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Jonathan Shapiera – 'More Than Four Walls'

Everyone Deserves a Place to Call Home is an intimate collection of stories about people’s experiences of homelessness.

Jonathan Shapiera went to a private school, then on to university where he got a degree in science, and joined the Royal Australian Navy and travelled for years before he worked in IT and became a project manager; but when contracts dried up and he couldn’t afford rent, he had to live in his car with his 16-year-old son in the heat of Darwin. But his story is not about his experiences of homelessness, but what happened after – which included three major surgeries and more visits to the hospital than he can remember. What he wants now is to see the government take more action to prevent homelessness, because from his time sleeping rough he knows it’s one of the worst things someone can experience.

This project was funded by The Town of Victoria Park.

Please note there is a trigger warning for suicidal ideation for this story.

Hello, my name is Jonathan. One of the reasons that I’m here is to actually tell my story, about being homeless. I’m different in a lot of ways, in the fact that being homeless I actually ended up on the street with my son, at the time he was 16. But the other difference also is the fact that I am East Coast educated, went to private school, I then went to university, did my degree in science and then I joined the Royal Australian Navy. After several years I got a medical discharge from the navy for a busted shoulder but after several years in regards to running around Australia with a lot of stuff I ended up jumping into the IT bandwagon and became an engineer.

So I was putting together a lot of hardware, a lot of software, and developing systems right throughout the east coast. I worked for Telstra for well over six years, doing a lot of LAN and WAN stuff in the early days of computing. Then I got into project management became one of Sydney’s determined project management – so I used to jump in and change things around as required. Contracts became a little scarce, so I moved up to Brisbane, and then again moved to Darwin looking for some mining work and then found myself without a contract as the IT work within the Northern Territory completely dried up.

I was paying $550 in rent, had no work and then had to go and live in my car and my son at the time being was 16, came to live with me, and the two of us ended up running around Darwin – 34 degrees during the day, 33 at night with all the mosquitoes, so it wasn’t exactly nice and easygoing with everything happening. Then I got a job, and I was an operations manager at one of the companies I’d drive to work, give the keys to the car to my son and go and have a shower at work at 7.30 in the morning, because they had showers there, and then start work, usually from 7.30-8 o’clock right through to 5.30-6pm and my son would come and pick me up. He didn’t have a driver’s license, but we had no choice because there was nowhere else to go.

I was into my eighth week of work at the actual company itself and I had a bit of a breakdown. I told HR that I was actually still homeless, she told the general manager, the general manager told my boss, and my boss hauled me in and drew me over the coals.

‘How in the world can you be homeless and be a manager in charge of seven people?’ I tried to explain that I came to work, and put on my suit, and showered and changed and everything was fine, then left the place and all we did was live in the car. A week later I got sacked.

So, we took all we had that could fit in the car and it was a toss of a coin whether we drove east or west, and it was go west young man. So we did. We travelled from Darwin all the way down to Perth and we joined the crowd down here in Rockingham that were actually homeless.

So I’d spent 18 months in Darwin at the time being for being homeless, but what I want to talk about is not the actual time itself that we were homeless for, because my episodes are very much the same as everybody else who was living on the street and living in a car. Rough sleeping is not great, there’s a lot of things that do happen to you in regards to the ‘boggie boys’, whatever you want to call them, they come and throw bottles at you, cause problems; I got beat up twice. But there’s a lot of things that happen while you’re actually homeless that cause a lot of trauma. What actually happens is while you’re in those circumstances, my perceived emotion on it is that the body actually holds itself together, and as the body realises that you’re in a trauma situation, it actually encompasses, or cocoons, you to a state that you become sanctified day in and day out. And it’s not until you actually get into another house, or get in off the street that the body says ‘oh that was a relief’ and it lets go.

Now in my case what actually happened was that, I remember vividly the lady actually showed me one of the houses I was looking at, and we’d been on the street for 32 months come the time that we went, December 2014, and I said ‘this is nice can we put an application form in to take it’ and she said ‘you don’t have to, it’s yours’. I just collapsed to my knees and cried. It was an emotion that I remember vividly in that I’d finally found a place, for my son and myself. Being a parent and being responsible for your kids, and taking them through two and a half, nearly three years, of actually living on the street was an emotional drain to the stage where we were seriously suicidal. When you are homeless the statistics as far as suicide becomes a daily happening. It is an emotion and a problem that runs dramatically through those who are actually living on the street.

Getting on with it, what actually happened after we got a house, we moved in, it was a Department of Housing complex, so I moved into that. They had put my son into the Salvation Army complex in Northbridge at the time being. Mostly because of the fact that he tried suicide, tried to hang himself, several weeks beforehand, so they thought keep him away from me for the time being. Try and get him a bit more stability.

