Shame is a complex emotion. For most of my life, it has prohibited me from revealing an experience that has shaped me in the most profound of ways. And today, shame is what is forcing me to finally reveal what that is, something even some of my closest friends don’t know.
You see, when I was 17, I became homeless for a period. As in, I lived in a friend’s garage, sneaking in when his parents had parked each night and getting up before they left each day. It meant me hiding my sleeping bag in bushes before heading off to school and relying on the kindness of others for food. It entailed overstaying my welcome at every opportunity, mocking sleep so as not to be moved off a warm couch or sneaking into their rooms when parents had gone to bed, for a safe place to sleep.
And it made me feel like shit, every humiliating second of every day. I felt I was white trash, despite my middle-class upbringing, unlovable and unworthy. And despite getting my life back on track and achieving success later in life, I will always be that scared young girl with knotted hair who brushed her teeth with her finger and bathed with a garden hose, among other indignities I don’t care to share.
So acute are these memories that when I read that yet another young woman, now identified as 25-year-old Courtney Herron, had been found dead in a Melbourne park on the weekend – this one identified as having “no fixed address” – tears came that haven’t really left. I can only imagine how vulnerable, lost and insignificant she must have felt in that dark park ringed by the warm homes of affluent others.
There are 116,427 people homeless in Australia on any given night, according to Mission Australia. This includes 15,872 children under 12. Only 7 per cent of people who are homeless are sleeping on the streets. The rest are hidden away, couch-surfing with friends, moving between emergency shelters and hostels and sleeping in cars and makeshift dwellings. Domestic and family violence is one of the top reasons people end up in this situation.
I don’t want to dwell on how and why I ended up homeless. It was an escalation of parental circumstance from which I felt I had no choice but to flee. No one chooses to be homeless, it is forced upon them when there is no alternative to be found. Despite my school acknowledging I had no home and allowing me to be my own legal guardian while I completed my education – a feat for which I shall forever be proud – no one in authority stepped in to help me or even ask if I was OK. And I am still angry this was the case.
Courtney Herron’s tragic death needs to be mourned as an act of neglect en masse. No young woman, man or child should be sleeping rough and no decent society should be allowing it to happen.
So, for those who may now view me differently or pity my past, I say stuff your sympathy and DO SOMETHING TO HELP. I donate to homeless shelters and I feed and supply bedding and warm clothes to those in my neighbourhood sleeping rough. And still I don’t feel I’m doing enough. But I couldn’t live with myself if I was doing nothing.
What I realise as I write is that I am actually now proud of my past. I have no shame today. My hardships shaped who I am, someone who refuses to look away. I want to be a testament that life can and does go on, that unfortunate periods are not life sentences.
This article first appeared in Brisbane Times.