Big news!

Well, just when I was getting back into the swing of things, I’ve had some great news that has bowled me over and thrown all my new plans and routines out the window – I’ve been offered a unit through Housing SA!

It’s absolutely gorgeous, close to the city, ground floor (no steps or stairs – important when you have a fluctuating joint pain issue) with a little backyard that’s fully fenced, so my dog can come. There’s a small garden patch out the front that I’m thinking may become a veggie patch. It has two bedrooms, a master that will make a great art studio, and a small secondary that will be used as a bedroom. There is a bath, which makes me very happy, a large loungeroom, a dining area and a kitchen, a small laundry, and a garden shed out the back. The stove and water system are on gas, and it has a double sink in the kitchen. There’s a huge peppercorn tree in the backyard for shade. The area is very mixed with some new homes, some very old ones, and a bit of industrial as well, but it has a great arty feel to it. My moving date is next friday – the 13th – most auspicious 🙂

I am so very excited and fortunate. This has been a very long road. I left home at 18 to live independently, but had to return at 19 when I became very ill and unable to care for myself. A few years later I had to run from an abusive relationship and found myself homeless. Unfortunately, at that time I was advised not to bother getting my name on the Housing SA list as the waiting times were so long it was pointless. How I regretted that! I didn’t realise that once you’ve become homeless once, you are very vulnerable. A lot has to go wrong in your life for you to be homeless, a lot of security, stability, finances and social connections fall apart. Places that help homeless people often make a distinction between those who are homeless, and those who are roofless. The roofless are those we tend to think of, they are sleeping rough on the streets, in squats, abandoned buildings, skips, anywhere they can find. The homeless on the other hand usually have a roof over their head of some kind – in a shelter, a vehicle, a caravan, couch surfing and taking up with anyone available. This is an important distinction to make, as those who are homeless but not sleeping on the streets are essentially an invisible population. There are few supports and resources as few people realise the extent of this problem. People with disabilities and mental illnesses and young people particularly struggle with this kind of homelessness. There is no security, you move often. You often lose most or all of your possessions. You live in unsuitable conditions because you have no choices. There are many predators out there who take advantage of the homeless. You can’t keep up with your mail, with Centrelink, with work or study. You have no privacy, you have no idea where you will be from week to week, if there is an abusive ex stalking you the fear and stress are even higher. You are a very vulnerable person in this situation, easy to exploit.

I have found myself repeatedly homeless since that first flight out of danger. It cost me far more than I thought it would to escape. I became suicidal and struggled with self harm. I was exhausted moving my gear from place to place and seriously tempted to destroy it all instead. I used up all my savings, had to give up my pets, my diet become unhealthy and erratic and my health struggled. Shelters are not the panacea they are widely held to be, and I didn’t qualify for any of the support out there for homeless people, due to age and disability. I was told by one youth service that “no one cares if 26 year olds are homeless” when I begged them for help. Not only was it my fault I was homeless, it was my fault I didn’t have the social support to ease it. I’ve bounced all over the place and tried many things to create more stability in my life. I’ve lived in a caravan park which was awesome in some respects and scary in others. I’ve slept in my vehicle, in backpackers, at other people’s places, in a shelter, in group housing, in a lovely unit with a mate helping me with the rent, with family, on couches.

I found there was a tremendous tension in being homeless between trying to adapt to my new circumstances, the world I had found myself in, and trying to maintain a toehold in the world I wanted to get back to. They were very incompatible goals. Trying to do both was extremely difficult. For example, one way of adapting to chronic homelessness is to drastically reduce your belongings down to something you can carry. This makes all the moving much less exhausting. It is emotionally painful, especially when you don’t have family backup. Most young adults don’t carry around all their precious memorabilia, the vase they inherited from their Great Grandma, the scarf their Nan knitted, it’s stashed with their parents for a later date. Anything I had a connection to, dreamed of one day putting on display or showing my kids had to come with me or be stashed with a friend for a little while. If you do carve back your belongings to a bag, and then rent a place, you have nothing to put in it. Even with what I did bring, on the occasion I was able to rent a unit for a while, I struggled to afford furniture. I ended up borrowing a van and collecting most of what I needed out of the hard waste collections around the city. To be broke, short of friends, and short of resources is to be in a really difficult place. Without having someone to borrow the van from, I simply wouldn’t have had a bed or a table or a couch. And for someone who’s been roofless – who cares! You’re safe and dry. But if you’re trying to climb out of that underworld, you need to look like the people with homes. You need to be clean, to smell nice and have cut hair and wear clothes that are fresh and unrumpled. You can’t get jobs without these things. To be a student you need a basic level of mental health and emotional stability, you need space, time and quiet to study, you need sleep and food regularly and to be able to get to and from the uni without being totally exhausted or financially crippled. To maintain your own mental health you need to hang on to your poetry and your artwork. The more you adapt to homelessness, the more it becomes normal to skip meals, baths, sleep, to eat anything you find, to be grateful for blankets, to not care about how you look, to be used to being completely uncontactable, no phone, email, or address, the harder it becomes to pass yourself off as part of the rest of society. You become feral as far as they are concerned, and rather than admiring your will to survive, they are generally repulsed. There is no adapting to you. If you can’t attend that Centrelink appointment you will have no money.

