A few months ago I moved into community housing. I live in a beautiful little unit, and I love it so very much, but it also has brought up a lot for me.
The people that live here are all in very different places in their lives, but we all share a history of homelessness, poverty or trauma. It’s very hard to see all the manifestations that those backgrounds churn out, and even harder to be confronted by my own reflection in this place.
There is so much good that is done here, and I’m not naming the organisation for that reason. My unit is based on my income, which means I feel safe that I won’t be homeless again any time soon, and my sweet little unit is mine. Conversations are always happening about what homelessness looks like, and I want to show you my little slice.
I decided to go for a walk to Coles to grab some groceries. It was a short walk, after all – my little unit is right in the middle of the city, and everything is close. Outside the supermarket sat the usual beggars, hunched over, clothes smeared with grime, their faces wrinkled and weathered, skin rough and hair oily. Normally I would walk past them, trying to avoid their gaze, feeling a mix of annoyance and guilt. This time I saw someone I recognised though, and I did a double take, a feeling of shock washing through me. One was from in my unit block, a tall man that always greeted me, always wished me a good day – but whom always looked somewhat detached. He had scared me when I first moved into the building, my experience of homelessness was different, I was young- and there was more support for someone my age. I didn’t look as scarred as he did. He had been living rough for so long he still went back to the same patterns, begging for cash on the streets – not to rort the system, but because he was still stuck in survival mode.
This is the thing housing doesn’t give us. No community, no family, no support to work through our trauma. It assumes that if we have food and housing and clothing, that we are on a level playing field with everyone else. This is not true.
Our building has two free food days, where Oz Harvest delivers food that they have collected from neighbouring businesses (some of it imperfect, or close to use by date, or sandwiches and bakery goods that haven’t sold, or is simply surplus to their needs), and delivers it to us. The process is pretty simple, a yellow van arrives, and we all help to carry it into our common area. Then some of us are appointed as volunteers, while the rest are made to wait outside. While the volunteers sort the food and separate it onto tables, hoping to spread it far enough that all of us have a chance to get something, the rest of us all stand behind the glass doors, all of us watching eagerly, trying to bustle our way to the front, wanting to be the first people through the door. If you think uni students at an open day are bad, you have no concept of what hunger is. There is no orderly line here, just a jostling crowd.The people waiting behind this glass door are a mix, some of us just trying to make our money stretch a little further, others haven’t eaten in days, some know they have no food left and this is their only chance at a meal this week. There is an electricity, half of us with an experience of trauma, knowing that this is some kind of a battle. It sounds dramatic, but it’s the truth, it feels as though we are gearing up for a fight. When those doors open we all rush and grab, not taking time to measure how much we need it or what meal we could prepare, but just grabbing anything that looks like something we need. Many of the people here don’t know how to cook or prepare hot meals. They were never taught.
Eventually it slows and the anxiety burns, some of us run out immediately, rushing to store our food, others wait around and talk to each other, clinging to some desperate need to be seen as normal people, as though this was just a market place and not a non-negotiable need. I should mention at this point how grateful we all are to Oz Harvest. The service is invaluable, the volunteers are so lovely, and many of us have shed private tears for the wonder that is a proper meal when we are left with nothing. What I am trying to explain, is the humanity that is lost and gained in a moment like this. The struggle and fight that continues after homelessness is replaced with a home. It leaves an instinct that stays.
The first week I was here, we were talking afterwards and I mentioned that I was at uni. I could feel eyes on me, instantly judging me. It’s a privilege, that we forget, to be educated. Not that it helps me at the moment. My trauma keeps me struggling to even apply for jobs, and even when I do make a shortlist, I don’t have enough experience. It’s hard for all uni students in this climate, but it’s even harder for people with mental illness and disability, and who are so entrenched in poverty that to be alive, let alone a graduate, seems a milestone in and of itself. Most of the people here couldn’t study. Some of them work, others are TAFE or uni students like me, others either don’t have the money to study or just couldn’t because of their illnesses. Some of them aren’t even able to look into the future that far, they are stuck in the homeless head set, trying to figure out the day. We are a group of people that are used to not needing to plan, that never expected that we would have made it as far as we have, even if our markers of success are wildly different. For those that are looking big picture, we realise how stuck we are. How many barriers we face in getting any further. How hard it is to get out of bed, let alone find employment – and stay employed.
We get into the lift and it smells, we all know that someone has been skipping showers. I want to have empathy, and understand that someone is going through a tough time, and be proud of them for going downstairs to get food, or even just some air. I understand, and I want to care. But it smells, and it’s confronting.
I go back to my room, and I love it. It is so perfect and beautiful, and MINE. I have a big window that overlooks the back of the city, and on a cloudy day I can see the ocean, and a glimpse of the jetty. I’ve never lived in an apartment building before, so it seems like a hotel to me, except a nice one, with all my things in it. It is small, just one large room with a bathroom, but more than enough. I have a fruit bowl, filled with avocados and carrots and tomatoes and apples that I scored from Oz Harvest. It seems like a luxury.
Outside my room I can hear banging. It scared me when I first moved in, but now it seems normal. Doors slam and I hear yelling. My body freezes and I strain to listen. I am scared, but it is normal. Another voice in a different room is crying, sobbing loudly, gasping for breath. I try to ignore it.
I walk out of my room, tucking my keys into my pocket. A woman is standing there, jittery, unable to stand still. I note the oddness, but little else. She begins to punch the wall. Turns and kicks the lift door. Our eyes meet for a second, but the lift arrives. She gets in, I decide to wait. I feel frozen, numb, nothing. I feel a deep sadness, an empathy. A knowledge that this woman is struggling and that nobody is helping her, that she is most likely a schizophrenic of her meds, caught in a horrible world that she can’t get out of. I am scared too, because an angry woman just lost control in front of me, and I am lucky that I wasn’t hurt. I am lucky she decided to hit the wall and the door and not my face. I am angry because this is my home now, and it’s threatened, not because anyone here is bad, but because we are let down. This is our inheritance. When child protection services don’t save these kids, when mental health services won’t step in (because it’s too much of a crisis, or too complex a problem) and are defunded (10 sessions under medicare is not enough for people who experience complex and longterm problems), and when we are given the basics to survive instead of the support we need to thrive.
I know that not everybody understands. I just wish that people were a little more understanding, a little more kind, and a little more educated. Most homeless people are homeless because we were let down, not because we did anything wrong, or made a wrong turn. We are people, just people who got a few less chances.