Community

On fragile peace and permanent housing

21 February 2024

What does homelessness look like in Melbourne?

A home is a hard-won and fragile thing, according to former public servant and military veteran Jody Lett. She spent six months living with her daughter in an old delivery van.

After breaking the cycle of homelessness once before, Jody is motivated to make sure history doesn’t repeat.

Some days are easier than others.

“Expenses are hiking. I’m stressing over it,” Jody said.

To help cover the mortgage repayments on her house on the outskirts of Melbourne, Jody has someone to share the rising costs of living.

“If there’s a situation where my companion can’t be in the house anymore – say if they have a car accident, I am doomed. I lose my house. You know what I mean? It’s that fragile.”

A decade ago, Jody owned her own home in regional Victoria. She had a job with the federal government.

Jody was also contending with chronic pain from injuries acquired in an earlier life. She spent a decade working in the military, carrying around her weight in personal protective equipment.

Rehabilitation was intensive, but Jody was focused.

“It was like a full-time job, driving back and forward to medical appointments. I’d have to be in Horsham one day … or Heidelberg, or Maryborough. And I didn’t get to choose the days I could attend,” Jody said.

First she ran down her leave entitlements. Then she took leave without pay. When her savings ran out, Jody sold her house and used the money to relocate with her teenage daughter to another regional town with cheaper rent, closer to a rehabilitation hub.

That bought her time to focus on recovery, but she wasn’t getting better. The medical treatments and medications seemed to exacerbate her conditions.

Her mental health eroded.

Jody saw no option but to sell her possessions to raise enough cash for an old delivery van.

Living in the back of a van

Rehoming the family dog, cat, ferret and cockatiel was particularly painful.

“My daughter always loved animals , but we couldn’t have all of them in the vehicle with us.”

The van would be home for Jody and daughter for six months. They couch surfed when they could with friends and family.

Her daughter quickly fell behind with her remote schoolwork.

“My mental availability wasn’t there to support her. I was completely obsessed with meeting every appointment and doing what [the doctors] said so I could go back to work.”

“We didn’t have time for breakfast, or lunch, or dinner. Not showering today. Wearing the same clothes we wore yesterday. Anything that could buy us more time.”

Jody gravitated towards the city for treatment. Connected with the homelessness sector in Melbourne’s CBD. Found her way onto a housing waitlist.

She also started working with the Council to Homeless Persons.

As a peer support educator, she began to share her story with decision-makers to help change the system for the better.

Along the way, friendships developed with other peer educators: generous people who understood her experience and could offer the emotional support she needed.

Slowly finding her happy place in a fragile ecosystem

Finally being placed in transitional housing was a step up from the van, but the peace of finding a safe haven was still fragile.

And the properties weren’t modified to accommodate her disabilities.

“We moved from location to location for temporary housing, for short periods of time. You’d think you were settled, then you’d find out you were unable to stay, and the displacement starts again.”

“You’d have to completely rebuild your community wherever you go. It affects how you get around on public transport, how you buy your food, where you go to the doctor, where you get your prescriptions from.”

Each time they moved, Jody sought refuge in local opportunity shops, quickly figuring out where to find the best cheap clothing for her and her daughter.

Op shops help Jody to feel at home

“I’m in my happy place at an op shop. When you move around, you have to build that local knowledge all over again: which op shops have good prices, when you’re living beyond your means.”

How to rebuild a life

Receiving the permanent disability pension meant Jody could access her superannuation early, and she turned her attention to putting down roots.

“I wanted to be near family and friends, somewhere I could afford to buy. A bus stop out the front. Good health options, access to schooling. A large supermarket for affordable food.”

Finally everything in her house could be modified to support her disability.

Some days she feels a sense of calm and freedom.

On hard days, Jody thinks about buying a motor home and hitting the road.

She’s also aware that if she decides to run, she could set in motion the cycle of homelessness she’s worked so hard to break.

Her connection with the Council to Homeless Persons keeps her grounded and has evolved into an advocacy role over the past eight years.

As a consumer advocate, Jody works with affiliate health services such as the public dental system to create better access for people experiencing homelessness.

“I’m working to make sure the next generation of people experiencing homelessness don’t go through what we went through.”

Help end homelessness

We’re working to end homelessness in Melbourne by securing affordable and sustainable housing for all. To learn more, see our draft Homelessness Strategy.

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