After 25 Years of Being Homeless, – By Gregory P Smith | The Guardian UK

After 25 Years of Being Homeless, I Learned There’s One Simple Thing You Can Do to Help

Gregory P Smith | The Guardian UK

There are as many pathways to homelessness as there are homeless people in the world. For some, it’s a sudden freefall triggered by a lost job, a broken home life or some other seismic personal upheaval.

For others the road to sleeping rough winds down a slow, steady and depressing gradient until it arrives – quite literally – at rock bottom. Tragically, some are even born into it. Many have mental illness to contend with.

No matter how they got there, however, every homeless person has one thing in common:

They know how it feels to be an outcast.              

After a childhood blighted by domestic violence, and traumatic years in an orphanage and juvenile detention, my homeless life played out right up and down the eastern seaboard of Australia for a quarter of a century.

Hamstrung by scant education, I scratched out a pathetic existence in the gutters of Darlinghurst, Kings Cross and Surry Hills in Sydney, and in the back lanes of inner-Brisbane.

I drifted all over New South Wales, into the coastal hamlets, the regional towns and the empty spaces between them. I slept rough in north Queensland, too; Cairns, Townsville, Rockhampton and Mackay.

Homeless life is a hard, hard slog. You’re always hungry, you’re always tired and society always thinks the worst of you.

I used drugs and alcohol to self-medicate against my mental illness, which no doubt caused people to write me off as a drunken bum who chose a bottle over a better life. But the life I lived is one no one in their right mind would ever choose. Homelessness can, in fact, feel like a waking nightmare.

Police and security guards would routinely crack me in the sternum with batons or kick me in the ribs in the middle of the night only to tell me to piss off – to where, I do not know. Then there were the civilian patrols; sadly, there are people in this world who get off on bashing homeless people.

I copped it quite a few times and would be miserable for days afterwards with grazes, bruises and lumps all over my body. I’d look at passersby and wonder,“Was it you? Did you do this to me?”

I came to see society – the well-dressed people with jobs, homes, food, family, friends and stability – as reinforcers of my feelings of shame and self-disgust.

For the most part, to be homeless is to be see-through. In my experience, the vast majority of passersby pretend that the unfortunate soul on the park bench or huddled on the inner-city footpath in front of them simply isn’t there. They’d look right through me as if I was made of glass.

In a twisted way, I sometimes felt a bashing was preferable to being “blanked” by the general public. At least the thugs were engaging with me.

In 1990 – after 15 years of being belted or shunned as I slept on stinking urine-spattered tiles in public toilets, inside grime-coated industrial rubbish bins, on railway platforms, in boiler rooms, under country churches or in a big plastic bag on the side of a road – I walked into a north coast rainforest. I stayed there for the best part of 10 years.

As a bush-dwelling hermit, I was finally spared the humiliation of being ignored by the population. I turned the tables in that rainforest and ignored the rest of the world instead. At last I was alone, save for the voices in my head.

But the life of a recluse is also not one a right-minded person would choose. During the crazy and chaotic years, I lived in the forest, my health – both physical and mental – steadily degraded to the point that I knew I would die if I stayed there.

Although I hated society and people in general, I was surprised and humbled to discover that my fellow human beings actually held the key to me turning my life around. It was clear to me that if I’d laid down to die and decay in the ferns, my long-lost loved ones would never know what happened to me; a tragic mystery that would have haunted them forever.

It was for them, as much as it was through any last grain of self-preservation, that I staggered back into society – close to death – some time in 1999 or 2000.

Society hadn’t changed that much in my absence but, as psychosis and malnutrition stripped me mentally bare, there’d been a profound shift inside me. In deciding to give society another chance I vowed to be the best version of myself possible. In doing so I became vulnerable to others, and that’s when I ceased to be invisible. As much as there was a tendency for people to avoid the homeless, I realised I had been pushing the world away from me, too. In letting my guard down a little, I allowed people to come into my life.

I was recently asked by someone what they should do when they come across a homeless person.

My response to this question is quite simple. Maybe you cannot make a difference to that person’s circumstance, but you can make a difference to how you see them.

Many are hurting with the shame and stigma of being homeless. Don’t pretend they don’t exist: They are people too.

• Out of the Forest by Gregory P Smith is out now through Penguin Random House

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