money our country is spending on other things and we have a huge homelessness situation, and I am not alone.”
Ms Steve and Jesse are living off a parenting payment of about $450 a week.
After buying food, paying her car loan and storage costs, Ms Steve uses the rest to buy essential items she hopes will soon fill a house.
When she’s collected those things — knives, forks, cups, a washing machine — she puts them in storage.
She said after years paying taxes, she was disappointed a house hadn’t been made available to her and Jesse when she needed it.
“I’m just frustrated. I’m thinking where’s the help? Where’s the assistance?” she said.
But even though Ms Steve and Jesse are now spending their fifth month living by the river, she said she continued to try to look on the bright side.
Picking up a piece of hot cross bun that had been sitting in the sun, she laughed and said: “Hey, I guess I can make toast”.