Still searching for home sweet home

21 February 2024

What’s it like to experience homelessness in Melbourne?

The rituals that helped Jason survive on the streets of inner-city Melbourne for nearly two decades are hard to shake.

In the abandoned inner-city factory where he took shelter for years, Jason learnt to leave no trace of himself. Nothing that could be linked back to him.

“I was hard-wired to living in a squat,” Jason said.

Even though he moved into permanent housing two years ago, he still can’t bring himself to hang photos on the walls.

And he still wrestles with idea of keeping a “bug-out bag” handy, in case he needs to run at any moment.

“When I first got the keys to the new place, I was terrified. I slept in the lounge room. I didn’t know there was a bedroom. I wouldn’t cook in the kitchen.”

“Now my place is like an Airbnb. I could put my wallet in my pocket and walk out the door and nobody would know it was me living here, apart from the didgeridoo … that might be a giveaway!”

Inside an “18-year bad day”

In his former life on the northern coast of NSW, Jason was a firefighter and a family man with a wife and three kids. A proud member of the Birabri Nation.

Things started to unravel when an underlying mental health condition worsened, leading to an honourable discharge from NSW Fire and Rescue.

“As a firefighter we know how to stabilise a body … but an injury to the mind, I didn’t know or understand it. Everything fell to pieces. My career, my world, my family life.”

Jason left his community behind, thinking this would help him escape his “demons”.

After roaming the country for a decade, he eventually found the anonymity he craved in inner-city Melbourne.

Ever since, he’s been unlearning the compound stresses of what he describes as an “18-year bad day”.

Libraries can be a safe-haven for people experiencing homelessness

While Jason lurched from squat to crisis accommodation to transitional housing and back again, his instincts as a first responder never left him.

“I wanted to see how the homeless in the city were faring.”

Jason volunteered at soup kitchens and drop-in centres. He got to know the workers, the agencies. He made friends among those who were also experiencing homelessness.

He began to notice discrepancies between what he saw on the streets and the statistics on homelessness quoted in the media.

“So I started to walk through the city, counting heads. I wanted to remove the variables on who was counted and who wasn’t.”

Jason made a point of getting to know people on the streets

Jason’s efforts and insights caught the attention of the sector.

Through the Council to Homeless Persons, he started advising the homelessness sector on ways to improve the collection and sharing of data.

“Knowing what it meant to be homeless has made me such a great advocate.”

Helping others while waiting for housing

As Jason waited to have his housing needs prioritised on a growing waiting list for permanent housing, he also campaigned for caseworkers to act as “emissaries” for their clients.

A good caseworker, he argued, can spare people the trauma of having to tell their stories over again each time they present at a homelessness service.

“Repeating yourself is the number one most painful thing. Not getting mugged or robbed or hassled by cops or sleeping rough and getting cold.”

Jason has a knack for sharing insights that resonate with first responders. Together, they find ways to better connect with people experiencing homelessness.

“I can walk into a room of firefighters or police, and they’ll respect me. I can tell my story and everyone knows.”

Small pleasures in a more stable life

Two years ago, Jason finally got the keys to a new house in a suburb that put some distance between him and the squats where demons still lurked.

“I’m housed in a beautiful property. I know that home is where the heart is. I passionately want to make this my home. Is it ‘home sweet home’? Not yet. I’m working on that.”

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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