AJ knows well what it means to be homeless in Sydney and to fight for years for public housing. This is his story.
I have lived on the streets of Sydney, sleeping rough, for six of the past 12 years. The circumstances that put me there were my own inability to come to grips with a drinking problem. I have never sought help for this nor has it ever been offered, not that it would have made much difference. We are what we are.
What I called home was two layers of cardboard (the "orthopaedic king"). I would wake at 5.30am after a night of being interrupted by street sweeping machines, trucks and buses whose drivers in the early hours treat the streets of Sydney like Le Mans. Why do streeties drink? Sometimes it's just to get a decent night's sleep.
I pack up and am on the street by 5:45am. It's best to get an early start so you do not have to endure the evil looks of the public. It is as though they spit on you with their eyes. I proceed to a public toilet, then a coffee shop. I count down to the day in the fortnight when the sparrow shits and I can live like a king for a couple of days.
While sitting in the park having a ciggie or two with my coffee I think how wonderful it was to find two $2 coins the day before. I wait for the drop-in centre to open so I can have some brekkie.
As I proceed to another service provider to have a shower and a shave I am amazed at how many people try to walk over the top of me or look at me indignantly because I am using the footpath that they seem to think they own. I proceed to the sanctuary of a park to read. I ponder what I will do after lunch knowing that having $50 still in my bank account I will go and buy a cask of wine, sit by the harbour, watch the boats go by and get totally shitfaced.
While waiting for lunch I strike up a conversation with a guy I know and he asks me how my application with the Department of Housing is going. I look at him with all the sincerity of an undertaker and explain that I have filled out every effing form that the Department of Housing has ever printed and was told I must be patient. He laughs with me. Jesus Christ, that cask is looking good. The day before I had been to the Department of Housing, got my ticket and waited and waited.
My name and number are called so I proceed to the designated booth and go through the motions with the smug person sitting on the other side of the counter. She tells me that I must be patient. I suddenly snap and ask her what the criteria are for a homeless person to be housed and can she put it in a written statement so I can shove it up her arse. I am told to calm down otherwise security will be called. I often wonder whether the Minister of Housing realises what homeless people go through.
As the sun is setting I realise I am getting drunk and wonder whether it is worth walking two kilometres to have a cup of tea and a sandwich for dinner. The cask wins. After another hour or so I can stagger home to my cardboard and blanket and sleep.
The opening of The Letter
The next day talking to Neil at a Haymarket clinic, he asks me about the letter I picked up the day before from the Housing Commission. I replied that I had not yet opened it.
Retrieving it from my rucksack, I open the letter and read it three times, not believing that anyone could send such a letter. I am about to tear up the letter and walk under a bus.
The letter is dated eight days ago, saying that if I do not respond in two working days it will be assumed I no longer require housing. How can anyone respond to a letter within two working days from the date of issue when it takes two days to clear the mailing system? The nurse at the Haymarket clinic – who is also astonished – suggests I seek some legal advice.
The system does not give a shit about the homeless. Learn to live with it and don't think about it too much or you will get depressed, even suicidal.
Is it any wonder that so many streeties just give up trying to get housed when they receive bullshit letters like this one?
I return inside and ring the phone number in the letter. I am told that the person is not available. I explain the situation and am told it is probably best to call back around 10am tomorrow. It is suggested that I go to my Centrelink Personal Support Program (PSP) case manager. I suggest to them that getting rotten drunk seems a better idea.
With new resolve I see if I can get an appointment with my PSP case manager in the vain hope that they will know what to do. I am told to come back tomorrow. It seems that somewhere to live is getting further away by the minute.
I walk to the Homeless Persons' Legal Service (HPLS). I approach the reception desk and ask if it is at all possible to see Chris, even just for a few minutes. I show him the letter and watch him read it – three times, like I did. He asks if he can show his boss. What have I got to lose? We talk about the letter and settle on a plan. First thing the next morning I am to call the Department of Housing and advise them that I have taken the letter to HPLS and that the person who wrote it might just have some explaining to do.
I arrive at the drop-in centre and ring the phone number on the letter and am told that its author is on another call. Eventually she comes on the line. I tell her that I have shown the letter to the Homeless Persons' Legal Service because I did not think the letter was fair and that they agreed with me.
Silence followed and I could bloody well hear her brain ticking over. Eventually she clears her throat and advises me that I can come in for an interview and assessment next Tuesday at 10am. I should ask for Ben. I decide that the occasion deserves some kind of celebration. I pick up a cask with my spirits high but with a head full of doubt and scepticism.
It's all my fault it took so long because I did not keep in constant touch with the Department of Housing. When I first lodged an application I was told it would be eight to 10 years at least, so why bother going back month in and month out? The government departments that we have to deal with don't seem willing or able to explain themselves in language we can understand.
Readying for Tuesday
Saturday night approaches and I think that I will have three days to dry out after I finish this cask. I should try to get some sleep on Monday night so I look bright and alert for Tuesday's meeting. Appearances are such an important part of today's society and how people are perceived. Waking at 4:30am and feeling like a human being again, I pack up my bedding and cardboard and stow it away. The morning ritual follows.
Walking towards the Department of Housing on Broadway I realise the closer I get the more apprehensive I'm becoming.
