ToyNera Macgregor and her 16-year-old son Annan are homeless after floods swamped their Lismore rental.
- Governments are being urged to prioritise the needs of flood survivors with disability
- Service providers say evacuation centres are often not accessible
- The Northern Rivers was already experiencing a housing crisis before the floods
They expect to have a tougher time than most finding a suitable place to live in northern NSW. Annan lives with autism, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, an intellectual disability, and uses a wheelchair.
"It took a year to find this [now flooded] place because there's a serious problem with affordable, wheelchair-accessible social housing," Ms Macgregor said.
Disability service providers and advocates are joining her in calling on governments to urgently prioritise the needs of flood survivors living with disability.
"If the government can't look after people who need the most care, what are they good for?" Ms Macgregor said.
Hundreds of displaced residents across the Northern Rivers are now living in short-term evacuation centres.
However, Ballina-based People with Disability Australia vice president Kelly Cox said there were a number of reasons why they were often not accessible or suitable.
"You might be a wheelchair user and have access needs not quite met, you might have equipment needs like hoists or lifters," Ms Cox said.
"And you've also got people who have autism or sensory issues where the lights, noise and busyness on top of the trauma are just too much and they won't cope."
Ms Macgregor said the trauma of evacuating from a flooded home was exacerbated by being unable to live in accommodation such as an evacuation centre.
"I still can't protect my child's brain from having seizures, from being displaced, homeless, anxious with nowhere safe to be, we're still not safe."
State government securing accommodation
NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet fronted media in Lismore on Thursday to outline details of a $551 million housing strategy for the region.
He said the needs of people living with disabilities were covered by the plan.
"The DCJ (Department of Communities and Justice) acquire homes, their job is to tailor accommodation to the needs of families, people with special needs, people with a disability, that's all factored in to support the needs of those people," Mr Perrottet said.
A NSW Department of Communities and Justice spokesperson issued a statement that said the "situation is constantly evolving".
They said, to date, more than 1,100 people across the state had been moved into emergency accommodation due to the recent severe weather.
"We are securing the supply of hotel rooms for people who need accommodation due to the floods as demand increases," the spokesperson said.
"We have also sourced 270 rooms in three recreational centres to provide more medium-term options for flood victims."
Affordable housing already dire
Disability services and support organisation REDinc CEO Marie Gale said the lack of affordable housing in the Northern Rivers was already a crisis prior to the floods.
"People were already being kicked out of their houses because of this ridiculous housing boom, and landlords have moved tenants on so they can charge higher rents," she said.
Ms Cox said the specific needs of people with disability should be at the forefront of the government response.
"I don't know if [the government] has an appreciation for the extra pressure of having a disability in a situation like this," she said.
"People who have lost their houses who have access requirements, where are these people going to find more accessible housing when it's so hard already?"
Service providers also flooded
Workers in the Northern Rivers disability sector say their own trauma is also a factor that needs to be considered.
The headquarters of REDinc in downtown Lismore was inundated by floodwaters.
REDinc employee Catherine Barker said her colleagues and volunteers were doing their best despite also losing their own homes.
"The balance at the moment is trying to negotiate personal needs with client needs — support workers need support right now," she said.
"They're living in their friends' and family homes or have 10 people living in their houses right now because there is no accommodation in Lismore right now for anyone in this situation."
Ms Gale said the mental health of workers and clients would also need attention in the long term.
"It is such a tragedy on such an enormous scale, people are in shock, people are traumatised and overall everyone is affected whether they were flooded or not — everyone knows somebody, everyone is helping somebody, and you can feel people's pain," she said.
"There are people who had to swim through their bathroom windows with their children to get onto the roof, and they're here now helping in the centre.
"There's a level of trauma that's going to be with people for a very long time and I don't know how you recover from that."