I am going be homeless for the rest of my life.
That’s just how you start to feel when you’ve spent the better part of the last ten years homeless. And by that, I mean I have an established history of brief and unstable accommodation. At its worst, I moved twelve times in the space of two years.
My relationship with homelessness has been one of my longest lasting, and definitely one of my worst ones, which is actually kind of horrific if you knew some of the dirtbags I’ve dated.
So yes, I moved often. No, I was never on the street – a fact I owe entirely to my trusty beat-up Hyundai. But it was news to me, and perhaps to you, that homelessness is more than sleeping on the street.
The actual definition of homelessness encompasses sleeping on the street, but also couch surfing, living in a car, and short and unstable stints of temporary tenancy. Which is exactly what my years of leaning heavily on friends, and shuffling through share house to share house, the practice of sub leases leaving me at the mercy of the whims of head tenants and shitty roommates that ranged from racist to violent, was.
It took me years to learn this, and even more to accept, that this label, homelessness, synonymous with figures of shame, pity, vulnerability and contempt, the burdens and blights on society, applied to me.
And if it did, it means that when I took to the stage at 16 years old for my high school graduation, and didn’t have a stable home to go back to, I was homeless.
When you’re young you never really understand depth of worse things you go through. And at 16, I didn’t really understand at all. I just figured everyone got thrown out of home in the midst of their ATAR exams at their very unforgiving elite public school. It wasn’t my first time in this situation, and it wouldn’t be my last.
At 23, when I took to the stage at my university graduation several years later, I was starting to realise my experiences weren’t exactly normal, perhaps aware that the label applied to me on some level, but a long way from accepting that it did.
Still, I was in the middle of being unceremoniously evicted from yet another house share for, now wait for it, ‘being too quiet and not contributing to the vibe.’ I knew that despite my inability to accept this shameful label, I not only qualified for help, but I needed it. And so, I grudgingly reached out to a youth homelessness service for help and was immediately waitlisted after they heard about my past eight years.
After four long months of waiting for a placement and simultaneously attempting to hold down a corporate job while living out of a hostel, I finally got the call – I had been granted my own apartment.
And now, to call it an apartment was a stretch, considering it shared the same approximate dimensions of a shoebox. It was a single square room that incorporated a tiny ledge kitchenette and smaller room housing a toilet and shower.
Also, you couldn’t just live there. There was rent, and there were rules. Among the most offensive to me, was that I couldn’t have more than two friends over at once, and couldn’t have anyone stay over more than two nights a week.
It would have amazed me if I was able to fit another living soul in there, given the aforementioned shoebox dimensions, but it did piss me off. Because here’s the thing: how are you going to charge me rent, and then dictate what I can and can’t do in the confines of my own rental? It’s not like I’m trying to pull a wall to widen out here. I just want to watch Love Island with the girls.
I am not a woman that likes to be told what to do, and yet here I was, having to toe the line or be threatened with returning to homelessness.
And that was what you were constantly threatened with. If you failed to remain employed or studying full time, if you broke curfew, house rules, or pissed off the wrong worker – which is actually quite diabolical when you think about it. But this is what we do to homeless people. Whether it’s just capitalism or a lack of empathy, we’re so anti the idea of someone having something nice without working for it that we would house them in a shoebox, deny them autonomy, then demand they be grateful for it.
Now I’m not dumb. I know that all these measures were designed to make sure we made good choices. But I had made good choices, and ended up here. Should I not have scored an ATAR that most kids would have killed for? Gone to law school and spent my youth avoiding all the drugs that my now non-homeless peers hadn’t? But I digress.
With such strict rules, we lead our tiny quiet rebellions together.
We talked shit in hallways, we set off alarms to mess with workers, and we refused to dob each other in when we smelt weed, as they constantly encouraged us to. After reading the rules cover to cover, to find new ways to be annoying that didn’t completely ruin my chances at housing, I decided to leave my muddiest, most unsightly sneakers outside my front door as my own personal ‘fuck you’.
Which is why recently, when I was being unceremoniously ejected from the shoebox from ageing out of the youth category and not because they found out about all of the bongs that I ripped, I was actually excited. Because after ten years of this godforsaken shit, I was so looking forward to putting all of this behind me, forever.
I was no longer a powerless teenager at the mercy of her unstable and mercurial mother, or a broke uni student subsisting on occasional bartending shifts and sub-poverty levels of Youth Allowance.
