Rough, tumble and a way out

On any given night, 24,000 Victorians are homeless.

By Stephen Acott

See if you’ve heard this story before.

Five years ago, Jesse had a drug habit. A big one. His drug of choice — because he chose it, not the other way around —  was ice.

Ice is an insidious drug. Highly addictive, when you inevitably fall into its vice-like grip, the only way is down. And you only stop that spiral when you (a) kick the habit or (b) hit what they call rock bottom. And how do you know when you’ve hit rock bottom? When you don’t have a roof over your head.

“I first became fully homeless in 2017,” Jesse, who wishes to remain anonymous, says.

“I was living in Melbourne and I had an ice addiction that was spiralling out of control. I lost my job as a result and my boss was also my landlord, so I lost my housing as well. With no income there was no option of any housing or accommodation.”

Jesse’s story is a cliche. And yet it’s not. It’s reality reading. There’s a real person at its very core and that alone is reason enough to park our prejudices and learn more. Yes, Jesse was kicked to the curb by ice, but that’s not the full story. It’s just the highlights. The real story is why. What made Jesse consume a drug he knew full well was a one-way ticket to oblivion?

“I worked in the hospitality industry, which was long days and weeks,” Jesse says.

“Speed was used back then to help you stay awake and have energy for longer. I was running hospitality places, like a well-oiled machine, for 18 hours a day. People dealing speed became the people dealing ice later down the track, and those using speed started using ice instead.”

The way Jesse tells it, ice was a foregone conclusion. An occupational hazard. Either way, it doesn’t matter. What matters is Jesse didn’t think ahead and instead thought only of the “now”. How to maintain his punishing work schedule.

And this is true of any drug addict. Nobody looks to the future and pictures themselves losing their job, lying in a gutter, sleeping rough, seeking handouts from strangers sneering at them with passive, sometimes aggressive, indifference. Every drug user is bullet proof at this point.

But it doesn’t last for long.

“Ice use makes you really paranoid,” Jesse says. “And paranoia and rough sleeping are not a good combination. This is when I started using heroin.”

And this is where things go completely pear-shaped … or do they?

Homelessness in Victoria has increased by 14 per cent in the past five years.

“I know now that it was the day before Christmas Eve, but at the time I had no concept of the day, date or time,” Jesse says when asked how he “ended up in the Alfred Hospital”.

“I’m not sure what happened, whether it was my epilepsy, ice or heroin use.”

He didn’t know it at the time — how could he, he was completely strung out — but this would be the best day of Jesse’s adult life.

“They knew I was homeless, but they treated me well,” he says of the hospital staff, who had seen a conga line of Jesses before. They knew the drill, but their humaneness, their kindness, defied the monotonous regularity of patients such as Jesse.

“They offered for me to stay overnight and to speak to a social worker the next day,” Jesse says.

“The social worker was great and arranged a script for epilepsy medication, got my Centrelink payments sorted out, and referred me to the homeless crisis centre. They provided a motel over the whole Christmas period. I couldn’t believe it. For a bit over a week, I had somewhere to stay, a shower, and didn’t have to worry about anything. After that I went to my first rooming house.”

It sounds like Jesse is on the road to recovery. He’s not, of course, because while his story isn’t a cliche, we’ve all read the script. Life as a drug addict wasn’t meant to be easy. Jesse has some more battles to win and we’ll get to them a little later.

In the meantime, let’s meet Bec, who also wishes to remain anonymous. If Jesse’s story didn’t tug at your heartstrings — and for many it won’t, well not yet anyway — Tom’s story will.

Tom, 20, ended up on the streets when he was about 16, but the seeds of that descent were sown eight years earlier. Tom picks up the story …

“My problems started when I was about eight,” he says.

“My mum brought a drunk home and he was abusive towards me, my brothers and my sister. He used to get up in our faces and yell, and that went on for three and a half years.

“As soon as I turned 11, I said to  mum I needed to move out. I moved into my father’s house and, about a month later, my mum had an accident and died.

“I didn’t know what to do. All I knew was being abused from a young age and losing people for no reason. My dad took me in, which I will always be grateful for. He took me out of that unsafe environment.

“I stayed with dad until I finished my Year 11 VCAL and then I told him I wanted to take a break for a year or two before doing uni. He said I was causing him too much stress while I was at home. He gave me an ultimatum: seek help at Headspace and try to get the grief out so as not to cause him stress and me stress so he can benefit his own health while he’s still got me in his life.

“Unfortunately I was still causing him too much stress so I had to move out.”

