This article is a part of our August focus on Homelessness in Australia – you can access more content from this issue here.
By Carlynne Nunn
I was fortunate enough to have been randomly selected at birth for a pretty decent upbringing. I’ve always had a loving family, and have enjoyed several wonderful family homes, along with all that that implies. I’ve wound up not a great deal more maladjusted than the next person, with the same lame vexations as the rest of the middle classes.
Though I’ve never known real trouble or fear or despair, I’ve been fortunate enough to have spent a bit of time with those who live on the streets or in other parts of the homelessness web. Moments here and there made up of small, sometimes awkward splinters of conversation next to a food van, or the occasional long chat on a dingy couch with a cup of coffee. I’ve been confronted by a lot of things I’ve seen or heard, but mostly by the difference between my story and theirs. I’ve lamented the twists of fate that have left good people out in the cold and wondered when Australia will start taking housing seriously and get these people off the streets. Two people I had the opportunity to get to know particularly, largely through some involvement with the Salvation Army in Melbourne’s CBD, have shown me that maybe it’s not as simple as all that.
A home is just one tiny part of what they actually need, bruised and shaped by homelessness as they are.
Ben* and Tracey have waded through the housing system to finally become success stories. Both were once homeless, both are now in possession of a place of their own. My housemate Kath and I have visited their homes numerous times over the years and spent a bit of time out and about with them. While their houses are a genuine source of pride for them, and obviously better than the alternative, they are a far cry from the end to their journey.
Let me be clear: My two friends didn’t have a home and then got one. This is a wonderful thing. But what I have learnt from my valuable though fleeting insights into their worlds is that a home is just one tiny part of what they actually need, bruised and shaped by homelessness as they are.
Ben was a heroin baby. He spent his first years in and out of foster care and then lived on the streets for many years, learning to think quickly, trying and failing to stay out of trouble. He got his dream house nearly a decade ago. One bedroom with a small kitchenette in Footscray, down the road from an IGA.
Years on the street have left Ben pretty paranoid, and in particular, mistrustful of those he thinks are being too kind. He is a smart guy in his mid-twenties but he has the approach to new things, changes in routine and pretty ladies common of a boy in his early teens. He has an acute sense of wrong and right, and can be loud and sometimes abusive when challenged or wounded. Back when we saw him regularly, Kath and I excused a lot of these instances; we knew he was unused to navigating long-term friendships.
He scored second hand stereo systems from sources we didn’t enquire about too carefully. He checks his lock roughly eight times before leaving his house.
Ben is small and pale, as if his body is trying its hardest to help him stay out of sight. When you walk with him in public, he is furious if you draw any attention to him, unaware that his jerky movements, the cadence of his broad and sometimes angry speech and his junkie pallor do that for him anyway.
He has a particular way about him. Years of not having nice things has taught him that belongings are precious. As a result his house is a mess of chairs, remote control cars and broken toys, mattresses, crates and magazines. Home made bongs lie on their side amid crumbs and fast food wrappers on his coffee table. Some of the most confronting pornographic images I’ve seen adorn his walls alongside pictures of wrestlers. He scored second hand stereo systems from sources we didn’t enquire about too carefully. He checks his lock roughly eight times before leaving his house.
Tracey has been in her commission flat for a long while now. Before this she lived for a time with a friend, a shorter time in a Church run detox and before that on the streets. Since her time sleeping rough, Tracey has come a long way. She used to get into fights regularly, show very little concern for her personal hygiene and was on heroin for a long time. Nowadays her vices number two, coffee and cigarettes in baffling plenty. Kath and I try to catch up with her as regularly as we can, often over dinner or a coffee, though not as frequently as she’d like. Though her days of getting arrested for abusing people publicly are well and truly over, Tracey still wrestles daily with her temper. We hear stories of her telling doctors to get stuffed, psych nurses where to go. With time she usually admits it wasn’t a good idea and rarely shows that side of herself to us.
If we don’t cook, it is because we don’t feel like it, not because we can’t think how. We engage in social activities to pass the time. We have hobbies.
She is a sweet and funny woman, affectionate and loyal. Short but solid, she rockets around the streets of Melbourne with determination, self possession and a voice that belongs more to a man twice her size. She can be outrageously stubborn but is persuadable when it’s important.
