The Big Issue : Edition 560
THEBIGISSUE.ORG.AU 20 APR–3 MAY 2018 29 LIVING HO MELESSILLUSTRATIONBYMICHELSTREICH AS I HANDED over the money for two weeks of boarding, the reality sunk in. I was homeless. Placing my bags on my bunk bed, I noticed the other five beds in the room, and realised that I was sharing this room with five strangers. The entire complex had 21 rooms, meaning at maximum capacity I was sharing with more than 100 strangers. It was the start of winter when the streets are at their coldest to sleep on, and the peak time of the year for the boarding house – and also its safest time. Many consider homelessness to be what they see – the rough sleepers, those on the streets – but the reality includes so many more people who are couch surfing and squatting, seeking shelter in crisis accommodation and boarding houses. If you do not have safe, secure, long-term accommodation – if I can’t send a letter to you – then that is homelessness. I lived in a boarding house for 10 months. I was paying $175 per week to live in a place I believe many would not put up with. Cold showers were normal. The owner said he couldn’t afford to fix the boiler at the moment. That moment lasted four months. Trying to get back on your feet is tough. Looking for work in smelly clothes, lacking a shower, barely the energy to go out the door, is tough. Coupled with the fear of theft – food or anything else – it led to an almost agoraphobic tendency. It wasn’t all bad; I try to focus on the positives as best I can. Sure, I’d cry in my bed, but to others I was a smiling face. My nickname was Mr Fantastic, because I was always smiling. But inside I was dying, alone I was crying. I met some of the most amazing, resilient people in my life living in that boarding house. A Sudanese man who had suffered a car accident, and the lack of family support in Australia meant he was homeless. There was another man, who did not have a job, but he did have a 12-year-old daughter. He was homeless; she was along for the ride. Boarding houses are lacking in support, lacking in accountability, but it beats the streets, right? It does, until someone walks in with a gun. Or a resident decides someone stole their food and takes the kitchen knife upstairs. Then you hear screams seconds later, police, ambulances. Remember that those inside are paying for this so-called home. It was never a home, not a place to hang your coat, lay your head. It was hell. I still have nightmares about it, and I’ve not lived there for almost two years. I still find sleeping difficult. I often have to put on background audio to help me sleep. I mentioned earlier the boarding house was safest when it was at capacity, because there are more eyes, more ears, more people to call friend. When it was dwindling to a population of 20 or 30 boarders the situation became worse, the owner became desperate for money and let in people he wouldn’t normally accept. He had bills to pay. Lying in my bed at night, hearing someone banging his own head on the wall because he’s suffering, because he doesn’t know what else to do, is scary. Hearing a scream from outside the door – not knowing if it was rape, if it was murder or if it was just someone screaming for no reason – is terrifying. As is making that decision to help or not. Cliques are formed – if you’re not in one then good luck finding your clothes still in a washing machine, or your food in the fridge, or your blankets on your bed. I made the best of the worst situations. I cooked for those there that couldn’t cook for themselves. Many had learning disabilities, couldn’t cook a pancake from an insta-mix. I went back to school, I studied, and after 10 months of study, hard work and saving, I was able to leave that place. I’m proud of who I am, what I’ve accomplished. Yet I have a constant fear that I’ll go back. I most likely won’t, I’ve got a good job again now working as a peer support worker with the goal of being there for those that are going through what I went through. I’ve got my own supports, but I know homelessness can strike anyone – and homelessness can strike fast. I still get nervous when people ask me what I’m doing for the day; why do they want to know? But for the first time in a long time I’m happy and excited for where my life is taking me. » Michael is a former Big Issue Classroom speaker, where he shared his experiences with school students. His story is part of our Living Homeless series, looking at what it’s actually like to be homeless. MICHAEL MAY HAVE HAD A ROOF OVER HIS HEAD, BUT HE WAS STILL SCARED, UNSAFE AND HOMELESS. HOUSE NOT A HOME IT WAS NEVER A HOME, NOT A PLACE TO HANG YOUR COAT, LAY YOUR HEAD. IT WAS HELL.