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2 August 2021
Being seen and unseen as life unravels
Words Holly Reed
Forced to live in her car for over two years, Alison* says the experience of homelessness seriously impacted her physical and mental wellbeing. While she is now in a private rental, Alison says she is still dealing with the trauma and the ever-present fear of history repeating itself.
Some experiences were worse than others during the two years Alison and her dog Max lived in her car.
Apart from the struggle of managing multiple health issues, it was the simple things that she found hardest – like trying to find somewhere to shower before a doctor’s appointment and feeling desperately self-conscious about personal hygiene.
Then there were the often-frightening nights when she was too afraid to open the windows for fear of her safety.
“The cops come … and shine floodlights on the car … and you’ve got drunk people and sober people and kids walking past,” Alison says. “I’ve had people throw things at the car, bang on it, run around it, shake it so it starts to move … screaming at the top of their lungs.”
Until her late 30s, Alison was a working professional and paying off a home. The possibility of homelessness seemed a million miles away. However, after her last contract ended, she struggled to find another job and eventually couldn’t keep up her mortgage payments. Alison’s best option was to move interstate to share a rental property with a friend.
They rented a cottage for several years in a popular holiday town until Alison’s friend unexpectedly moved out, owing Alison a substantial amount of money. Alison’s health issues were affecting her ability to walk by this stage, and several applications for disability support were denied.
Alison managed to cover both her and her friend’s share of the rent for a short time until the owner wanted the property vacated for use as a holiday house. With a beloved pet in tow, Alison simply could not compete in the highly competitive rental market while living on a Centrelink income.
“I had nowhere to go, so I just set up a bed in the back of the car, loaded up the boot and cleaned the house,” she says.
Alison drove around for hours on the first night, unsure of what to do. She eventually found a quiet dead-end street to reduce the risk of people driving past. However, when she woke the next morning, there was a security camera pointed right at her car. This intrusion into her privacy at her most vulnerable was
just the beginning. Alison became both highly visible and invisible, in equal measure.
At that point, staying in her car seemed a temporary solution. But days turned into weeks, weeks into months and months into years.
“I had to ask people, ‘Where do you go? Where do you park? Where do you have a shower? How do you go to the toilet?’” she says. To ensure some level of privacy, Alison would often use a public-toilet sink to wash at 4am, often in freezing conditions.
It was over a year before Alison was able to say to someone, “Yes, I’m homeless.”
Alison reached out to a local Salvos homelessness support service, where she was provided with case management. But with the high demand for transitional housing, her age and circumstances made her a lower priority than youth, families, and people over 55 (the public housing waiting list for a single adult female can be 5-10 years).
Eventually, the COVID-19 pandemic provided an opportunity for Alison to be supported into temporary motel accommodation as part of the state government’s COVID safety measures. Alison now had easy access to amenities, but the likelihood of the motel stay ending was ever-present.
“I was there for three months in the end. But it was constantly like, ‘this isn’t permanent, you’re moving soon, you’ll be back in the car again’,” she says.
“I am thankful to the motel for letting us both in. A lot of people said I should just ‘surrender the dog’, but I can’t stress enough how fundamental Max has been in keeping me going. His loyalty, unconditional love and caring for him got me through some of the hardest times of my life.”
Alison stayed in contact with the Salvos through her case worker, Judy, who helped her find some secure accommodation in a private rental. “By this time, Alison’s legs were bad … and I knew that her mental health was really precarious,” says Judy.
Judy explains that the preference is to have Alison in public housing, where she can live with some certainty and not at the mercy of an insecure private rental market.
“I want to say a big thank you to all those who helped – the Salvos, landlords, real estate agents,” says Alison. “I’m so grateful that they took the risk and gave Max and I a chance, given the situation we were in.”
*Name and some details changed to protect privacy