Life at the Homeless Hotel
This week is Homelessness Week and telling the stories of our homeless population is critical to understanding the impacts that addiction and COVID-19 are having on people’s lives.
Here is Steve’s* story, a homeless person whose life has been changed dramatically by COVID-19.
Note: This interview was conducted several weeks before stage 3 and 4 restrictions came into effect in Victoria.
Steve asks if it’s cold outside. He’s speaking from one of Melbourne’s 3-star hotels, a far cry from the streets of Richmond where he’s experienced homelessness, ice and heroin use for much of the last eight years.
‘I’m doing a lot better than I ever have,’ he says, turning down the TV. ‘I give mum all my dole money and she pays for where I’m staying and buys me food, but then I have to go out and do whatever I can do to make a bit of money to, you know, buy heroin.’
Steve, like many of the state’s homeless, has to make a contribution to his accommodation, around $170 a week. He helps meet that payment by giving his dole money to his mum, a relationship that for over five years was so fractured they could only maintain contact by speaking on the phone. Today he welcomes his improving relationship with his mum. ‘I was angry for a very long time and it took a while to get past that but now, I don’t want to lose the relationship that we’re starting to get.’
He puts the change down to the regular interaction he’s been having with the clinical team at Turning Point, despite the COVID-19 lockdown. ‘I’m really grateful and happy and starting to feel like I’m part of the family again.’
Peer support worker a crucial piece of care
The ongoing contact with his peer support worker has been critical. ‘It’s hard at the moment. Help-seeking is all over the phone. But my peer [support] worker is always checking in, that’s lovely, that’s been really great. I really feel like you guys care which has been great for me, that’s really impressed me. I’m able to reach out and text support, even on people’s day off, they get back. People care.’
He still uses drugs occasionally, but much less since the summer. ‘I have a lot more guilt when I do use, and shame I suppose because I enjoy the time with mum and I feel like not only am I letting myself down, I’m letting her down and I’ve never really felt like that before.’
Like all of us, Steve’s life has been impacted by the lockdown. ‘Here at the hotel, we always have to leave to see people. They’ll let mum up real quick to drop off food, but they’re very strict, because of the clientele here I suppose. It’s hard at the moment. They’ve got so much security and the police are here every day cos there’s blues every night. Just because there are so many people on ice.’ But he’s grateful for the chance to reflect and stay in contact with his support. ‘I get more calls than face to face time. It’s like a lifeline. There are pros and cons but in an ideal world having both would be brilliant. It’s surreal. It’s odd. You should see the room I’ve got. I can’t complain too much. I can come and go freely.’
Steve’s outlook on his future
‘I just want my chance at a normal life again. Whatever that may be! I figure first and foremost I hundred per cent want to do it for myself, but after spending time with mum after so many years of not talking, I don’t want to lose the relationship that we’re starting to get. I feel like I’m coming to the end of this horrible journey and I’m ready for my life again.’
The link between addiction and homelessness
There are multiple factors and stresses that can lead to a person becoming homeless. Importantly, research consistently shows that experiencing alcohol and other drug related issues is strongly connected to housing instability or homelessness.
Homelessness services in Melbourne have found that 43% of their homeless population experience alcohol or other drug problems. Two-thirds of these people developed problems with addiction following homelessness, whilst for others alcohol and drug use contributed to experiencing homelessness.
Many of the factors that contribute to homelessness also apply to addiction, including a history of trauma, mental health, unemployment, social exclusion and isolation. During Homelessness Week it is important that we recognise the multiple challenges that our homeless population struggle with, and work towards a future where stable housing, hope, connection, work and study opportunities, and ready access to mental health support and addiction treatment are in easy reach.
For anyone struggling with addiction, there is a solution here at Turning Point and the many other alcohol and drug services across Australia. Reaching out and asking for support is just the start - if you aren’t sure where to go you can call the National Alcohol and Other Drug hotline on 1800 250 015 or visit www.counsellingonline.org.au – both services are free, confidential and available 24/7.
Update - Steve has recently completed detox at Turning Point’s residential withdrawal service, he has now moved onto the next step of long term rehab with another service, which is a great outcome. We wish him all the best with his journey and look forward to providing him with ongoing support when he returns from rehab.
*His name has been changed to protect his anonymity