Homelessness and couch surfing at friends’ places meant Tom sometimes went for a week without eating.

When your mother has died and your father kicks you out, the only place Tom could turn to was his brother, but his brother wasn’t prepared for a 16-year-old housemate appearing on his doorstep, sibling or no sibling.

“I moved in with my brother and that’s where it started,” Tom says and by “it” he’s referring to starvation.

“I was not eating for days, sometimes a week, and I didn’t know where my next meal was coming from or where I was going to stay.”

Tom describes this bleak period as “a bit of a struggle” but that’s what homelessness does to you. It numbs you to the harsh reality of your lived experience. Call it a coping mechanism. Better to forget as much as you can.

“When you are couch surfing you don’t know when you are going to be kicked out,” Tom says.

“You don’t know how much you will need to pay to get by week to week. I’ve lived at mates places where I’ve had to pay up to $400 a fortnight. So I’ve gone days, even a week, without food. It’s definitely a struggle.

“I wasn’t on Centrelink, but had to get on that so I could pay for my own food. I would sleep the days away so I didn’t have to eat.

“Now every time I get paid I overeat because I want to fill up my week of not eating because my stomach gets to the point where it just hurts constantly.”

Bec, who like Jesse doesn’t want to be identified, has a similar backstory. She has spent three years living in her car with her two dogs.

“I experienced violence and trauma in my family home, and just couldn’t do it anymore,” she says.

“Being homeless and sleeping in my car seemed like a better option than living in that environment. It wasn’t safe.”

Bec says people would occasionally take pity on her and offer to accommodate her for a night or two — but there was always a clause: “I couldn’t bring my dogs.”

“The same was for crisis accommodation,” Bec says. “I was never going to give up my dogs because they never give up on you. They don’t care if you’re rich or poor, they just love you. Unconditional love. They’re your best friends. When I was cold, they warmed me up. Gave me hugs and loved me when I had no one else. I would never give that up.”

Homelessness makes “you want to forget, to numb yourself, so you don’t feel. It’s not the answer, but it happens”, says Bec.

Like Jesse, Bec also ended up with a drug habit, but where Jesse’s addiction was rooted in wanting to stay awake, Bec’s was rooted in wanting to literally crawl into a corner and shun the world.

“I guess that happens when you have trauma and stuff in the past that you want to forget,” she says. “You want to forget, to numb yourself, so you don’t feel. It’s not the answer, but it happens.”

Jeremey, 50, was a soldier back in the day. A man’s man. Like Jesse, he was bullet proof. Ice took Jesse’s life away but gambling was Jeremey’s undoing.

“I’ve worked all my life,” Jeremey, who was homeless for about 18 months, says. “I had my own business, I’ve owned a home and I’ve been a single parent for most of my children’s lives.”

Not now, though.

“I’ve lost thousands off gambling, he says. “I’ve lost the home, I’ve lost a business …”

Jeremey didn’t end up on the streets, however. He headed for the bush. As you do.

“I have a disability called spinocerebellar ataxia and it was increasingly encroaching on my life,” Jeremey says.

“I was a single parent and I didn’t look after my mental health. I gave up. I was lost and ended up in the bush.

“I was a soldier when I was growing up so I knew I was going to be all right. I actually believed if I had a few other pieces of equipment I could have lived off the land — but that was unrealistic.

“It was really hard. I wasn’t even getting Centrelink so I was getting no money. My youngest daughter was sending me $100 a week and that’s how I got through.”

It’s been said before — even in these pages — that homelessness is a scourge on first world society. We’ve just heard how it can happen, but still .. how can it happen? How can there not be enough roofs to house our population? Speaking of which, it is estimated Victoria alone will need an extra 1.6 million houses by 2051 to accommodate everyone expected to be within its borders. That’s 1.6 million in 29 years or, to break it down, 4600 a month for the next 348 months.

Safe to say the term “crisis accommodation” has never been more appropriate.

Right now there is an estimated 24,00 people in Victoria sleeping rough (up 14 per cent in past five years) and a further 1600 in Tasmania.

When asked to describe what its like when home is address unknown, many people struggle to articulate that cold reality. Perhaps they understandably just don’t want to go there again.

Tom ventures into this terrain gently. He says loneliness was what played mostly on his mind. That and insecurity.

“You just don’t know who’s going to be there from one day to the next,” he says of his years spent couch surfing.

“It messes with everything because you don’t know who has your back.

“My mental health has gone to s***.”

Jeremey lived in the bush for 18 months after struggling with mental health issues.

