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Life without a home

Michele Frankeni  |  22 May 2018

homelessness illustration by Becky XieDomestic violence caused Mary and her teenage son to flee their home with just the clothes they wore. However, the trauma of the initial flight has been nothing to the relentless need to find somewhere for the family to live.

Mary* has a wide smile and an easy laugh. As she recounts her past three years, I marvel at her good humour and strength.

‘Believe me, I’m not strong all the time. I’m a very determined person but sometimes I sit at home crying. But if I can get through this, and if by speaking out about it helps people, then I can feel that I’ve achieved something’, she says.

Even before she fled her home, her life had not been easy. She is a cancer survivor, having had operations on her lung, stomach and bowel, and still has spells in hospital. She and her husband were farmers, a career subject to the vagaries of weather and pricing. However, their eldest was doing well at university and their youngest was set to complete Year 12 when life changed irrevocably.

Married for more than 20 years, Mary says her husband became abusive when stressed, commenting that ‘farming is not the ideal career if you suffer stress.’

The night she left, Mary’s husband had been chasing her son around the table threatening to kill him. ‘I stepped in between and took the beating. We left with what we were wearing.’

She reported the abuse to the police because she needed the help to get back into the house. ‘We had walked away with nothing. I needed my medications and my son needed his uniform and books. A policeman accompanied us as we grabbed the supplies we needed and the car. The problem then was we had nowhere to go.’

CentreLink put her on to someone who ran an emergency shelter.

‘They found us a place, but it was two hours’ away. My son still had to finish Year 12 so we lived in the car for a few weeks. We used McDonalds bathrooms and for safety’s sake slept in the carpark.’

As a result of the cancer, Mary needs to be hooked to a machine 16 hours a day.

‘Being homeless and doing that is very tricky. I used McDonalds utilities and a powerpoint I found. It’s amazing what you do to find a way around, but you shouldn’t have to. It was great we had been found a place but it was too far from our lives and my son’s school.’

Mary doesn’t have family in Australia and says it was difficult with friends.

‘It was a small rural community and everyone knows everyone. The common responses were “we don’t get involved with other people’s problems” or “I don’t take sides”. I never asked anyone to take sides or to get involved, all I wanted was a bed and friendship.

‘I feel it may be better in city but especially in my generation in the country – what goes on behind closed doors stays behind closed doors.’

It was about two weeks before Mary told her daughter in Melbourne what had happened.

‘She had to leave university and returned to the country to be homeless with us – I was going to say “live with us” but that’s not right.’

After her son completed his Year 12, Mary and her two children moved to another country town and rented. Though more than they could afford, they needed somewhere to live so the children could pick up their lives. Mary’s son passed Year 12 and began an apprenticeship, while her daughter got a part-time job.

‘Mentally, my daughter took it the hardest. Her whole life, what she had planned, was pulled from her. One of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do was to convince her to go to some interviews. We stayed there for six months but struggled financially. I don’t know how we pulled it off.’

It was during this time Mary became involved with Vinnies.

‘We had two ladies who visited every week. That was where I realised how great that support is. The physical contact of having some lovely people come into your home and have a cup of tea and talk about how you’re going was marvellous. There was the absolutely amazing feeling that someone opened a door.’

Mary had intervention orders against her husband, but after he tracked them down, Vinnies helped the family to get to a safe house in Melbourne.

‘Once again, I can’t speak more highly of Vinnies. To have this door opening from people you don’t know is amazing.’

Mary and the family had the safe house for a year, which gave her son a chance to find another apprenticeship and though her daughter has anxiety, it was also a chance for her to get her footing.

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Legal Aid is not available if it’s anything to do with finances, so Mary has become her own solicitor and barrister, chasing her husband for money he was ordered to pay by the courts to cover rent for three years. Her husband paid for a year until the intervention orders ran out and now Mary has spent a year doing paperwork to have the court order enforced.

‘I will do everything I can to get my kids going into their adult life with the best chance possible. That’s what this is all about. I want my kids to have their chance. I don’t want the experience to hold them back from what they can be.’

Mary’s story is not unique. The latest figures released from the ABS show a frightening picture of homelessness across Australia, with three key groups affected – youth, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and those displaced due to family violence. On census night 2016, 116,427 people were counted as homeless.

Mary said it was those doors that close on you that’s a problem when you seek help.

‘People don’t tell you where to go or where to get help, and you don’t know. You don’t even know the questions to ask. It’s so confusing, and mentally you’re not in the right space. There has to be an easier way for people to access help.

‘There is help out there and people want to help. Doesn’t matter if it’s government, organisations or people. You just need to put people in the right place. For example, I don’t understand why there is many different housing services. Why isn’t there one point where you can go and they can send you to a place that is right for you?’

*Name has been changed.

Illustration: Becky Xie

Vinnies annual CEO Sleepout

Vinnies annual CEO Sleepout ‘Poverty: Home Truths’ will be held on 21 June 2018.

Eradicating homelessness is everyone’s responsibility, nominate your leaders or donate to ceosleepout.org.au.

 

Topic tags: familylife, socialjustice-australia

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