Falling under the category of “other”
By Sean Car
John Walker was your regular Melbournian, complete with the house, the car, a family and a high-ranking job. But before he knew it, a rapid change in circumstances would see all of that taken away from him as he found himself using drugs and sleeping in the park.
While he has been clean of drugs for more than a year now, the past 10 years have seen his life completely uprooted from what once was. It’s a story that highlights that anyone is at risk of falling on the sword of homelessness, or as John defines it, under the category of “other”.
It’s a fact only compounded at present by the devastating impacts of last summer’s bushfires and COVID-19, with rough sleeping and those without a home living in hotels and crisis accommodation escalating by the day.
Now 50 and living in a Magpie Nest provided by the Salvation Army and Collingwood Football Club, John’s former life as a father of two living in a house in East Brunswick is now a distant memory. Having worked in a number of government and executive level roles in primary health and strategic planning at the time, it was a life one would associate with “normal”.
But at the age of 40, John came out as a gay man to his now former wife. The result was a breakup of his family that would leave him shattered as he was forced to endure a painful and often traumatising custody battle over the ensuing five years.
Playing out in a long and drawn out family court dispute, during which John said a psychologist reported that he “chose to be gay”, and by doing so, created a “hostile environment” for his children, it was an experience that left him deeply wounded and bereft of confidence.
“I went through family court and it was a really shocking family breakup and that process was traumatic; a really awful experience,” he said. “There are absolutely no winners.”
“I had some really bad experiences with it. I had some really shocking psychologists who reported to the court. One said that I ‘chose to be gay’ that it was a ‘lifestyle decision’ I made. That was really catastrophic for me.”
“She [the psychologist] referred to ‘choice’ about four times in the report and that when my son realised the choices that his father had made, he was going to need counselling. By the time the report was done I was 44. I’m 50 now.”
John said it would take another 12 months before a new psychology report was completed to supersede the original report; a time during which he said he had begun losing contact with his children.
And having stopped working for an extended period of time to focus on the court proceedings, he said he would eventually begin turning to drugs as a means of filling a void in his now broken life.
“I had an ex-partner who wasn’t interested in me having access to the children. That was the main issue,” he said.
“I had family orders in place but if the other side doesn’t follow them then your only recourse is to go back to court and there was a point that I reached where I said I wasn’t going back to the court anymore. It was just too stressful.”
“That’s when my drug use really started to take off. The conditions were right in that there was a really deep wound and drugs were, at first, a really good solution.”
From that point, John’s mental and physical health quickly began to deteriorate.
Living alone in an inner-city apartment with a “big bucket” of money from selling his family home, he said his drug use would gradually increase from monthly, to weekly to every day.
“I was using [the drug] ice every day for about four years,” he said.
“I felt really justified with my drug use I felt like I’ve got real pain and I need to medicate. That drove a lot of my drug use and I came to a point where I thought I’d made it about me.”
“I think the difference with an addict is you cross a line or get to a tipping point and you can’t say no. No matter what you do you can’t stop using and you know there are going to be ramifications.”
“There are a million reasons why you shouldn’t, but you still do. That’s where you get in trouble when you’re using against your own best interests.”
Having shared his addiction with a GP who provided him with a phone number for rehabilitation services, he said it would be eight months until he would make the call to ask for help.
And he said that call would only be made when “the wheels fell off” after accidentally setting fire to his apartment and being subsequently evicted. While he would initially land on his friend’s couch for a brief period, it wasn’t long until he found himself living under a tree in Fitzroy Gardens while on waiting lists for a rehabilitation program and emergency accommodation.
“It [rough sleeping] was from turning into a person to turning into a nobody. It happens,” he said.
“That was the astonishing thing it was almost like an experiment. There was a reasonable level of self-esteem of achievement in the past. I’ve run marathons, I’ve done a master’s degree, I’ve travelled a lot, so there was a sense of person that dissolved really quickly. You actually feel like less of a person.”
While John would eventually get the help he needed, he said for those who had experienced the lows of homelessness and addiction, asking for help and capitalising on rare windows of opportunity to follow through on that help, was incredibly challenging.
For him, he said the narcotics anonymous (NA) program run by Vincent Care he was still attending to this day had helped him stay clean for more than a year. But he admitted that he was one of the lucky few.
With an average of nine out of 10 people failing the program, he said “the odds are stacked against you”, but that these life-saving programs were too few, and not promoted enough to those who needed the support.
“For me there is a gap with people who need it and might not know about it. They don’t advertise the program. That’s what I’m here to do today,” he said.
“I don’t know why there is such a high fail rate, but I can just talk about what’s worked for me and that’s been NA. It’s been astonishing.”
With homelessness increasing daily as a result of COVID-19, John said that waiting lists for crisis accommodation and the struggle for long-term housing in Melbourne made the challenge of finding much-needed stability for people like him incredibly challenging.
According to recent data from the Council to Homeless Persons (CHP), around 2000 people currently living in hotel accommodation in Melbourne as a result of COVID-19 don’t have any certainty about long-term housing options.
It’s an issue exacerbated by the pandemic, with Victoria spending the least amount on public housing per head of population out of all Australian states and territories. But for John, one of the “lucky few”, he said the support of the Salvation Army’s Magpie Nest program had been critical in allowing him time to get back on his feet.
“Again, it’s really demoralising. It’s not like going into a bank where you’re welcomed, they’re under the pump and it’s really hard to ask for help. There was so many criteria. At that point I was hardly capable of finishing a sentence. I was gone,” he said.
“It’s [Magpie’s Nest] amazing. It gives people like me a chance. I’ve had that reset moment and I still need time to try and find my feet and if I was forced to go into work or something, it just doesn’t give you the time to heal.”
That stability of having a roof over his head has meant everything for John. Now clean and improving mentally day-by-day, his future looks bright again having recently been offered a scholarship to do a PhD.
He said if his experience of homelessness had taught him anything, it was that many of the things he once deemed important were, in fact, not important at all, and that the category of “other” was nothing more than a state of mind.
“Part of western culture is the idea of attaining things through purchasing and through material. Consumerism. Particularly house prices in Melbourne. You’ve got to have a well-paying job in order to get a house and I felt like there was so much pressure just to be normal or ‘average’ in that range,” he said.
“I think part of that defining of ‘I’ve made it’ or ‘I’m doing okay’ is saying, ‘who am I comparing myself to?’ So, you’re making someone ‘other’. And at the bottom of that ‘other’ are people that are homeless.”
“So, in a sense, you define that you’ve made it by people who haven’t and so casting someone as ‘other’ is putting a lot of pressure on them. In a sense though that’s expected of you. To be part of this community that you have to treat someone as the other to kind of define who you are.”
“Through my experience of being the ‘other’ and being that homeless person that had gone through rehab and detox, my experience has been mild compared to a lot of people in terms of the trauma and the experiences they’ve had. I don’t have that sense of there’s an ‘other’. The idea is that this could be anyone. That could be me, that could be you.”
“So, I don’t have fear around that. I have far more compassion. If I see someone on a train that is unkept and unwashed there’s compassion and concern for them.”
“It’s such a humbling experience going through addiction, because addiction hits anyone. And that’s the beautiful thing about the Salvo’s is that everyone gets treated the same. And we are all the same. I know that now.”
If you are experiencing addiction and need support, ring the alcohol and drug counselling and referral line on 1800 888 236 •
Homelessness support: salvationarmy.org.au/melbourne614