No, I had hustled my way up from the bottom, busting my ass to go from a public housing upbringing, to a scholarship to a prestigious school, to now, finally, a bachelorette with her Bachelor’s degree
I had made it. I was now working full time, and making just more than minimum wage. But I
was now finally able to qualify for Perth’s two-hundred-dollariest rentals.
But here’s the thing: after ten years of instability, it wasn’t quite the victory lap I imagined.
I was feeling a lot. Financially, terrified!! – not helped by the fact I was entering the post COVID rental market. You know, the one they were calling the worst rental market that Perth had ever seen. Rentals were harder to find, pricier than ever, and I hate to keep bringing it up, but I had just gone 60k into HECs debt to making minimum wage!
But… I also quietly enamoured with the idea of finally having my own space on my terms – a place where I made the rules. No longer at the mercy of housemates, I could listen to the music I wanted at the volume I wanted. Dance freely in the kitchen, sleep soundly in the middle of the day, cook in the middle of the night. I could put my paintings on the walls, grow plants on the kitchen windowsill, read by the window, laze around on the balcony. Get up on a crisp cold morning and walk down to the café on the corner in the morning. I could live out my very tiny, quiet dreams of a normal safe life. To be stable, to be safe, and to be happy.
And I found the place – with a big leafy jungle courtyard, and a room of one’s own, pets allowed. Signing on for a year’s lease meant I knew, for a fact, with certainty, signed in ink, legally binding, on paper, that I had a place to stay, for a whole year! Which never ceased to amaze me after my history of three month stints.
And so, I began the process of packing up my shoebox and spent a week straight on hands and knees, inhaling pure bleach as I scrubbed every single unremarkable grey surface until the place was barren and sparkling.
And before I knew it, the moment was here.
It was ten pm on an otherwise unremarkable Tuesday night in November. All there was to do was turn off the lights and hand back the keys. But I this time, I was paralysed by a feeling that was new to me.
Being homeless was a familiar kind of grief. I was used to the way things fell apart. I was an old hand at the stress of not having anywhere to go, the scramble to lock in a place for the night, and a veteran to the sudden upending feeling of accommodation falling through, but this feeling was foreign and unknown, confusing me with the way it completely immobilised me.
It was that moment, looking around this empty room, I realised that I had never stayed anywhere long enough, securely enough, to feel settled. To stay still long enough to put down roots, to build something I could get attached to – to feel like I actually had something of my own.
I remembered the disdain I felt for this place the first time I laid eyes on it. I still felt it, I never shut up about it. The zero pile carpet that ran through the identical hallways of identical doors, to identical shoebox ‘’apartments’’. The un-openable thin slivers in the wall that had the audacity to call themselves windows, slivers that would not have looked out of place in a jail cell, failing to let in very much light or view, and denying me a fresh breeze on my face for years. The disgust I held for the harsh fluorescent lighting was matched only by my disgust for the offensive tacky plywood furnishings. The personality-less grey and taupe colour scheme, the jarring solitary bright green accent wall – for two years, they had all worked together to let me know that homeless people did not deserve nice things.
For so long I was “lucky” to be housed in these four walls, at the mercy of rules I hated. A legal adult with no agency, I was prisoner to whims of the powerful charity in charge reminding me of being at the mercy of my mother, a situation which rekindled all kinds of long buried trauma.
What I never predicted was that seeing the apartment emptied and stripped back to its bare bones felt like witnessing an autopsy. The parts were there, but the life in here was gone. The plants precariously growing on high window sills, mountains of dirty pans in the sink, cupboards packed with snacks, doors moment from bursting open, haphazard paperwork strewn over every available surface, and the faint glow emanating from the TV.
These things are somewhere else now. Nothing that remains is anything I’d miss. But what the space became? For a while, it became more than a place to stay. From a place of housing, it unexpectedly became a home. Perhaps the first safe one I’d ever known. These four walls became my safe haven, my embrace in tough times, my holy ground. How many hard days did I crawl back here defeated and finally feel safe enough to fall apart? But my time is up. Too old to fit into the youth housing model anymore, I was forced to rip up my roots and pray that I could build this again elsewhere with no help
So in the middle of night, the muddy sneakers disappeared from outside the door, so do I.
