I was homeless until March 2012, when I finally gained a privately rented unit. In that time I slept in parks, alleys, boarding houses, tents and everywhere in between. I attempted suicide, lost all sense of reality and learned to both despise and love this world.
In this series I am looking back on my homelessness in an effort to understand what has happened to me as well as holding onto the hope that others will learn from what I have been through. Some memories are stronger than others, some more painful than others whilst some have been blocked completely.
Today, the end of my homelessness nears…
Christmas Under Canvas (Days 898 – 903)
It was the Salvation Army who helped me get a tent. After years of having no shelter, having something that resembled a ‘home’ was a totally new experience for me. Seeking some security for the Christmas period I checked into a campsite (paying somewhat extortionate fees for the experience) and pitched my new home amidst a sea of caravans and cabins.
I can remember this Christmas more clearly than virtually any other during my homeless experience. I can remember curling up in my blankets on a chilly Christmas Eve, rain pouring onto the canvas above my head, reading Ben Elton’s Past Mortem. I can remember being thankful for my tent during such a vicious storm, having been drenched by so many of them in the past two years. I can remember vividly attending a locally run Christmas Lunch for people in need; how succulent the turkey tasted, how the vegetables melted in my mouth, how the custard smothered the Christmas Pudding. And I can remember how bizarre it was that a local journalist interviewed me for a piece in the local newspaper, which featured one of the few photographs taken of me during the last seven years.
The rain lasted well into Boxing Day, and I sheltered from it reading more books under the cover of my tent; Jason Pinter’s The Stolen, Frank Perretti’s Monster and Robin Bowles’ Justice Denied. However lonely I felt, however lost I was, being able to hide from the world for the first time in years was a prize I relished. It had provided me with a truly relaxing Christmas period; a period that I will remember always as being one of the highlights of my homeless experience.
But as with everything in my life, such peace was not to last long, for by New Year my recent Marcus Kelman interlude rose its ugly head and drove me to turn to alcohol for the first time since becoming homeless in 2009.
My last suicide attempt (Day 907)
The last time I attempted suicide was on the 30 December 2011. I had spent much of the day sitting in my tent drinking through several bottles of wine before deciding to ‘go for a walk’ (read: stagger) very late in the evening. Not knowing the locale all that well, I meandered along a couple of roads, discovered a cemetery and then stumbled upon a railway line. Given my inebriated state, I don’t recall the moment that I decided my action, I just remember thinking that if I laid down on the railway line sooner or later a train would come and dismember me as I slept. So I positioned myself over the sleepers and, after a while, allowed myself to drift off to sleep knowing that it would be one I would unlikely wake from.
So when I woke up the next morning, several hours later, I was deeply surprised that I was still intact let alone breathing. Realising that I had failed once again I got up, shook myself down, had a quick vomit and began to slowly make my way back to my tent.
It wasn’t until several days later that I learnt the flaw behind my ‘train will hit me as I sleep’ reasoning; the train-line I had slept on was no longer in operation, replaced instead by one a couple of kilometres away.
New Year, New Outlook (Days 909 – 939)
Having spent another New Year homeless, lost and isolated, I vowed to myself as the calendar turned to 2012 that this would be the final New Year I would spend homeless. Sitting in the cemetery watching the fireworks blaze up around the town I realised that I had to syphon what little hope I had left (which at this point wasn’t much) into trying to find a way off the streets. I couldn’t handle another boarding house, so I knew it would have to be my own place, however difficult and impossible this seemed.
By now I was slowly starting to get to know the new town I had found myself in – Wodonga – and decided that I should return to applying for private rentals. Early in my homelessness I had spent many hours applying for such apartments and rental units, all to no avail, but thought that being in a smaller town may prove more fruitful in my search.
Thus, shortly after New Year, I began applying for whatever property I could reasonably afford. I spent my days scouring the local paper, visiting real estate agents and trundling along to viewings. I submitted application after application, all the while hoping that someone would take pity on the life of a homeless wretch and honour him with the opportunity to prove he was more than capable of renting his own property.
After a couple of weeks with no luck my initial flourish of activity began to fade. There were only so many affordable units in such a small town and with nothing offered to me so far I began to realise it was doubtful anything would be.
One of the main problems with being homeless is that most of society pigeon-hole you into the ‘no chance’ category. You’re not considered for rental properties in the same way that someone who works is because you are viewed as being no longer ‘part of society’. It’s the same mentality that governs work and friendship; it is much easier to find work and make new friends when you already have work and friends, because otherwise people wonder what’s wrong with you. Instead of being considered for my merits, people would have seen my homelessness (not helped by the recent newspaper article) and tossed my application aside.
So after three or four weeks I gave up and began spending what little money I had in the local pokie venues.
The thrall of light and sound
My first foray into the world of gambling in Australian pokie venues occurred in the months after my breakdown in 2007. It was a means of escaping from the pain and trauma that was happening to me. I would take a small amount of money and spend hours losing myself to the sights and sounds of the various machines, relishing each small victory and cursing every major defeat. I knew it was something I should not be doing, but it was the only joy I had during such a painful and destructive time.
So it came as little surprise to me that, after weeks of trying to obtain secure accommodation to no avail, that I would turn to old habits to ease my pain. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it is something I’m glad happened, for it led to me contact a gambling help line, who referred me to a local counselling service and, for the first time in years, I began seeing a counsellor who I slowly began to open up to about everything that was happening to me.
This counsellor helped me realise that I shouldn’t give up on applying for rental properties. That although my life had been fraught with pain and devastation for longer than most could deal with, it didn’t always have to be like that.
The phone call (Day 957)
I was sitting in the local library, reading the daily newspaper, when my mobile phone rang. Usually the phone only rang during the evening, when my parents would call from the UK, so at first I thought something catastrophic had happened at home that had forced them to call in the middle of the night (their time). But it wasn’t. The person at the end of the phone worked for a local real estate company and their message was simple; my application had been approved and I could move into my own unit, just so long as I paid them the bond and two weeks rent in advance.
At first I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was a joke. I thought it was someone’s sick idea of humour. But a visit to the real estate agent proved these fears untrue. All that work, all those years of hardship, all those 957 days of pain and torment would soon be over.
The Last Days of Homelessness (Days 958 – 960)
Kindly, my parents and relatives helped organise the bond and rent that I needed to secure the accommodation. They, like me, were overwhelmed with the chance I had been given and knew that I couldn’t pass it up. I spent much of the next three days lost in a mist of productivity; organising money transfers, signing forms, paying money, smirking like a lunatic hyped up on some form of illegal narcotic. And by the Thursday (trust me, it was definitely a Thursday – the 23rd February in fact) everything was sorted and I could move into my new unit.
Walking into the building for the first time, tossing my meagre possessions to the carpet and closing the door behind me, are all memories that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. After years of living in parks, alleys, boarding houses and hovels, I had a place that was ‘mine’; a roof that was ‘mine’; a home that was ‘mine’.
With no furniture I slept on the floor that night, overwhelmed with the week’s events and unable to process the results of my hard (hard) work. I remember a phone call from my dad waking me up and I just told him it was over; I had moved in and everything had worked out.
The relief in his voice was palpable.
A new life (Day 1…)