I was a single mother when my daughter finished Year 12. We were renting and she was contributing a little bit to the rent from her part time job so when she moved out I couldn’t pay the rent anymore so I ended up buying a cheap bus, converting it and living in that. I parked at the Blackheath council-run campground for three months for free but then it got too cold and I went north to Byron Bay.
Once I got to Byron I loved it so much I didn’t want to leave. I just felt I was home and I met wonderful people up there that I enjoyed connecting with and talking with and finding out their story. A lot of the community centres up there feed people and I used to go and sit and eat there with the homeless people and of course I got to know them all. And this is what the charities don’t do, they don’t sit and eat with them, they’re behind a desk and they’ve got a suit on and that’s what I didn’t want to be like. I wanted to be like the homeless people, I wanted to say to them, “I’m just like you, there’s no difference between us but I care about you, I want to help you and you matter to me.” I used to take them to doctor’s appointments, I used to give them sleeping bags, I used to check up on them and I was treated with the utmost respect by these homeless men, most of them were older, chronically unwell, with alcohol and drug addictions but most of them treated me so well because they knew I was genuine and I cared about them. It was like a family connection really.
But I felt very alone doing this because I tried to get people to help me but I couldn’t. And that was Byron Bay, one of the quintessential places of the whole planet that focuses on spirituality. But the homeless were left almost completely to themselves despite all this spirituality. I used to say to people, “You might be vegan, you might be doing yoga everyday but are you not caring for your brother?” That awareness did not seem to be there. I went to the Mayor and I went to the Byron Bay Community Centre who were feeding the homeless but they were such a mainstream system they couldn’t really think creatively out of the square with me and how to incorporate what I was doing. And because I wasn’t an official Not-for-profit they didn’t want to know me.
So I was rejected and abandoned just like the people I was helping. And it’s so painful because you’re there trying to help people and nothing’s happening. It’s very, very frustrating.
The services there were busy and full, so they could only do so much for them. They’d go to Vinnies, they’d get a food voucher, they can only get so many, they’d give them a sleeping bag but homeless people use a sleeping bag and the next day it’s gone, and they run out of things. One of the main things we were asked for was so that they could have a hot shower and there were showers installed through my intervention and others but it took a long time.
I felt so limited in my capacity to help working with the homeless, working with them one on one, because their needs are so great. I was one person, I didn’t have a corporation behind me, I didn’t have money for them, I didn’t have anything to give them really.
I wanted to help them in a very big way. I was unable to do so and that was painful for me because as you get to know each person they become like your friends and you don’t want to know they’re sleeping rough that night because you don’t want to see your friends get hurt. And it’s not OK.
I started a charity through talking with some other community members, they were friends of mine and they were passionate about doing something too so one or two of them helped me get the Not-for-profit up and running, it’s called One Roof Byron and it’s still going.
When I first went up to Byron in my bus, I never saw myself as homeless, I saw myself in an adventure and I wanted to do that, it was my choice. I could have stayed and rented a tiny flat in Katoomba but I couldn’t see myself doing that. And because my daughter moved out of home at 18 and I’d been a single parent for so long I was exhausted and I needed to reframe who I was, I needed to find myself.
I’d also had a son at 26 and I was pregnant with him and a single mother as well. So I’ve been a single mother for 36 years altogether with two children. He’s older, he’s 36, and she’s 26. The same thing happened to me both times – met someone, got pregnant, but things didn’t go right. I’m not close to my son at the moment, but that will change in the future.
I wouldn’t have gone unless my daughter moved out first and I couldn’t pay the rent. That’s how it all happened; it wasn’t my plan to do that. It was just the most practical thing to do at the time, to live in an alternative lifestyle like that.
But I did feel homeless when I started living in a caravan. A lot of the money I had I spent living up there just trying to help other people and trying to survive myself. I didn’t have any money left after that so I sold the bus and lived in a caravan on a friend’s property. But it was very toxic living there, very difficult, no bathroom, so I did feel homeless there.
The feeling of homelessness is that you feel powerless because you feel trapped. You try everything but you can’t get out. You’re inside a brown paper bag and no one can get you out. You are in there and you are stuck. And you try everything but nothing works. It’s entrapment, terrible entrapment. And I consider myself an intelligent well-rounded worldly person so why couldn’t I manage to get out of it? A lot of other people on the street, they had drug and alcohol problems so that would affect them getting help but I didn’t have that problem. I can see how easy it is to get entrenched by the system and to be stuck in it because it’s not as simple as people make out. They say women who are in the older age bracket they’re the most vulnerable now. They don’t have the resources of a young person anymore.
