Homeless man born with no hands sells sketches to help tackle Queensland’s accommodation crisis

JUNE 10, 2019 – ABC News Article on Sheltered by Grace

After years of living on the streets, recovering ice addict Robert Drew is using his talent to help others doing it tough, as Brisbane experiences one of the highest spikes of homelessness in the country.

Mr Drew, or "Fingers" as he is sometimes called, was born with no hands and has lived on the streets of Canberra and Brisbane for many years.

But despite his disability, he used his artistic talents to get through the tough times, by selling his sketches.

"I had to beg for money every day and line up at food vans, it was chaotic," he said.

"I was smoking pot, shooting up ice, drinking and trying to waste my life away because I couldn't cope."

And now he's now selling them to raise money for the homeless shelter that helped him.

"By the age of three I knew I was different from other children and I thought, 'what can I do to give me the feeling that I am just as whole as everyone else?'. So I started drawing pictures," he said.

"At five years old my first piece of art — a watercolour — sold for about $40 and I thought, here is something I can use.

"As soon as I pick that pencil up I feel like I'm healed."

The talented sketch artist was housed by not-for-profit community organisation Sheltered by Grace, near Logan in Brisbane, two months ago.

The 41-year-old said it helped him get clean for the first time in 20 years.

"Here, there are no drugs, no threat of violence. I feel like I have won the battle," he said.

"I can be a normal person again."

Homeless shelter 'turning people away every day'

The Queensland Council of Social Service (QCOSS) is pressuring the Queensland Government to make tackling Australia's worsening homelessness crisis a priority in the lead up to the state budget, saying a serious cash injection was needed.

Sheltered by Grace, which can house 12 people, is one of several homeless shelters across the state at full capacity, as cities like Brisbane struggle to keep up with demand.

"We turn away 15-20 people every day and we are getting more families, especially women and children, coming to us for help," founder Jason Loakes said.

"It's incredibly frustrating."

Mr Loakes said the State Government had spent some money on affordable housing, but more was needed for emergency accommodation.

"We also need to make the red tape easier to get through," he said.

"It's a nightmare because you're dealing with all three levels of government when you try to set up a homeless shelter and it's very hard to get them to work together."

The State Government will announce a $97,000 funding boost for the shelter this week, to expand counselling services and provide space for extra beds.

Mr Loakes said while the funding was welcomed, much more was needed.

Social services sector calls for rapid change

The number of homeless people in Australia has jumped by more than 14,000 — or 14 per cent — in the five years to 2016, according to the latest census data.

QCOSS CEO Mark Henley said Brisbane had experienced one of the highest jumps in the country, with a 32 per cent rise in homelessness in those years.

"It's completely unacceptable and shouldn't happen in a country like Australia," he said.

"We want the government to set far more ambitious targets in investment in social and affordable housing [when it tables the budget on Tuesday].

"Housing is a critical area and there has been an underwhelming underinvestment, so we want them to step up to the mark this year."

The State Government had previously committed $1.8 billion for the next decade, to a housing strategy that would include 5,500 new social and affordable homes, but Mr Henley said that was not enough.

"We identified the State Government needed to invest in a minimum of 53,000 social and affordable homes over the next 10 years," he said.

Housing Minister Mick de Brenni admitted the gap between the State Government's housing targets and the target outlined by QCOSS was wide, but said the Federal Government needed to be the one to step up.

"We don't think it's ok that any Queenslander has to sleep rough or can't afford to pay their rent or mortgage," he said.

"We need to see all levels of government stepping up here, we need to see the Federal Government play a role."

The Minister would not specify whether the State Government would commit additional funding in this week's budget to expand its targets, but confirmed it would continue to roll out its 2017 Queensland Housing Strategy.

"We've set a target under the strategy [last year], that we will direct deliver 5,500 affordable homes [over 10 years]," Mr de Brenni said.

"It's impossible to get into the housing market if you don't have a job, that's going to be our primary focus in this year's budget."

About the Author April Torres