“Seven years ago, to think this was achievable was near impossible. Seven years ago, I was one of those numbers in those statistics. Seven years ago, I found myself living in my car during the most difficult time in my life.”
In the next laboratory are three students that I oversee. They are coping – just – with my expectations to generate logical and ethical data for my research paper in Horticulture and Agriculture. I am undertaking my PhD at one of Australia’s most esteemed universities, which is among the top leading institutions globally.
I lean back and take a deep breath. Seven years ago, to think this was achievable was near impossible. Seven years ago, I was one of those numbers in those statistics. Seven years ago, I found myself living in my car during the most difficult time in my life.
Let me challenge you. What is your perception of someone experiencing homelessness? Perhaps someone with substance abuse? Someone who has brought it upon themselves? Someone experiencing domestic violence? That was not the case for me. My life was good. A thriving business and consultancy, investment properties, a new car every two to three years, extensive leisure, even more business travel, a happy family life, friends and support as far as you can see.
“We are only one pay check away from homelessness.” This is true for the majority experiencing this part of their lives. For me, a dramatic life event and years of self-neglect led to the beginning of this chapter in my life. An event that thrusted me into the slippery declining world of severe and acute depression and anxiety.
A state that leaves you mentally, physically and emotionally paralysed, unable to perform life’s basic tasks – apart from breathing – and that at times, was involuntary.
I communicated with no one. Not my family, not my friends, not the banks or creditors, not my clients. Ultimately, we lost everything, including our family home. Separated from my wife, my family relocated. I started living in my car. Embarrassed and ashamed, I told no one.
No interest in communication, paranoid and untrusting of all that came in contact with me. Alone and uncertain of what was to come and why this had happened I had no clue where my descent into the abyss would take me.
So, how did I sprout from living in my car to the respected halls of academia? I can’t recollect that watershed moment my revival began. All I remember is making a phone call to a service I had googled, unsure of what help to ask for.
What happened next changed my life: I was offered a room at Ozanam House, in North Melbourne, a crisis accommodation centre initiative run by VincentCare Victoria, which is part of St Vincent de Paul Society Victoria Group.
Four pm Friday, 17 February 2017, was my induction – a time and date engraved in my memory.
Ozanam House is a paradigm shift in addressing homelessness, going beyond traditional assistance, and offering a holistic and comprehensive support system under the one roof. An easily accessible ‘wrap around’ support that is a vital step towards achieving long-lasting, sustainable solutions for homelessness. Services we need more of, where residents and external ‘clients’ are offered countless and personalised ways of support to break the cycle. Services that provide more than a roof over your head and are more than just a band-aid, quick fix, feel good gesture that risks someone falling even deeper into the vicious downward spiral of homelessness.
Homelessness is a complex topic woven with individual stories, circumstances and needs. One that needs complex solutions. However, Ozanam House is proof that this doesn’t mean solutions have to be complicated.
First and foremost, they have to be easily accessible.
A closer look at the Ozanam House model is more than just providing food and accommodation. It is crisis, extended accommodation; access to nurses, a GP, a dentist, a podiatrist and an optometrist. You can connect with Centrelink, access legal and financial information and support, and people who will guide and mentor you. These essential services are accessible in a safe and welcoming space from staff who take time to know YOU. There’s no stigma, no judgement, this is a safe port. It’s a prototypical homeless resource hub.
Being at Ozanam House helps you regain trust in others, to build rapport, to honour your appointments, to grow yourself. Centrelink services, Nurse, medical and dental services, acupuncture, art therapy, boxing and exercise. I accessed it all. Acupuncture assisted me with my motivation. Art therapy showed me I had an expressive and calm quality (who knew?). Boxing and exercise began my weight loss journey. Each was a building block of who I am today. Joining the Client Volunteer Program, where clients and residents spend time volunteering at the centre, most definitely gave me the genesis of feeling I had purpose again. This is an example of the tailored journey you can access via this wonderful facility.
The care is genuine. It made me feel I mattered, and experiencing homelessness was just an unfortunate part of my story.
In a time when you are invisible for most, the feeling that you are seen, heard, and sincerely cared for is what sustains you to succeed. You don’t want to let people who genuinely help you down, and if a service you need is in the same place you live, you are much more likely to honour your evolution.
Just like people, homelessness is complex. No one has the same story. The solution is not a ‘one-fit all’ outcome. Behind the statistics are people and personalities, all with individual stories and needs. Shopping in a milk bar is different to shopping in a supermarket. You have more choices in the latter, and your needs are better catered for. If you have easy access to a basket with a variety of sustenance, you’re going to nourish and empower people with a better conclusion, and greater impact.
The goalposts for homelessness are forever shifting. Ozanam House with its holistic approach and offerings, continues to evolve, with the goal of sincerely assisting people climb back from the vicious, uncompromising predicament and emerge with new strength.
There is no doubt that homelessness and its intricacies are a part of our existence. To deny this is viewing life with tunnel vision. Educate yourself about its complexity, its individuality, its uniqueness. The solution begins by removing the stigma associated with it, and your willingness to accept and assist with its eventual eradication. Don’t judge – see the person, not the statistic.
Garry, homelessness survivor and proud PhD student