At reception I give my name and appointment time and I'm told to sit down and wait. A few minutes later Ben introduces himself. After we exchange pleasantries he gets down to business, first asking where I am currently living. I impress upon him that my efforts to try to get my life back on track hinge on the need to be properly housed. Ben seems genuinely impressed with my desire to become housed.
He explains housing policy and the rent structure. I tell Ben that I am on Centrelink Personal Support Program and would have my rent and all associated costs taken out through the Centrepay system. Ben wraps up the interview by saying there is a bedsit in Balmain available and if I come in at 9am tomorrow the keys will be at reception so I can have a look at it. I thank him for his time and my head starts spinning.
On my way to Town Hall to my volunteer job with the City of Sydney Library I'm still coming to grips with what just transpired. It just seemed so easy considering how many forms I've submitted and all the stress, frustration and anguish. The afternoon seems to fly by as I sort books and help as best I can. It keeps me off the grog, most days anyway.
As the sun sets and the activity on the harbour slows, I think how lucky I am to be offered housing. With sadness my thoughts turn to how un-user-friendly some government departments have become. Ridding my head of such morbid thoughts and realising that it's getting late, I call into the Paragon Hotel and grab a couple of longnecks to help me sleep and hopefully reduce the five million things going through my brain.
Woken early again by a truck, I pack my gear up and go through my morning ritual. Arriving just after 9am at Department of Housing the lady behind the counter tells me that she has the keys and address of the unit in Balmain for me to look at. I have to sign for the keys and return them by 4pm.
Pulling up outside the block of units which hopefully will be my new home, Barry, who has kindly driven me, comments that it's a nice location. Locating my unit, Barry says to me that if I don't want it he will gladly take it off my hands.
Over my dead body.
Barry says all I have to do is go back to the Department of Housing, hand the keys back in and make an appointment to sign the lease along with a few other papers.
The big day
Springing off the cardboard the next morning I nearly do a hammy. Having showered and shaved, looking at the clock and seeing it's only 8:30am I sit down and start reading to kill some time.
Making my way over to Broadway it starts to rain. Ben approaches me and asks whether I liked the place.
He fills out paperwork and tells me about my obligations and responsibilities regarding the property. Do I look that feral? Banish such thoughts. Ben gives me a copy of the lease. I take another form down to the post office and pay the amount stipulated, and return to collect the keys. The place is mine. I've got about $150 in the bank with $30 in my pocket after paying rent.
I pull the keys out of my pocket with a smile on my face that would rival Luna Park's. I have to get power and gas connected. I'll try to look it up on the internet seeing as Liz at the City of Sydney showed me how to use it a couple of weeks ago.
My bus turns up. Getting a ticket, I ask the driver if there is a stop near my street. He will tell me when we're there.
Walking down the hill to my new home I'm slightly overcome with emotion. I've got somewhere real to live. Opening the front door I go straight to the bathroom, put the wet bags down and take off my jacket and waterproof pants hanging them up on the shower rail to dry.
Proceeding to the kitchen with my first bag of groceries, and unpacking them, I realise I've got nothing to boil water. I find a two litre ice-cream tub which, when washed out, will do to put the coffee in and I'll be able to use the coffee tin as a billy to boil water. Following a cuppa and a sandwich I get domestic by making up my bed.
Pulling my blankets out of the three garbage bags and finding they are dry is a good thing. Folding the blankets the right way gives me six layers on top of carpet that is laid on a timber floor. What a luxury, I think to myself and laugh. It doesn't take much to make a Streetie happy. While unpacking, I find that I've got half a cask (life just gets better and better) from the night before.
Grabbing a tee shirt to use as a towel I go and freshen up before having a small celebration. I wonder how all the guys are doing back in town on a wet, cold afternoon – hope at the very least they're keeping dry. As I sit on my bed with the wall as a backrest and using a tuna tin I found in the recycling bin as an ashtray, sipping wine out of a plastic drink bottle my thoughts turn to how and where I will place furniture. Laughing out loud at the absurdity of thinking this, I tell myself just take one day at a time.
Lying down the first thing I notice is how quiet it is compared with the city, also just how soft my new bed feels.
Waking the next morning with sunlight streaming through the windows, for a few moments I wonder where the hell I am. I remember that I've just spent my first night in my new home.
Getting up and walking 20 feet to the bathroom is a nice experience in comparison to the three-quarters of a kilometre to a smelly public toilet that I'm used to. Opening the windows and checking my phone, I see that I've slept 10 hours straight. Unbelievable. It is tranquil out here in the burbs.
After making a coffee I walk a little further down the hill and sit in the park that runs around the foreshore. I promise myself that the only way they will get me out of here is in a body bag.
When living on the street I knew a guy who has been in prison for a few years who was also trying to get housed. He said to me that at least in prison you get three meals a day, a bed to sleep in and a roof over your head. Looking at him I realised that he wasn't joking, such is the desperation of some people. Then there is "the letter". How such a letter was approved to be sent out, not just to me but other people waiting on housing is beyond comprehension.
I'm now housed but a lot of streeties I know are still living as I did, sleeping rough on cardboard and doing it tough from day to day. I sincerely hope that Department of Housing can one day get its act together.
Footnote: After writing this memoir, AJ returned to living on the streets. He is a founding member of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre's homeless consumer advisory committee, StreetCare.