Wednesday, 21 March 2012

When you're out on the streets anybody can stomp on your head

I was homeless once. Luckily it was only temporary, and I was able to sleep on my friend's couch for a few weeks. I wouldn’t have thought of myself as homeless at the time, but it fitted into the definition of secondary homelessness (Chamberlain and Mackenzie, 1992) having found myself no longer wanting to spend the Christmas break at my parents' home in the country -  the culmination of years of emotional abuse from my step-father.

Not long after this experience, I was thrown from my naivety. As a volunteer at a homeless person’s transition home, I began to understand what tertiary homelessness might look like, living with a handful of men and women whose odd behaviour spoke volumes about their lack of connections. This itself was a rich experience, but I wanted to know more then, to know what it felt like to have no-one, and no-where to go. I was unaware of the political incorrectness of what I wanted to ‘learn’ and what it might mean to a homeless person to be approached by someone like me -white, middle-class and educated, with a family living in the country whom I could call on for assistance if it really came down to the crunch. But being young, I believed myself strong and brave, and without thinking I stepped out of my comfort zone and into the depths of Melbourne.

The city is a cold, lonely place in winter, and this part of the city was particularly so. We saw him around a lot – an old man with a scruffy beard, baggy unwashed clothes and who pushed around a bike loaded with his worldly goods, singing to himself, his one bulging eye facing a different direction to the good one. This night was not unusual, he was walking along the footpath, pushing his bike, and we began to walk beside him. He kept walking, mumbling and singing, occasionally seeming to enter into conversation with us, and we followed, not taking much notice of the time or of how dark it was getting. And after about an hour, we became aware that we really had no idea where we were. But we followed him anyway.

Where was he going? Was he going back to his house? Was he staying at a hostel? Curious, we continued wandering, keeping him company. Gaps between houses grew further apart, the suburb became leafier, elm trees throwing eerie shadows across the wavering light of the moon and the few street-lamps that dotted the area. We came to an oval. Expecting him to turn off before this, we were surprised. Why would he come to an oval? It was then he entered the little brick building, with its typically pungent odour – the public toilets. It was there where he laid down his blankets to sleep for the night, and nodded us away. We looked at each other helplessly, and started the journey back without him. On the way back, we didn't say much. Both of us were shocked about what we had witnessed, and distressed that we didn't know how to help him.

When I walked back to my bedroom at the hostel, with its lockable door and comfortable bed, I felt as though I was living in luxury. It changed my whole perspective on the world, just that small moment in time. I have never forgotten that old man and I think it was one of the things that has inspired me to enter the career I am in today.

Homelessness is about a lack of connectedness.  
Is there someone you could connect with today?

Copyright Sue Oaks 2012