Tough road back from homeless life

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Lizzie, George and Gingy at their home.
Camera IconLizzie, George and Gingy at their home. Credit: The West Australian

A couple who helped set up the East Rockingham homeless camp have found a place to call home, but both admit the road to transitioning back into the community is more difficult than they initially thought.

At just 15 years old, 26 year old Lizzie found herself without a roof over her head, and spent the next 11 years couch-surfing or sleeping in a tent, car or caravan.

Earlier this year, she was given a reprieve when she was finally offered a private rental with her partner George.

The pair jumped at the opportunity, moving into their home in Perth’s southern suburbs in February.

The road to securing a roof over their heads has not been easy, and their struggles are ongoing.

So overwhelmed by the space in their new home, they slept in the living room with all of their belongings for weeks.

Luxuries that they hadn’t had on hand for years- like a shower, toilet and fridge- were things they regularly forgot they had access to.

“It is a big shock coming back to this,” George said.

“In the bush you are always on the edge.

“It’s a huge mental adjustment and we are constantly in fear of losing the house.”

When they had met several years earlier, Lizzie and George were both homeless.

Tired of constantly being moved on from locations across Rockingham and Kwinana, they helped set up the bush camp four years ago.

They made sure those who lived there followed set rules, which included a ban on lighting fires, or stealing from other residents.

They have each grappled with various mental health conditions and say being separated was never an option.

“Emergency housing doesn’t accommodate for couples and you have to go on a waiting list anyway,” Lizzie said.

Desperate for work, they each completed several qualifications, including in viticulture and civil construction in an effort to gain employment.

Despite this, they each struggled to get work.

“We didn’t get jobs because when people looked at our resumes, they saw we had listed that we didn’t have a fixed address,” she said.

A lack of references for rentals further hindered their ability to secure housing.

But, they were finally given a chance earlier this year when a a volunteer with a local charity told them she knew of a property coming up for rent that they may be able to afford.

Since moving into their home, Lizzie and George say they have both suffered panic attacks when trying to sleep at night, after years of knowing closing their eyes could put them at risk of theft or violence.

“People think that every problem you had on the streets is gone once you have a house, but that’s not the case,” Lizzie said.

UWA Associate Professor and homelessness advocate Dr Lisa Wood said mental health conditions did not simply disappear once people were off the streets, but that stable housing was an important first step.

A UWA study recently found that among people housed for 12 months or more, there was a 57 per cent reduction in ED presentations, including a significant reduction in presentations for mental health, alcohol and drug use and injury and self-harm.

However, Dr Woods said it was critical that housing alone was not seen as an instant solution for mental health issues.

“Stable permanent housing has to be coupled with access to specialist GP and mental healthcare services that understand the complicated ways in which homelessness and mental health impact on each other,” she said.

Despite still struggling to regularly put enough food on their table, Lizzie and George are reluctant to ask for help, believing those still on the streets need assistance more than they do.

But, the couple now want to give back and help those who are still sleeping rough, with Lizzie planning to enrol in a social work course.

“A lot of the time when people who are homeless and seeking help, the person sitting on the other side of the desk has no idea where you have been or what you have experienced,” she said.

“We want to be able to give back.”

Across WA, there are currently 13814 applications on the public housing waiting list.

Department of Communities’ Jackie Tang said there was a priority list for those who were homeless, or at immediate risk of becoming homeless, but did not say how long waiting lists could be.

“The Department provides public housing to those in greatest need and it strives to house all applicants on the waiting list at the earliest possible opportunity,” she said.

Dr Woods said it took an average of 58 weeks for someone on the priority waitlist to get public housing in WA.

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