The young couple were found by police inside their car – their home – at 9:30 on Friday night, on a windy and isolated road in Cardigan, just outside Ballarat.
The cold, muddy track where they died with their dog is flanked by barbed wire on one side and the jagged thistles of yellow-flowering gorse on the other.
At the corner of Finches Road and Smarts Hill Road, a man, 27, and a woman, 24, were found dead with the butane gas heater that may have killed them.
The vehicle is now gone but all over the scene, in puddles and ditches, lay litter – both fresh, and rotten and sodden. Perhaps theirs, but maybe not.
Cigarette packets. Fast food wrappers. Empty cans of TUN Bitter and Woodstock bourbon and cola. A small syringe on wet grass. A teddy bear in the weeds.
Cliff Barclay of UnitingCare Ballarat said it was not uncommon for people in rural areas to sleep in their cars when they had no alternative. Nor is it uncommon for people to have no alternative – with high unemployment and a public housing shortage causing a spike in the problem.
“It’s just a tragic story – just terrible for young people’s lives to end this way,” he said. “And I think homelessness is going to be a bigger problem for us in the future.”
Craig Schepis has seen the need growing locally. Five years ago he founded the Soup Bus to distribute food, clothing and toiletries to people in need five nights per week. The bus helped 5000 people in its first year – a number that recently rose to 12,000, indicating the scale of a “vast but well-hidden” crisis.
“You don’t see people sleeping rough, but they are there,” Mr Schepis said. “And this winter – with the cold nights and wind chill and the frost – has been so harsh.”
Sandra Jones lives near where the young couple were found. She rarely uses the single lane cut-through road, but said she was shocked to learn they were living rough so near.
“It’s hard to comprehend. It was minus 3 [degrees] here the other night, and they were probably there,” she said. “I can’t imagine – it’s just too sad.”
Bruce Redman of the Salvation Army said homeless people were increasingly moving to rural areas looking for work or housing, but he believed this couple were local.
“The fact that they are not blow-ins is even more tragic,” he said, “because it means they couldn’t get the community support they needed.”