Months after carpark signage banning camping and overnight stays is erected at Mona Vale, Catherine Lewis investigates a community divided, with some branding the move harassment.

Falling asleep to the sound of the waves at Mona Vale doesn’t come cheap, with holiday makers keen for a slice of absolute northern beachfront paying up to $1,000 a night for the privilege. But just along Surfview Road, dozens of vans roll into the sprawling beach car park at dusk and leave at dawn, enjoying that priceless view for merely the cost of carparking, just as they have for decades. Now, signage banning this practice has cleaved the community, pleasing those who view van dwellers as tight-fisted tourists taking advantage of facilities at a fraction of campground costs, while others slam the move as ignorant and harassment of those seeking a safe haven as the cost of living tsunami rages.

When Northern Beaches Council floated plans for Mona Vale’s swanky amenities block, complete with hot showers in 2020 to ‘future proof the surf club,’ a band of locals launched a scale-back petition, concerned about ‘potentially attracting more tourists to live in their vans in the (adjacent) car park and use the toilet block’. While immediate neighbours say these fears have been realised, with ‘more than 50’ vans regularly making use of the car park overnight, heralding an increase
in litter and noise, others say Mona Vale already has a band of respectful van dwellers long before the days of hot showers, who typically behave well and cause minimal disturbance.

The needs of the homeless or the working homeless – low-income, tax-paying citizens who work in the area and can’t afford a permanent base – are starkly different to the backpackers blowing in for a night or two or the grey nomads on their great Aussie lap, argues long-time Mona Vale local, John*. A ‘blanket rule’ preventing everyone from staying is not the answer, John says. “In a period of incredible rental unaffordability and people struggling, I feel it’s ridiculous to be closing this as an option to people in need. It is bothering people who are quiet and causing no issues,” he adds. John says he has contacted council ‘no less than six times’ to ask why the signs were erected without community consultation. “I don’t know anyone who thinks this is necessary in Pittwater, and these signs change the vibe and welcoming nature of our area.”

Warriewood car park at 5pm

“In a period of incredible rental unaffordability, I feel it’s ridiculous to be closing this as an option to people in need.” Mona Vale local, John

Mona Vale car park

Others wrote on a community social media page that Mona Vale is ‘central for the working homeless (who) can’t afford rent or pay a mortgage’. “They mind their own business, buzz in for a shower and a sleep and leave. These people are not the problem,” the poster wrote. Another local believes that ‘as long as these spots don’t turn into havens for squatters, or cesspools of crime or litter, (there) shouldn’t be any reason at all’ to ban overnight stays.

But council says that it ‘continues to field a number of complaints from local residents about car camping’. There is a dedicated council website page allowing locals to report those camping overnight, with fines of up to $1,100 against the practice. “We are required to investigate these complaints, and our preference is education over enforcement,” council tells Peninsula Living Pittwater (PL). “However, if a person/ vehicle fails to comply with signage, enforcement action may be taken.”

At this end of the Beaches, signage is currently installed at Avalon, Mona Vale, Warriewood, North Narrabeen Rockpool and Narrabeen Surf Life Saving Club to Devitt Street. While parking overnight in these car parks is permitted, overnight stays are not. “The general time restriction in beach carparks is 12 hours and there are currently no plans to reduce these hours broadly across all beach car parks; however, the needs of the community will be considered in the future,” adds council. Parking is free in daytime hours for Northern Beaches ratepayers with a car parking sticker, valued at $236 a year, while pay and display parking across the local government area costs around $10 per hour during peak months.

While council and worried locals are being accused of NIMBY-ism for wanting to move on the van dwellers – a lifestyle so at odds with the majority in this most privileged of postcodes – it’s perhaps little wonder after what happened in Dee Why. The tent city that sprung up – twice – in the Dee Why dunes sparked a number of break-ins at nearby properties and a litany of anti-social behaviours, including a machete altercation and an arson attack on a tent, before it was dismantled due to posing an ‘unacceptable risk to community safety’.

Unsurprising, then, that some residents, especially those living within striking distance of the carpark, question why van occupants expect to stay for next to nothing on prime beachfront land and make use of showers and toilet facilities usually provided at far higher cost at a campsite. Take nearby Lane Cove National Park, where a campsite coupled with two-day park entry would cost $155, while a van site at the NRMA Sydney Lakeside Holiday Park at Narrabeen starts at $74 a night, both in stark contrast to what the van dwellers are paying for their prime ocean-front park at Mona Vale.

The Mona Vale SLSC amenities block when it was unveiled in 2020

What there is no argument over, however, is the rising issue of homelessness across the Beaches, with council’s latest Community Safety Advisory Committee report confirming levels have risen by 30 per cent over the last two years. Beaches-based community housing provider, Bridge Housing, has noticed a dramatic change in community need. Chief operating officer Simone Parsons says: “Domestic violence, mental health issues, substance abuse and unemployment will always be key factors affecting an individual’s access to stable housing, but the high cost of living and increasing rental costs are having increasing impact.”

With Australia’s rental vacancy rate sitting at an historic low of 0.7 per cent, and property market intelligence tool, PropTrack, finding that house prices in neighbouring Bayview soared by 77 per cent over the last four years to a median of $3.1 million, it’s little wonder safe overnight spots are sought after. Over the last year, Bridge Housing reports ‘increasing numbers of single-parent families and older people facing homelessness’ and a ‘significant rise’ in individuals and families utilising local temporary accommodation. Simone Parsons adds that ‘hidden homelessness,’ such as couch surfing or living in overcrowded conditions, also remains a real ‘issue of concern’. “Homelessness has always impacted the Northern Beaches, albeit less visibly than in more urban areas.”

Council’s homeless persons protocol outlines that the ‘prospect of people living without safe and secure shelter within a modern and affluent area like the Northern Beaches is unacceptable’. Mayor Sue Heins promises a ‘compassionate approach’ to those struggling to find secure or sustainable accommodation. “We understand some people choose to live in vehicles and others have been forced to due to personal circumstances and financial hardship. Sleeping in a legally parked vehicle is not illegal; however, those who are found to be in breach of any parking conditions are informed of this and are given the opportunity to move on,” she tells PL.

Is removing this temporary safe haven for largely respectful van dwellers that have visited for decades without incident a heartless and un-Australian move, as many feel? Or is it a must to protect the community from potential anti-social issues spiralling out of hand? Based on what has been, an outright, blanket ban seems an extreme measure to prevent against what may be. After all, as Mona Vale local John, says: “Why have we changed what has been working since I was a kid?”

*Only first name used upon request.