So I’ve tightrope walked between the two worlds, I’ve discovered that people think that folks with disabilities never become homeless and never need to leave abusive relationships. I’ve found that shelters seem to think that being homeless is a weakness of character, proof of your failure to manage your own life properly. I’ve learned that people think the homeless are lazy and disorganised, and that it isn’t a big deal. I’ve found that people who choose to explore an alternative lifestyle can be the harshest to those who live in similar circumstances, but do not have the networks or support to choose any other way when they wish to. I’m furious that we think of homelessness only as being roofless, and that being roofless is effectively illegal. That we cannot pitch tents on parks or beaches, cannot squat in buildings, cannot build our own homes as our ancestors did. That we can be moved on from any place, kept out of sight, in the cold places and in the shadows where no one has to see us or know about us or feel guilty about us. I’m furious at ads offering rooms for sex, at turning up to my 100th open inspection on a flat to find there are 50 people applying, at applying to rent an old office and corridor with electric fry pan (the ‘kitchen’) for more than I can afford to pay. It’s been a long road.

So here I am, about to move into my own place, probably on a 1 year lease, which I hope will be renewed for something a bit longer next year. (they no longer offer lifetime leases) I’ll be taking my little blind dog and two cats with me so we’ll be quite the little family together. I’m sad that the next month looks like a lot of packing and unpacking boxes and not much art, but the timing is perfect as I’m not yet embroiled in training and work. I’ll have to take extra care of myself as I find moving difficult with the dissociation and the effort of moving myself and exhaustion will probably take a toll on my physical health too. But it is such a wonderful thing to be in my own home and I cannot wait to have it all set up.

6 thoughts on “Big news!

  1. Creativity and self expression do make such a huge difference I agree. Without poetry and my journals I would not have had a language to speak my inner life and listen to myself. I'm glad you found poetry too Carolyn.

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  2. Having a creative outlet can be the difference between making it and crashing down. I'm so glad I write poetry, and I have many friends who also write poetry. Being able to write it all down can make it feel like I have some control. That makes a huge difference.

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  3. Thanks John, it has been difficult, as a kid I hoped that growing up would be easier, as an adult I kept hoping that surely the next year couldn't be as bad… some of us get a tough run! My creativity certainly took some knocks, but it's also been part of how I have overcome things and part of what keeps me going. It's certainly something I revel in now 🙂

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  4. a very mov ing account; I know nothing at all about this sort of life but it gives me an insight into the traumas you've been through and how amazingly you still produce your art; it did not crush your creativity

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  5. Hi Stephen, thanks for your comments. You're right, the wait list for Housing SA (new name – it used to be the Housing Trust) is a horribly long one. There are three categories, the lowest need and longest wait 3rd, those with higher needs such as people with disabilities 2nd, and category one, who are usually people who are homeless, at high risk of homelessness, or in danger where they are presently living. Category one is still many year's wait – much longer if you are asking for a type of home they don't have many of, such as one with disability modifications, or in a country town.

    Thankyou for the reminder and the quote – you're very right, it does take a lot of strength and courage to manage something like a mental illness. There's been a lot of times when I didn't know why I was holding on, but hoped one day I'd find a reason to have endured. Now I'm finding many. 🙂

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  6. A gripping account, thanks for sharing this first-person insight.
    Congratulations. I applied for a Housing Trust (SA?) house back in 2003 almost for the sake of it as the waiting list was 10 years. I heard that one has to have special circumstances to be moved up the waiting list. My situation is a bit different to yours, I share a private rental with my older brother that my parents bought, I've often thought that there are worse circumstances. I got defeatist pretty quickly when seeing the competition for sub-$120 a week rentals.
    P.S. in the anxiety “community” we remind ourselves that we are strong people. I think that can extend to the wider mental illness “community”. I admire your will to survive.

    I'm reminded of a quote from GROW's Blue Book “the best in life, love and happiness is ahead of you”.

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