Unfortunately with him the stability didn’t work out, they actually exited him after three months, so he moved straight back in with me. It wasn’t long until I started to have serious oesophageal problems, they actually discovered in 2015 that I had very close to oesophageal cancer and that’s one of those where you basically stick your head between your legs and kiss your bum goodbye. There’s not much recovery from oesophageal cancer at all. So 2017 they operated, they cut my oesophagus completely out, and cut my stomach up and moved my stomach up to my throat. The problem that I had after that was that my stomach just didn’t work. There’s a nerve that runs directly into the stomach called the vagus nerve. Now with that cut my stomach was unable to digest the food so I had what was called gastroparesis and then you combine the gastroparesis with diabetes and your sugar levels are absolutely all over the place. And it was very, very hard to make changes and combine what’s going on.

Anyway moving on from that, the second major operation I had was in 2017. I had and MRI done on my neck after realizing I had a few problems on my body as far as touch and sensation was concerned. They discovered that I had a crushed spinal cord, in two places. One was completely crushed with very minimal flow through the actual cord itself, and the other one was a bit of a bump. The only way to actually fix it was to do what is called a laminectomy. Now it was 2017 they actually discovered it, but it was only just before COVID closed everything down that they actually put me into the operating theatre in 2020. So again, back on the table where they cut me open the back of the neck, 23 staples to put it all together again, so they really opened me. They got the drill out for C5 and C6 and hammered away with the drill to separate the actual bones themselves to allow the spinal cord to expand, and they took the laminar out from C3 right through to C7. So it was quite a major operation it was about 3 hours on the table for that.

And then I found out after the actual operation that my sensation had deteriorated quite rapidly along with being a diabetic, what is called sock and glove sensational loss, or neuropathy, peripheral neuropathy, which I then suffered from. So my legs and my arms were losing sensation completely so I couldn’t feel anything. I lost a lot of muscle tone in my hands and my legs as well. So the basis of those two major operations that I’d had in order to align the fact as to they came from living on the street, it’s obviously very hard to get a doctor to compute that such medical evidence is the fact of living rough. But in instance it’s very hard not to actually suggest the physical deformities that actually occur to a person after being housed from rough sleeping, is not something that you could not look at.

My third major operation, and again I was very, very lucky in this case that it actually did come up. I had a heart attack on 7 April 2022, this year. Bit of a tone in the chest, didn’t know what it was but it was different to the other pains that I get so I went up to hospital. My son decided that I had to go, I must go, so I did and discovered that yes, I had had a heart attack. So in Rocky Hospital they booked me in to go to Fiona Stanley and I had to wait a couple of days. In the presence of all the people in Rockingham Hospital I ended up having another diabetic coma when my sugar levels completely dropped. I was very lucky the nurses came around and saw me flopping on the bed. But my sugars’ were that low they had to put gel packs into me.

I had had several diabetic comas beforehand, in one case the ambulance had to come to the house, in other cases the ambos did actually fix me up but this was one that I actually had in hospital itself. If I had not gone through with the surgery, the heart surgery for after the heart attack, they have said quite clearly that I would have had a major and I would have died.

It’s just one of those things where you’ve been lucky and even as far as my esophageal cancer is concerned it was either a matter of having the operation for that or again the esophageal cancer would have taken my life. As far as my neck was concerned either I had the operation or I would have been paralysed from the chest down. The heart surgery going on for this year is still causing a few problems, nothing major that I can’t deal with, but I did have four vessels that were completely cleaned out. More than likely because of the fact that my diabetes was unregulated and uncontrolled, and that was more than likely because of living on the street.

You were dealing with the fact of trying to feed yourself, feed my son, we got fed three times a week by particular services and agencies – Salvation Army in Rockingham was one for Tuesday lunch, Thursday nights was soup van, and Sunday nights was soup van. Any other time we wanted food we had to go and get takeaway. I did have a small burner kit so we were able to cook, boil water for tea and coffee, and everybody pitched in where you could but the basis of what actually happens to a person after they are housed from the trauma of being homeless is actually quite traumatic.

One of my friends who was in the street with myself – an indigenous guy, Mort – and Morty was a diabetic as well and was controlling his quite sustainably, but a year and a half after he actually got off the street they ended up having to sever one of his legs from the diabetic control. Six months later he lost the other leg. Now after he spent nearly 2 years living in his car, 14-15 months with us at the time being, he’s now legless. Other guys that I’ve known who have actually had problems – George has got a problem with one of his hands to do with arthritis, we lost Brendan from liver malfunctions. There are many others who have had physical and substantial problems to do with the body that have actually gone on and been set up through the medical system

My instance if I have to actually draw to that in that having three major operations, and then again with the other minor operations that go along with it and then the hospital visits, I’d have to say that I would have cost the west Australian health system well over $1 million. Now instead of actually spending a million dollars on one person as far as their physical health is concerned, $30,000 to ensure that they have a house, and the government saves a hell of a lot of money in doing something quite substantially within that particular facet.

