Putting down roots

Published on 08/03/2016

By Alison Jolly – Boarding House Resident

Alison's garden
Alison's garden

In March of 2015 I was living in a residential Melbourne hotel which was forced to shut down at a month’s notice, so I decided to make a sea change to Sydney.

My son had just moved to Sydney after 12 years overseas during which time I had barely seen him. He had invited me up prior to this, for a short holiday and to convince me to make the move. And so I did. I moved into their apartment but tensions began to arise between his wife and myself and so I moved quickly from there to a boarding house in Surry Hills.

I had some funds and was optimistic of starting a new and better life in Sydney until the situation in the boarding house became untenable due to my house-mates’ mental illness. One woman had schizophrenia and screamed at me whenever I approached the communal kitchen and would systematically throw my things out on the street!
But it was my closest (next door) neighbour who caused the most problems. After one particular bad night where he paced up and down our tiny stairway and onto the street screaming I had to call the police.

He knew it was me and from then on spoke in a threatening manner towards me... My mental health went downhill, partly also due to the fact my room was infested with bed bugs, and so I went to the Surry Hills neighbourhood house to seek some help for him. Instead I found help for myself, as they connected me to Moving Out Moving On (MOMO). Tracie was very understanding and gave me a list of boarding houses to consider. I felt these were my only option, because shared housing seemed prohibitive and I wasn’t up for house interviews and didn’t have the necessary income to pay shared bills on top of rent!

While this new place is not perfect, the manager is very understanding and helpful and most of the residents are fairly well socialised, it is a far better place than the former one. Tracie also organised a new fridge for me and paid my moving costs.

The housing situation for older single women like me (I’m 61) can be difficult unless they own their own home. Many of us divorced our husbands after years of domesticity which had left us unskilled for the work force, without superannuation, and often with an extreme lack of confidence. I think women also like to potter and enjoy homey things like baking etc. so housing is important to them. We also miss out (as do grandfathers) on having our grandchildren visit if our housing is dangerous and unclean.

I’m not sure how you fix this situation unless the wider issues of housing investment are addressed: the stigma around homelessness, the lack of government action to ameliorate the situation and ongoing gentrification of our cities.

From what I have observed in my years of homelessness, most people who end up in this situation have faced some trauma in their lives: early death of a parent, abandonment, traumatic break-up or accident. So it can happen to anyone! Mental illness often follows, going hand in hand with homelessness.

I lived with ex-cons, extortionists, prostitutes, drug uses and dealers during my time in a Melbourne boarding house. I didn’t have a mental illness at all beforehand, but soon developed anxiety and depression after two people had attacked me and my friend hung himself outside my room! He was Aboriginal like me. I ended up living in his room, along with his ghost, but the housing people would not allow a smoking ceremony to move him on! Indeed more problematic, of all the above mentioned, the managers and staff who ran this institution patronised me and could not recognise my only deficiency was lack of housing. I feel particularly frustrated because I was a promising film writer before my housing situation let me down. I had to quit my film school course part way through because of the situation there.

Since I left my husband 20 years ago I have maintained a positive, healthy lifestyle, volunteered in social organisations and been a strong advocate for human rights and the environment.

And I find myself really incensed by the fact that I’m Aboriginal and find myself in this situation. It seems all people on low incomes have little power over their situations: try getting the landlord to fix something and you wait forever. But if your rent is a few days late?! Watch Out!

Of the future: I can retire in 3½ years and have considered buying an old van and touring around rather than put up with untenable housing. I work hard to keep my health as this would be important should I take this route.

I trust the universe to look after me, have developed a small art business and just hope these two things will see me through. I know the spirits will guide me. This is my country!I shouldn’t even have to pay rent to live on it!