When I was Homeless

The hideous Australian Government of the day is withdrawing funding from essential services for the poor and homeless and making sure that the rich and corporate monoliths enjoy reduced tax and offshore advantages.  Well, you would, wouldn’t you?

There are very few of us who are more than a few paypackets away from the streets.  Many of us are maxed to the hilt with mortgage, credit cards, car loans and the like and struggle to stay afloat and in the black. If and when the hatchet falls, life can go from a struggle to downright scary in seconds.  And yet we often view homelessness and the homeless as vastly removed from our cushy lives, not with a ‘there but for the grace of god go I’ feeling of gratitude.

Over 16 years ago I lost my lovely job in sales in Sydney when the company was sold.  Simultaneously the owner of my blissful Palm Beach cabin decided to renovate and gave me notice.  Devastated on both fronts, when my Mother said ‘come home’ to the UK it seemed like a good idea.  Have a holiday, regroup, think about what to do next and then swing back into my Sydney life. Hah! They say the best way to make god laugh is to make a plan . . .

I packed up my lovely Sydney beach life, stashed my belongings in the cavity under the bed and behind the chests of drawers (my little cabin was like a boat in space efficiency), found a temporary home for my remaining cat and got on a plane.  It had been a long time since I had seen my family and initially it was good.  But the cracks soon started to appear as we are a fractured family with very different ideas of life.  And I didn’t have the money to get ‘home’ to Sydney.  So I had to get a job, and somewhere to live, and a car and then I was trapped . . . and so it went on.

And my always flawed relationship with my family deteriorated further and I ended up living above a stable in a barn over a freezing, snowy, English winter, and then in the summer, after a many ups and downs, I found myself with nowhere to turn.  Living in my car seemed like a sensible option (which just goes to show how far I had fallen).  I had a little work, but not enough to pay rent and bills.  I had a wonderful friend who was the rock I clung to and who gave my life some small semblance of normalcy.  But apart from that I was alone and lost in my own head, negativity and dislocation from place, society and family.

It was summer time, so sleeping in my old Land Rover seemed like an easy move.  I found a little spot on the edge of an English ‘common’ – actually privately owned land which riders and walkers had the right to roam over.  And at the end of the day I would make myself a flask of tea at my friend’s stables and clean my teeth and then drive away to my little hideaway in the forest.  I would make a nest for myself in the well in the back and sit up and read until the sun went down before bedding down for the night.  At sun up I got up and read again while I drank my tea and then I would head into the little town plotting where to go for a shower that morning.

There was a constant feeling of guilt and shame.  I felt shifty and secretive. I had to plot my movements so as not to appear out of the ordinary.  I am sure I did.  I washed my clothes at the horse yards when everyone had gone home.  I was tip toeing around the edges of everyone else’s normal lives.  I was an outsider and I didn’t belong.  I knew that feeling well having lived with a drug dealer duelling my own addictions in Sydney.  In one respect it was very freeing but I was a fringe dweller and innately all human beings want to belong to a tribe, community, family or group.

This went on for a few months.  It became more and more routine for me.  It was my new normal.  I think I was attracting attention in the forest when my car was parked there every night and morning for the early dog walkers to see.  There is nothing the English hate more than a gypsy or a tramp so I found a few more spots to secrete myself and spread myself around more.  Still, I was more visible than I liked to fool myself I was.

Eventually, as summer drew to a close, my dear friend offered me one of the grooms’ caravans to live in for the winter, and work in the yards.  I spent yet another feeling winter living in a trailer with no toilet or shower and used to toilet in a bucket rather than traipse the 20 freezing metres to the outhouse, if I needed to go at night or in the early morning before I was up and dressed in my thermals and layers.

That was a peaceful time, with little stress, and just my own company which I enjoy.  Winter is a time for solitude and I didn’t feel so isolated from society as the polo circus had moved on to warmer climes and I could inhabit the world of horses which I loved, even though all but the two beautiful equines I had acquired, were gone.

I cleaned, patched, painted and repaired the yards and took myself off on long training runs across country, always expecting to run another marathon.  It was a physical rather than cerebral life and I felt some deep peace.

Eventually a tenuous rapprochement was forged with my parents and they decided to get me on the mortgage ladder.  Another tie to this country whose land and nature I loved, but whose people I often loathed for their tightness and narrow minds.  But the truth is that I was always more comfortable with animals than humans.

I played along with the exciting game of playing house and renovating it into a lovely home.  After all that time of living in car and caravans, bricks, mortar and central heating were the height of luxury.  But I still didn’t fit in to this closed little community where my ideas were outside the norm.  Maybe fitting in or not is all in the mind and one’s sense of self.  My self esteem was so incredibly low and dominated by my self hatred, that I couldn’t held myself apart and as ‘different’ and then blamed everyone else for not accepting and embracing me.

I had only lived in this beautiful little house with my brand new puppy for a few months when I realised that if I wanted to maintain my Australian residency I had to get back, and soon.  Which meant selling up and finding a way to fly not only myself, but my dog and two horses, back to Australia.  That’s another story.

There is an attraction in the idea of being unfettered from the chains of modern life, but when we are set free we realise that hunter gathering and living as a nomad is really hard in this modern world.  Those chains keep us hooked in to the modern cacophony, keep us clothed and fed and housed.  Living on the fringe of hustling, bustling modernity is an experience of otherness & not belonging.  It is hard to keep your head held high and not to flail in the swamps of despair.  In isolation it is all too easy to think that the world doesn’t care, would be better off without you, and to see suicide as the simplest solution.  Or to become angry and rage at the machine which has spat you out on the sidelines.  These are not bad people, just people who are lost in their own pain and problems. It would have been all too easy to slide back into addiction but my will in that regard was cast iron.

These are humans who need help and rescue, sustenance for soul and body, caring to help them feel that they are good and useful and can contribute.  People who need good psychologists to help them find their way back to feelings of self worth and normality.  Very few step off the wheel from choice.  Descent can be fast and furious or a slow spiral.  Either way, the hand up of just one good person with love in their heart can be enough to open the passage back into life and healing.

Thank you to those of you who have kept the faith with me through some very dark and troubled times.

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