The idea that there are physical problems and traumatic problems of a problem who leaves the street, and I’m talking here mostly about the rough sleepers – with no disrespect top those who are determined as being homeless and end up couch surfing or actually have housing problems – those who are rough sleepers endure a lot of problems physically and mentally moreover that almost anybody else. Now your rough sleeper basis as far as those who are determined to be homeless, there’s got to be about 10% in the fact that at the moment while we actually go through the exits of COVID the problems that have originated from housing means that we’ve actually had a very severe increase in rough sleepers right around Perth itself. The numbers on the streets at the moment are nearly 20% greater than what they were nearly 2 years ago. When the Perth council did a stat quite recently they were astounded to find the figures of the number of people sleeping on the streets just in the Perth CBD was around 140-150 mark. Now you’ve got to say that in that particular count there are many, many others that would have drawn themselves away from being counted and would not have been found. So you would have to say within Perth CBD there could be at least 250-odd people that are actually sleeping rough right round the whole Perth CBD.

Then you take into account those rough sleeping in the suburbs and you’re adding well and truly 800-900 people at the moment right arounds the actual Perth area itself. You go north to Geraldton, you go south down to Albany, and take into account those there that are actually rough sleepers and the numbers present today are quite substantial. And in actual fact, every one of them is going to go through some sort of physical or some sort of mental damage while they are actually sleeping rough on the streets.

I believe it is a necessity to look at the idea of introducing something to do with assisting them through the health system because if they don’t, each one of them is going to end up with making themselves present at a hospital and it’s going to cost the government lots and lots of money as far as fixing the physical and the mental problems.

The mental problems, if I can tip on that, are not dealt with very sincerely as far as coming out of homelessness is concerned. We go through some traumatic times and I’m still remembering very vividly the times that I actually got beat up. I got punched, I got kicked, I got belted, I had bottles thrown at me, I had rocks thrown at me, I got cursed at, I got sworn at, and called nothing more than a homeless bum. Considering the fact that you sit down at a shopping plaza and look at the fact that everyone around you was going home to a house – it was very hard to not just meld in because people didn’t know that you’re actually homeless if you’re actually sitting down and you don’t look like the general homeless people, and it’s not until you actually fade into the sunlight and pull up your car where you’re going to sleep with the rest of the other guys, that are in the community that we developed, that anyone would actually turn around and say you’re a bunch of homeless bums.

But we got together as a community – it’s like drawing the wagon trains together – we pulled the cars in, we set them up and that’s where we went to sleep. But we still got disturbed, we still had strangers walking in through the middle of the night and either yelling abuse at us or just driving around and driving out again. The aspect of trying to go to sleep at night became actually quite traumatic for us, where we were not able to sleep properly through the night. The majority of the time a lot of the actual guys and girls would sleep through the day and more than likely stay awake at night, because the nighttime was when they came out to actually disturb us or physically do something to us.

So, your mental aspect in reference to that is quite disturbed. You take that with you when you leave the street and it’s not something that you can deal with on a given basis immediately. It takes – I’ve been off the street now for pretty much seven years and I am still disturbed today to actually talk about the sessions that I went through when I was actually beaten up. If I started to get into it and started to remember the times when we were beaten up, and the failing part as a father, I know very vividly that I would be in tears. The trauma associated with bringing it back is pretty bad.

It’s not just me, there were several others. I know one guy had two teenage boys living in car in Fremantle. And he was in there for well over six months. They suffered a lot. He made the papers, and then people started to come forward to offer them places to live, and they got them off the streets that way. But there are a lot of others as far as single fathers, single mothers. The single mothers, as far as concerned, how in the world they are able to sustain life, look after their kids and live in a car I really don’t know. It is such a trauma for them and after usually being exited because of domestic violence, then going to live on the street, that’s something that needs dealing with immediately. We are not, as a society, and a community, looking at the problems that are going on and offering suggestions as to how in the world we can actually deal with stuff like that.

So, for me, I’m still going on in the basis of trying to get my life sorted out. My son and I have moved quite recently into a two-bedroom place. So, the after effects of living in department housing in a one bedroom, where my son was actually sleeping on the couch for 2-3 years, is all gone. We’re trying to get our lives sorted out, set up.

IN essence of finishing up, if I had not been homeless for three years, would I not have needed the oesophageal removal? I lost my oesohagus to the cancer side of it. Would I have needed the laminectomy as far as my neck was concerned? I’ve got severe muscle wasting all down my body. Would I have needed heart surgery, where my diabetes became so uncontrolled through the three years of living on the street that I actually did have a heart attack, so they tell me. That I would actually have more than likely died, had I not walked into the hospital on that particular Sunday at 2am.

So let me put it to you. If you know of people living on the street, it’s not just picking them up and putting them in four walls and a roof. The sustainment of help and community service runs for well over two years after that, because of what you don’t see that they’ve been through, and what you don’t see that they have actually had trouble with. You may not know, and they may not tell you. The instances of some of the trauma that people have been through is so traumatic that after they get off the street, they shut up about it. A lot of the don’t come forward, a lot of them don’t talk about the times that they live rough. It’s an embarrassment.

It is very much in the fact that we’re not taking hold of a particular problem within our society. That is the necessity to deal with, as we’ve got so many people in circumstances they can’t control, that has seen them lose their housing, and they have nowhere else to go. If they have a car, they move into the car. If they don’t have a car, they move into the street. And living on the street is the worst thing that can happen to anybody.

 

Copyright © 2022 Jonathan Shapiera

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.


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