I was in Byron about three years altogether. I was homeless the whole time I was up there, living in buses and caravans, struggling along without a bathroom, and technically you’re homeless if you don’t have a bathroom. And I was engaging Housing and trying to get help but that didn’t work either. I was a just a number trying to get through the system. It’s a long wait out there, it’s a very popular place, and everyone wants to live up there. Eventually, after I couldn’t cope with being in a bus or a caravan anymore I got housesitting and I went from housesitting into an apartment. It took up every dollar I got from the government under Newstart to pay the rent so I didn’t really have money for food. But I had a place I could call my own and I liked it in there, the only problem was it was under someone’s house, and it wasn’t legal and it was full of mould and when I complained about that she gave me notice to leave. I was dealing with the Tenancy Advice people to try and get help but they didn’t help me either. It was all an impossible situation.
Then a huge flood came and flooded the whole of Lismore and the whole of South Golden Beach where I was and the whole area so a lot of people became instantly homeless including me. I got one metre of water through the whole apartment and I lost a lot of things there. So I got in my car and I went back to the Blue Mountains and I started housesitting again there but it all became very exhausting, being 62 now, it’s not like I’m 25 anymore. I think if I was a lot younger I could have sustained the housesitting a lot longer.
Every two months I’d get a housesit and that was how I survived on a very limited income. I didn’t feel I had the energy or the ability to go and get a job, which I would have to have to try and pay the rent somewhere. I think I got burnout. I’m not housesitting now though.
I got offered a place a bit more than two years ago with Anglicare Housing and I ended up taking that but I went through hell and back there. I would have preferred to be still housesitting or in a caravan or a bus rather than living there because violence ensued against me and other people in the building even though we had tenants’ rights and our own individual apartments. Anglicare’s attitude was, and it’s still going on, that you’re the scum of the earth, you’ve been homeless, you don’t matter so we’re going to throw you all in together, we’re not going to screen anyone, we’re just going to throw you all in together and let you sink or swim. And even the caretaker they put in there was a bully, a very nasty person who intimidated women.
A lot of women left and they were homeless women but they left that service because they couldn’t cope with it. I ended up having a heart attack there, a triple bypass and I blame Anglicare for it because I was feeling pretty good when I moved in there but it just completely drained the life out of me living there. You think a housing service is going to support you. I thought I’m going to be okay now I’ve got a place to live. But I didn’t feel safe because there was violence in the building and the management weren’t doing anything about it at all. There were people with mental illness there who were psychotic. My life was threatened there and I think that’s why I had the heart attack because I shared a wall with this lady who was living next door and she would continually bang, bang, bang her door night and day and talk to herself. I was worried about her as well. It hit me like a spiritual attack all the time I was there.
I didn’t know how I’d ever leave. I didn’t have any money to go anywhere. I considered going to a women’s refuge but I thought that’s going to be as bad for my mental health. I felt like my mental health was going down and down and down. I was drowning there and the more I fought them the worse it was for me because I had less power and then one day I realised they’re not going to change no matter what I say or do they’re no going to change anything here. I thought if I jumped up and down and shouted loud enough they’d do something but they didn’t. Going through that experience was probably one of the hardest things I’ve been through in my whole life. Living in a bus was a hundred times better than that because in the bus, I was in my own space I wasn’t beholden to anyone
One day I just did a 360 and realised I had to spend my energy getting out of there instead of fighting them. But it took many months to get out of there. I was very blessed to fill out some application forms and eight months ago I got offered Catholic housing and it’s not perfect but I’m very, very happy there.
My daughter’s 26 now and she’s thriving; she’s just finished a graphic design degree and she’s got a very good job. She lives in Penrith. And when I was away in Byron she missed me a lot and I missed her and I knew she needed me and I had to come back so when I got flooded out it was interesting timing that she came back then too.
I think learning through difficulty it changes you and you learn things you wouldn’t normally learn, you go through things you normally wouldn’t go through and I could honestly say that had I not been homeless or a single mother or struggled myself I wouldn’t have done the Drug and Alcohol Cert IV that I did when my daughter was two because I wanted to work with people who had issues because I knew people even then who had problems. And having that Cert IV really helped me when I was on the street with these other people several years later.
I’d like to say to people that everyone is connected to everyone else. We’re not disconnected. And so when you’re seeing other people who are homeless, they’re just like you, there’s no difference, no distance, between you and them really and this is what we need to change spiritually and to change in our culture because people don’t help them because they feel like they’re a nobody, they’re distant to them, they don’t relate to them. But they’re just human beings that have just fallen on tough times. And we need to change the system so that people reach out to other people whether it’s domestic violence, they’re homeless, or they’re mentally ill. Whatever it is, it’s your neighbour and you’re meant to be helping them in some way.