• "It happens so insipidly, as it starts months before you're actually on the street." (Stock photo (not photo of Heidi): Getty Images)
"I just felt completely and utterly disconnected to you and your world. There's no thinking 'next minute, hour or day' like you do when you have the luxury of your own walls. It's just thought to thought, step to step."
By
Carly Findlay

22 Jun 2017 - 11:45 AM  UPDATED 23 Jun 2017 - 6:49 PM

"When towns are your rooms and streets are your furniture, you feel like an extraterrestrial moving between people, rather than with people," says Heidi, a Melbourne woman in her mid-40s.

Heidi used to be ‘homeless’ even though she doesn’t really agree or identify with the label.

"I didn't consider myself 'homeless' [at the time], as it wasn't a word in my vernacular", says Heidi*.

“I had a family home I could've returned to. When I was unwell, I slept rough because of the extremities of mental illness."

"I just felt completely and utterly disconnected to you and your world."

Heidi explains to SBS that loosing a permanent home can happen to anyone, and occur rather quickly, even unexpectedly.

"It happens so insipidly, as it starts months before you're actually on the street."

Heidi has lived experience of complex mental health challenges, including schizophrenia and complex post-traumatic stress disorder resultant of a neurodiverse brain.

"I just felt completely and utterly disconnected to you and your world. There's no thinking 'next minute, hour or day' like you do when you have the luxury of your own walls. It's just thought to thought, step to step."

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Heidi says being homeless with mental illness is a struggle. "My life was constantly being threatened: it felt like I was always either about to be dead or lucky to be alive. This lifestyle triggered a domino effect of severe mental illness in me which meant I lost all self-esteem and self-identity."

She had two periods of homelessness – one from her late-teens to early twenties and again in her 30s. "It's probably not going to be long enough to be considered anything much in terms of people who are entrenched homeless," Heidi reflects.

"This lifestyle triggered a domino effect of severe mental illness in me which meant I lost all self-esteem and self-identity."

The first stint – broken periods over two years – was because of the people she hung out with as a teenager. "I didn't realise it wasn't the normal way of life, to be in the world of drugs and crime, sleeping in cars, sheds and parks. I just did it without wondering why it felt so wrong all the time."

The second bout of homelessness was for a short time and she says it was because of mental illness. "When I was unwell, I slept rough because of mental illness." She adds that it was challenging enough at the time to find moments to eat and sleep as well as managing continuous waves of paranoia, mania, depression, psychosis and anxiety.

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Heidi was one of 105,000 Australians who are homeless on any given night. The Melbourne City Mission believes the rate of clients with disability is most likely above 7.2 per cent. But because not every person with disability chooses to disclose and not everyone has a diagnosis, many might not get the help they need.

A Melbourne City Mission spokesperson says: "there are young people who present to Frontyard (Victoria’s flagship homelessness support service for young people up to age 25) with signs of cognitive disability such as Acquired Brain Injury or who display behaviours associated with autism, but who do not have a diagnosis and/or who do not access the disability support pension."

The spokesperson adds that it's important to recognise that some homeless people have physical disability and mental illness, which compounds the stress of being homeless. They need to be supported adequately.

"It's also important to know that I have an above average IQ and a pretty impressive CV that might put many high functioning home-owners to shame."

Heidi explains it also takes a long time – if you ever can – to feel secure after being homeless.

"I've been living okay for nearly 10 years but it's not stable as rent is so expensive, so I'm constantly worried I will lose it any time", Heidi says. "I'm always worried."

Heidi is currently an artist and musician, working to help others with mental illness. She also has a lot of support from friends who do not do drugs and alcohol. "I work hard to pay bills on time but it's always a struggle to manage the demands without getting stressed out and just want to leave it all", she says.

"I have to keep things very simple. I also take medication religiously. If I don't, I know where it's heading."

Heidi has an impressive work history in the arts and fights back against those who underestimate her. "It's also important to know that I have an above average IQ and a pretty impressive CV that might put many high functioning home-owners to shame."

*Heidi is the interviewee's real name. She chose to omit her surname from this article for privacy reasons.


Filthy Rich and Homeless', a new three-part documentary series, will explore the experience of homelessness when it debuts on SBS on Tuesday 27, Wednesday 28 and Thursday 29 June at 8.30pm. Each show will be available to view on SBS On Demand after broadcast.

If this article has raised issues for you and you would like to talk to someone, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit their website by clicking here. For information about services from St Vincent De Paul, click here or for services offered by Salvation Army, click here.  

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