Though she doesn’t live there any more, for years Tracey made the journey nightly into Melbourne’s CBD to see her friends. They would wander the city streets together, meet various food vans for a feed and sit talking in all night eateries like McDonalds. It took her a long time to learn that seeing some of them was making it harder for her to stay clean, but inevitably she cut off most contact with them. These days her main companion is a friend she’s had for over 20 years who lives illicitly in her spare room.
A number of years ago Tracey started calling us regularly with crises of varying kinds. Often she has reported hallucinations, but mostly she says she wants to or already has hurt herself. We’ve long ago figured out that this is code for being lonely or bored.
Though both Tracey and Ben are functional enough to live independently, in its loosest definition, and to keep themselves housed and fed, neither have much hope of finding and securing a job. This leaves a lot of time to fill in an average day.
They missed a lot of the lessons that those raised in suburban homes or families take for granted. The simplest daily activity can become another wall between other people and themselves. Where we for the most part learnt to not raise our voices in public, feeling shamed when seen to be different, Tracey longs for the attention brought by her outbursts and Ben simply can’t control his fury at what takes him by surprise or clashes with his understanding of justice. If we spill coffee on our floor out of habit most of us will clean it up; Tracey or Ben’s floor might become a bog of tacky instant coffee, ground into the lino for months. If we don’t cook, it is because we don’t feel like it, not because we can’t think how. We engage in social activities to pass the time. We have hobbies.
That our system has to be in some way broken is all the more ludicrous when one considers the economic bliss in which most Australians live. That currently there is not enough housing is obvious. That a house is critical for those who have no stability at all of course makes sense. I do not wish to undermine the very real damage that is caused by experiencing homelessness nor the monstrous relief and joy that one must feel when finally bedding down under your own roof.
But a roof and walls are not a solution to the problems often exacerbated or created by being homeless for a long time. To take someone who is used to a certain way of life, who may be drug dependant or completely new to taking care of themselves, and to plop them into a flat in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, far from their friends and often completely alone, is really only a solution to keeping them out of the elements. Houses do nothing in the way of offering someone to talk to over dinner, or in helping you discern how to speak to the people at the local café. A house doesn’t help you moderate your cleaning or your marijuana use.
Ben and Tracey aren’t even close to a worst-case scenario. People in the public housing system can be bumped in and out of houses for a host of reasons, oft-times relating to the lack of care they show a property or as is often the case, by people they bring into their homes. The system breeds dependence, and those who continually receive handouts have the propensity to take what they have for granted; having never learnt to care for their homes, they assume someone else will.
Recently Tracey’s housemate Steve has started to again make the unwanted advances he made around the time her mental health problems really kicked in. This time, Kath and I made the drive out to Chadstone to pick her up and bring her back to our house. Since then we’ve been talking to police, the housing commission disability support workers and locksmiths to try and make sure Tracey’s home, so far from ours, is a place where she is safe. Steve was taken to hospital today and has been told he can’t return to the unit. We’re hopeful an intervention order will be enough to keep him at a distance. We are not talking about the fact that he was all the company she had and that historically she has not done well on her own.
Having won the lottery at birth, I can’t understand what a life without the privileged experiences and implicit safety that shaped me must be like. I can’t count the ways I have help if I need it. I can’t fathom what it must be like for every human interaction to be a minefield or a maze. I can’t imagine having people I trust rip apart my home or what it must be like to be alone for weeks on end.
Tracey tries her best. She has kept her home for a long time now, has recently started doing her dishes regularly, and now only smokes outside. Last I heard Ben did a stint in jail. I shudder to think what that would be like for a guy so slight and earnest. He’s out now, presumably more hardened, hopefully in a new place. They’ve both in their own ways sought to feel worthy of their own homes, and done what they can to maintain them.
But when the stretches of silence and the things that confuse and hurt you stand in bullying array around you in a small, smoke stained flat and your only recourse is to tell your friends you might hurt herself, or to open up your veins to get yourself a bed in the psych ward, when trips to the pharmacist for your methadone or for medication that must be doled out daily to avoid the fear of an overdose are the only thing you have in your diary, when you receive a Christmas present from your pharmacist because he knows otherwise you might not get one, when someone you’ve trusted has come into your flat and hurt you there, a house is just a house.
*All names have been changed