Last Thursday night, I was homeless. Sandwiched between two other people, I spent the night lying (very uncomfortably), on a makeshift mattress made out of cardboard, on top of cold concrete. A beanie pulled down over my ears, I curled up in my sleeping bag and tried to ignore the icy cold breeze that cut through to my bones. By the time morning came, I was cold (of course), sleep deprived, and in physical pain. But tonight, it will be different. I'll be at home, under a blanket. I am so blessed.
The Vinnies CEO Sleep Out has been running since 2006 and encourages high profile CEOs and business people to 'sleep out' overnight, to experience, just for one night, the reality of homelessness. Last night was my first Sleep Out ever, and I hope my last. While it was a truly eye-opening experience, I really never want to have to go through that again.
We began by hearing from three courageous individuals about how they themselves became homeless. Honest and open, each of them shared their personal experiences of homelessness, and how they finally, with support, broke the cycle. Their resilience and endurance through profoundly difficult circumstances was remarkable.
Whatever made you homeless in the first place, once you are there it is like being stuck in quicksand. One life event or one poor decision, and you can fall farther than you can ever imagine.
Wesley Mission Victoria, along with other great organisations like St Vincent de Paul, is right at the dark and often depressing "coal face" of homelessness every day. It's not just numbers to us, its people. Like the mum with three kids and a dog sleeping in a car as they flee domestic violence, like the young Dad, along with Mum and two small kids "shopping" for essential food items in our pantry in Ringwood. Out of work and unable to pay rent and still buy food for his kids, he swallows his pride and takes the free food. Food that is not provided by the Government, but by the Wesley Winter Meals and Food for Families appeals so generously supported by Melburnians each year.
Wesley supports those who are homeless or have unstable living arrangements, those facing long term unemployment. We see people with a psychiatric illness, those who are escaping and/or experiencing domestic violence. There is no single marker or cause of homelessness today.
Here is one such story: Have a cup of tea and a chat with Jodie Livingstone, and you would never know she's been homeless. She, in no way, fits the 'stereotype' of a homeless person; bright eyed, energetic and articulate - Jodie is a working single mother, doing her best to care for her family. Becoming homeless was never part of the plan, but then again, it never is.
After renting privately for ten years, Jodie and her five kids were forced to find somewhere else to live when their landlord decided to sell. With only four weeks to find another home, Jodie was stuck. In a moment of desperation, she stumbled on Wesley Homelessness and Support Services in Ringwood, one of the few homeless services in her local area.
Jodie was one of the lucky ones. With less than one week to go until they had to move out, a partnership between the Ringwood Uniting Church and Wesley Homelessness and Support Services provided Jodie and her family with a vacant house for use as emergency accommodation for families in crisis.
"We lived there for eight weeks," Jodie said. It was a lovely, secure weatherboard home with room for the kids – it was fantastic." "The staff and volunteers at the Ringwood Uniting Church were truly wonderful; they were all so supportive and non-judgmental. While we were living at the property, they sent people over to help us and do regular maintenance on the house," she adds.
Living in the property afforded Jodie some room to breathe, while regular appointments with Wesley staff gave her the support she needed while she looked for a permanent home. It wasn't easy. Applying for almost 60 properties in eight weeks, Jodie and her kids kept getting knocked back.
"Having such a big family, including two kids with Asperger's and two companion dogs made it tough. Not many real estate agents are keen to lease to someone in my situation," she said. But she did find a permanent home, and today, Jodie and her family are living in a dignified house, with a big backyard, close to the shops and the local school.