Life goes on. Now, in the idyllic western suburbs. Between the river and the sea, I spend my days underneath a leafy canopy, where women job by in designer athleisure and perfect bleached blonde hair. My neighbour sells their house for a cool $4 million, and I invest in ironclad car insurance in fear of the ever present Tesla’s that lurk around every single corner. I leave the windows open for six months straight, because I can’t get enough of feeling the cool breeze on my face.
And you know what? No, I haven’t seen another person of colour in weeks. But, the afternoon sun always streams through the open French doors, and I wile away many sunny afternoons under the ferns, cat in lap, waiting for the floor to fall through.
As it turns out, the only thing more resilient than me is trauma. Because every now and then, when I sing a little too loud in the shower, or cackle a little too hard at a funny text, I catch myself and worry about getting a noise complaint, if I’ve had any so far, and if there’s an eviction notice on the way. When I miss an area cleaning, and it’s noted on my rent inspection report, there it is again. The fear that I’ll get pegged as an untidy tenant. Lease left unrenewed, not rental reference to secure my next home.
Whenever I have to query a bill, raise a maintenance issue, or ask for more security after a recent break-in, even an hour long session with a therapist won’t convince me that speaking up won’t have me seen as too pushy, too annoying and likely to be booted for ending up on the realtor’s bad side.
When my elation at the chance to decorate my own space turned into paralysing fear at the realisation any money spent on furniture now might later be needed for rent – rent that could save me from homelessness, I end up descending like a vulture on suburban verge fronts, and managed to put together a reasonably cosy home. It’s a feat that might have been admirable, if it wasn’t due to a reason that was so fucking sad.
So, no, I don’t get up on crisp mornings to walk to the corner café, because I am parlayed by the need to hoard every last dollar for the day I might need it.
And when I’m sitting typing this story, a story I thought would be different, because this was supposed to be over now, and my foster cats wander over and plop their little heads and paws along my legs, and I have to do everything I can to not fall in love with them, because I can’t keep them. Because I’m a liability who knows all of this could fall through at any second, and I can’t subject them to that. Because four years ago, when my old uni lecturer, the only one I’d ever confided in about my situation, perhaps under the duress under the dire need for an extension, emailed me to say she hoped I was doing better. And I was, but I couldn’t tell her I was, because sometimes I am, but I’m always on the precipice of not. Being homeless makes you acutely aware of how easy it is to become homeless. It could happen to anybody. The only thing saving us is a safety net, of friends or family that would take you in, or money that you have to rent a hotel until you secure your next lease. But I know now how easy it is for these things to fall through. I know how family turns sour, friends grow tired of always helping and money runs out.
And I am tired. Tired of my friends leaving like a father, of being branded a liability, a burden. Tired of bitter and jaded, hating anyone that had a loving family that could save them from this.
When a breakup or a divorce could be the next thing that could see you out of a safe home and back in instability, it just seems safer to not spend money, to get attached to a pet, to move in with a partner or to have marital home.
I know I’m always one second from disaster. And one disaster from setting off the domino effect that ends in homelessness. Because she’s everywhere I go. Homelessness lives in my shadow. It used to be that every decision I made was soaked in the idea of avoiding it, but now I know better. I know that there are no good choices and bad choices. There is just misfortune.
I am a highly educated, intelligent woman who made every right choice, and even I couldn’t avoid her. The worst is over, and there’s so much damage to unpack. Like how poverty and lack of affordable housing is the greatest predictor of homelessness, meaning the only thing I ever did wrong was being born. How I spent so long embroiled in my housing struggle that I’m behind my peers, watching them get married and build houses, but I’m still mentally fifteen, back when all this started, and I had to put every single other thing on hold. My shame when I avoid eye contact with street sleepers, as if I’m afraid they’re contagious and I’ll catch it. The hateful animal that it’s made me, consumed by my bitterness for my lost youth, directed in a rage at those that never had to struggle, got to enjoy first loves, summers in Europe, and Christmases with family. My sadness looking at my baby photos, thinking of the life that that girl had ahead of her. My anger when anyone remarks on my resilience, because I never wanted to be resilient. I was a child who wanted to be loved, and to be safe, and the way I’m so used to chaos and instability, that the stability feels unsettling and I sabotage good things.
But as I get to a point in life, where I have to space to process the past ten years, I know that she’s still there, still lying in wait, and I will never know for sure that I’ve escaped her, until I’m lying in the ground.
So yes, I’m going to be homeless for the rest of my life, and one day you might be to.