Being a woman and homeless

By Cheryl, a Big Issue Australia vendor

Being homeless is scary and dangerous, whether you’re male or female. Having experienced homelessness on and off for the best part of a decade, I have experienced many traumas because of my living situation – and because I’m a woman. I was constantly worrying about being attacked, robbed or worse.

My first experience of homelessness was when I was 15. My mother passed away and my dad moved out and left me all alone. I ended up couch-surfing with friends so I could finish school and fulfil my Mum’s dream that I’d go to university. But I was drowning in grief and loneliness, and I started drinking quite heavily to cope.

I fell pregnant at 17, and had to leave school to raise my son; followed by a second at 21. I was determined to give my boys a stable home life. For many years, life was good.

In my mid-thirties I married, only to discover my husband was a heroin user. Stupidly, I started using, too. He became violent, not just towards me, but towards my two sons. We moved out.

With my kids grown up and out of home, I remarried. To another user. Things were okay for a few years. Then our drug addiction took everything. Slowly money goes in the wrong direction; you stop going to the movies or out to dinner with friends. You stop buying food and stop paying the bills. You stop paying the rent – and you get evicted.

Vendor Cheryl. Credit: James Braund

I had the idea to buy a car and live in it while we sorted out our lives. That fell apart after six months; our car broke down and was towed. Frustrated and heartbroken, we slept rough that night. We slept in parks with rats as big as possums. In the freezing Melbourne winter, we slept in stairways to protect ourselves from the wind and danger, only to wake up in a pool of rainwater. It’s a challenge to carry around all your clothing, blankets and few possessions everywhere. Being homeless and a heroin addict means you have really poor nutrition. We had 50c ice creams for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We’d sometimes get a cold meat pie or lukewarm soup from a food van, or biscuits and lollies.

Over those 10 years, I was in and out of eight boarding houses, as well as two crisis shelters and a women’s refuge. Life was transient, nothing was permanent, I had nowhere to call home. It felt like there were no safe spaces.

I was lucky, if you could call it that, to have only ever been homeless twice without my partner. The first time I was alone was in a boarding house. I was paying more than $200 a week for a room that was just big enough for a single bed and a small cupboard. Windows were busted, it was disgustingly dirty. I was only there to sleep; I showered at work. I was the only female in the house with four males. It was very scary because they partied all the time. People who didn’t live there would wander in and out whenever they pleased. Your stuff just disappeared. I remember being picked up by my throat by one male tenant and slammed onto the ground because I got in line for food before him. Late one night, this same man decided to kick in all the tenants’ doors while holding an axe.

Life in those hellholes was traumatic. It felt like no-one cared that we had to live in these overcrowded, overpriced and dangerous places. But with no rental references or the money for private rentals, and the waiting list for public housing seemingly a lifetime, we had no choice.

Having experienced homelessness on and off for the best part of a decade, I have experienced many traumas because of my living situation – and because I’m a woman. I was constantly worrying about being attacked, robbed or worse

The most terrifying experience I ever had was at another boarding house. I heard an alarm going off one night while I was watching telly. I looked out my door to be confronted by black smoke. There were no batteries in the exit signs, leaving the place pitch black. There were no sprinklers. I was trapped. I called triple zero. The fire brigade told me to leave the door unlocked, put wet towels against the door, and go and lie in the bathroom under another wet towel. Someone had set a car on fire in the car park. We were all taken to a motel for few days. But the premises were declared unsafe, and so it was back to the streets.

I tried three times to give up heroin, doing seven days in rehab. There was little ongoing support. I’d be clean for about 18 months, but addiction is a revolving door – it just takes one little slip up.

Then, in 2001, my eldest son told me I was going to be a grandmother. It was the lifeline I needed, the reason to get sober. I have been clean 13 years, I am now in my own Community Housing Unit, and the future looks fantastic.

Cheryl sells The Big Issue in Melbourne, Australia and is employed in the Women’s Subscription Enterprise and as a guest speaker in the Big Issue Classroom.