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Catholic Teacher blog: Stories of homelessness

28 May 2019

It can be frighteningly easy to slip into homelessness – a job loss, sickness, family breakdown or shortage of affordable housing can all be contributing factors to the loss of a home.

St Vincent de Paul Society is one charity that works to alleviate the problems of homelessness and in June will hold its annual national Vinnies CEO Sleepout to raise money to support Vinnies services for people experiencing homelessness and poverty, including crisis accommodation, food vouchers, rent assistance, referral services and more.

The following stories are from people Vinnies have come into contact in their work with those who are homeless.

Doug

Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1967 Doug’s life has thrown him challenges that make you wonder how he’s still standing today. He talks candidly of his background. It’s not sunshine and roses and his choices haven’t always been good ones, but you can’t help admire that he never gave up.

Doug left home at 15, sometimes sleeping at friends’ houses, until he found himself sleeping rough more often than not. His mum had volunteered with Vinnies and he turned to them for help with food, train tickets and occasionally money to help see him through until five years later Vinnies were able to help with accommodation. By this time Doug was struggling with drug and alcohol addiction and stuck in a destructive cycle.

‘At 15 to 20 years old and living rough, smoking, drinking and drugs was normal in those days.’

In his 30s, within six months of trying heroin he’d become addicted, lost everything, and gone to jail. Doug says jail and religion were his turning point and he made a commitment then to turn his life around. He built meaningful relationships with other inmates, helped them with reading and writing, sometimes simply listening to their stories. He found this so rewarding that when released he studied Social Care which then led to work.

Doug had overcome drug addiction, homelessness, mental illness and maintained his commitment to a better life, when in 2011 the house he was living in burnt down with him inside. Pulled from the flames, Doug was severely injured and ‘died’ several times as medical staff treated him. He sustained third degree burns to 50 percent of his body and faced a long and painful road to recovery. He was also homeless again.

While recovering Doug became increasingly withdrawn not wanting to impose or ask for help. Vinnies again stepped in to give a hand up by offering accommodation through social housing, providing a hospital bed to assist with recovery, bringing meals to his room as he felt his burns would make other residents uncomfortable, and providing clothing vouchers. They offered hope and friendship.

Doug says he’s thankful for Vinnies and its volunteers as they’ve always accepted him for who he is, without judgment.

‘Vinnies has always been there to throw an arm around me. To have someone who cares – that’s powerful. They helped me realise there’s a way out…and it’s not under a bus.’

Anne and Olivia*

Anne became homeless after fleeing domestic violence. At the time her teenage daughter Olivia was staying with friends in a small unit having previously left the family home unable to cope with the violence. 

Anne stayed with Olivia for only a couple of nights because of severe overcrowding and the complaints of Olivia’s flatmates. Anne left and slept in her car for a time before being provided temporary accommodation in a refuge.

Already diagnosed with anxiety and depression, Olivia needed her mother and was feeling terrible that she was alone. They asked to be together at the refuge but were refused as the mother had come in as a solo client. Now unable to return to the unit as her friends had their partners move in, Olivia found herself homeless and was given temporary accommodation in the same refuge as her mother. Their request to be in the same room was declined. 

Both the Anne and Olivia found it difficult to be apart and opted to sleep in their car as a way to be together and support one another. Living in their car they tried to ‘make each day an adventure’ travelling to the beaches to shower and eating outdoors in parks etc.

They disclosed how cold and frightening the nights would be and how difficult it was to find an affordable rental, particularly as they were both on Newstart allowance. They described how difficult it was to find a job when you had nowhere to live and how lonely the life was. 

Being homeless affected their mental and physical health, self-esteem and what was left of their family unit. Finally, successful with finding a unit, although their income barely covers the rent, they are both trying to find employment. However, they are also dealing with the effect this ordeal has had on their overall wellbeing.

The St Vincent de Paul Society, Rozelle region, has helped with furnishing the unit, providing home visits by the members to assist with food and social support, free counselling, medication cost, utility bills etc. This family was provided with a ‘hand up’ and will continue to require our ongoing assistance until back on track.

The most important aspect of this scenario is that this mother now knows they are never alone and is aware of the ongoing support available to her through St Vincent de Paul Society.

*Names have been changed

Image: Doug, supplied by St Vincent de Paul Society Victoria

 

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