Jesse was more forthcoming. He picks up his story, having just found temporary shelter at a rooming house.

“Rooming houses in Melbourne are pretty full on,” he says. “I stayed there for a short time and then left. I didn’t want to pay the money to stay there because I was still using drugs.

“Rough sleeping in inner-city Melbourne was pretty creepy and unsafe. I chose to sleep a bit out of the city because it felt safer.

“A typical day when I was rough sleeping and at the height of my drug use, was waking up at sunrise and then planning my way into the CBD. I would go to shoplift items I could then sell to support my drug habit.

“I would then sell these and buy heroin. Basically, I would then just repeat this: stealing, selling the goods, buying drugs, using drugs. The end of the day was then about finding somewhere to sleep that night.”

As a woman, Bec had other matters to address, something Jesse, Tom and Jeremey never had to consider — personal hygiene.

“Probably the hardest times when you’re rough sleeping is when you’ve got your period, or you’re sick,” Bec says.

“No clean clothes and everything is just dirty, all your blankets are wet. Or it’s 40 degrees and you don’t have money for a cold drink for you or your dogs.

“You feel pretty low at those times. I would wake up in the morning in my car, then have to go and find a toilet and some food, maybe a shower. This sometimes took all morning to achieve.

“There is also the challenge of how to get mail if you are homeless and don’t have an address. I didn’t have a bank card for ages because there was nowhere to send it to, and I couldn’t pick it up from the bank because I didn’t have any identification documents. So I had money, but couldn’t get it. I couldn’t get the identification documents for the same reason, no address to send it to. They’re little things, but they become frustrating and make life hard.”

Another contributing factor that made life “hard” was COVID-19. When Victoria went into hard lockdown, no one was spared, not even those sleeping rough. That’s why Jeremey went bush.

Uniting, which is one of the leading agencies in Victoria and Tasmania trying to provide shelter to people who need it, has seen a 53 per cent increase in people seeking accommodation. It has also experienced a significant increase in demand for housing support among people experiencing family violence, particularly women.

To this end, it has pledged $20 million towards new affordable housing builds and to help increase tenancies by 500 across Victoria and Tasmania in the next five years.

Tom is one of the people who has sought refuge through Uniting, both for his physical and mental well-being.

“My dad is sick, which is causing me stress because there’s the not knowing whether he’ll be alive next week,” he says.

“I’m trying to work on my mental health and I have benefitted from going through Uniting and doing programs. They’ve made me feel at home and given me a place to stay, food to eat. They’ve made me feel like a family.”

Kindness is the greatest quality that can be shown to people enduring homelessness.

Tom is staying at Barnagnen, a Uniting facility providing support to people aged 16-25 years with a mental health condition that is impacting on everyday life.

“I’m so grateful that I no longer have to worry about where I will be staying from one day to the next,” Tom says. They’ve also opened up possibilities for me. They’ve given me job interviews.”

Bec says she found refuge at Uniting’s Street2Home service via a referral.

“I didn’t really reach out for help,” she says. “The first meeting didn’t go well. I was really sceptical that anyone would actually help me. I was almost trying to fight with them and push them away. The workers were pretty persistent though, in a good way, saying they would come back next week and try again. They really were my last hope, and I eventually let them help me.

“I went into a temporary housing program, and finally had my own unit with my dogs. There were others living in units on the same site and workers were there during the day. I met other people that were like me, and this definitely helped my journey.

“I am now in my own house. Just me and my dogs. It’s my safe place. Everyone deserves a safe place. Without safety you can’t do anything.

“Happiness is starting to take over now, instead of the trauma and sadness.”

So that’s “them”, people living on the edges. What about “us”? What can we do? Well, sometimes a little bit can go a long way and each person interviewed for this article stressed the need for understanding and looking past well-ingrained prejudices.

“Just be kind,” Jeremey says, simply. “Absolute generosity is required.”

Bec says she still remembers the way people would look at her when she slept in her car.

“They would stare, or point, or mutter things, or look on you with pity, or disgust,” she says.

“I would hear them say, ‘something is wrong with her that she is homeless’, but they have no idea what’s happened or is happening in your life.”

Tom asks people to be less judgemental.

“Never judge a person by their past or present,” he says. “They’ve obviously gone through something to be where they’re at.

“Homelessness knocks people down to their knees and they want a way out which, unfortunately, is suicide for a lot of people. But that’s not the answer. There are places out there like Uniting that will help people.

“Never judge a book by its cover.”

There’s those cliches again.

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