I was 66 years old when I was sleeping on the streets of Sydney. I was homeless. All my life I had been oblivious to the plight of homelessness. I never thought about it and never cared about it. Why would I? It wasn’t anything that affected me. I had a home, a loving family and no need to work as I was a self-funded retiree.
But for 20 years I had suffered severe depression. The extent varied: sometimes I was just down, sometimes the depression vanished, and on two occasions I suffered a total breakdown – one of which resulted in me being unable to work for three months.
I am often asked what made me choose to live on the street. Of course, no one “chooses” to live on the street. Most people understand that people sleeping rough are desperate for accommodation or suffer from addictions such as to alcohol or drugs. In my case I neither lacked accommodation nor was I an addict – yet I didn’t choose to live on the street.
It began when I returned to Sydney after studying philosophy at the University of Sorbonne in Paris for six months. I became totally overwhelmed with my depression. One day I put a note on the seat of my car and told my wife I was going to live on the street. I told her that I would change my name, and no one would be able to find me.
My actions were irrational, illogical and incomprehensible. What would cause anyone to empty their pockets of all identification and leave to sleep on the streets of Sydney? But I was sick, very sick and with no capacity to make logical decisions. I just acted from instinct.
I initially sought refuge in a hostel but it was full. I had no choice but to extract some bit of cardboard from the garbage bins nearby and park myself on the footpath. I slept rough for a month until – in what was in a way fortunate – I was bashed. I was bashed severely enough to be taken to hospital but not so seriously as to be permanently injured.
Oddly, I was happy enough on the street and soon settled into a routine. I was happy in the sense that I was so sick I couldn’t comprehend anything different. I had my own sleeping spot outside a chemist shop in Cathedral Street. I usually had breakfast and showered at Matthew Talbot Hostel and ate from food carts that were accessible for dinner. I had access to life’s necessities – clothing, food and shelter. The Salvation Army gave me blankets, so I was warm.
People for the most part were very kind, in particular at Salvos and the hostel. But it wasn’t long before I became acutely aware of the contempt that many had for people on the street. I took it personally; it savaged my already non-existent self-esteem. I realised that in the middle of crowded streets I was a nobody, not worthy of anything and of no use to anyone. I had already emotionally detached from the real world, so the rush of anonymous humanity simply entrenched my feelings of despair and isolation. The saddest part now looking back is that, other than providing for my basic needs, no one ever tried to engage with me. I was very sick and vulnerable and yet there was no interaction with me from passersby.
After I was bashed, I recovered from my physical injuries and sought admission to a private rehab hospital. I discharged myself after a week, then realised my mistake and sought readmission. This was refused because I was deemed too sick to be in rehab – I couldn’t cope with the group dynamics. After further psychiatric treatment and a third stay in hospital, my underlying psychological problems were addressed to the extent that I could function normally. I was very fortunate as I had the security of a family.
If I’d remained on the street, I may have never recovered. I didn’t know I suffered from intergenerational post-traumatic stress transfer, and that as a 66-year-old man I had the emotional intelligence of an adolescent. I’m now back living with my family at home, and while I am still vulnerable, the problems of a few years ago now seem like a distant nightmare.
The truth is that most people sleeping rough, particularly long-term rough sleepers, have some sort of underlying psychological issue that must be dealt with – we cannot turn our backs on people who live in misery and poverty through no fault of their own. We as a wealthy society must regard it as totally unacceptable that anyone sleeps rough. It is critical that we case manage the sickest and most vulnerable rough sleepers, and provide the services required to restore people’s mental health and allow them to live in society with dignity and self-respect. How can we not do it? Providing a roof over someone’s head is welcome, but it’s not good enough.