Housing The Homeless: Meet Tracy

 

“My rent went up from $190 a week up to $290 a week within a year and a half. The rentals were just too expensive. My brother said ‘do you want to come and live with me?’ At the time it was ok, but my brother’s a very violent alcoholic and I didn’t realise how bad it was gonna be for me and my children, so he got very nasty and kicked us all out.”

Meet Tracy. Also known as ‘Trace’, ‘Auntie’ or ‘Mum’ to the homeless community up in the Perth CBD. What better way to get some real insight into the world of homelessness than to interview someone who has been living on the street for the past five years? Tracy has asked me to keep some things confidential, but has revealed to me everything she thinks the world needs to know about life leading up to her situation, her struggles whilst living on the street, and how she plans to get back on her feet  motivated by her dreams to start up her own not-for-profit foundation house one day to help women like herself recover.

I found Tracy on a mid-afternoon walk on Wednesday the 21st of March at 3pm, sitting on a ledge opposite a gym in the CBD, wearing black socks, jeans, a grey sweatshirt and holding up a sign that read ‘Homeless, thank you and God bless’ in permanent marker on a scrap piece of cardboard. I didn’t take a picture for privacy reasons but we chatted for two hours. I wrote down two pages of notes. I got permission to audio record every word. And I’ve been spending the past two nights fervently documenting the entire conversation into a twenty-five page transcript. So, without further ado, let’s unpack her story.

Tracy is homeless. She’s a fifty-one year old sole-parent managing type two diabetes. She has a daughter who nearly died from Leukemia at the age of three, and her son is currently in prison. Tracy used to have a full-time job assisting an autistic boy five days a week, but says that around seven years ago they cut the benefits for the sole-parent pension and she lost around $150 a week because of it, which was half her rent at the time. Tracy ended up using credit cards to help feed her children, which resulted in a debt of $15000, which she’s voluntarily paying off at $5 a week. When she lost her job around five years ago, Tracy and her children stayed with her alcoholic brother. Though she, too, became an alcoholic under his influence, and her brother kicked her out of the house. She still keeps in contact with her children through a mobile phone that Dream Centre, a Perth based not-for-profit organisation, handed out to her one Saturday [1].

Tracy tells me how in some cases, homelessness is out of one’s control. To illustrate her point, she tells me about her ‘street son’, Todd, whom she found out was a kid covered under Department of Child Protection laws at the time, but ran away from his foster home after the other children staying with him warned him that he was in danger of getting sexually assaulted by his foster dad. But when Todd entered life on the streets, he became mixed up with people who got him hooked on heroin and suboxone at the age of twelve. He’s twenty-two now and unfortunately his circumstances have not changed. Tracy sadly tells me that there is a huge link between people developing mental health issues as a result of isolation and trauma caused by having no home.

“It was really hard,” Tracy continues with her own story, “but I’ve been off synthetic marijuana and alcohol. I haven’t had any drugs and alcohol for two years and four months.” Tracy tells me that a few years ago she admitted herself into hospital to get help with rehabilitation.

I give Tracy a high-five.

I ask her about how she survives on the street since having no home means having no kitchen facilities. She hands me a document with information about where people living below the poverty line can get a feed in the city. I am surprised at the sheer number of soup kitchens, community lunches and support services that exist to feed the homeless.

ME: “So food isn’t a problem. What do you think is the biggest problem?”
TRACY: “It’s accommodation! Accommodation! There’s not enough accommodation!”
ME: “Do the homeless know that crisis accommodation exists?”
TRACY: “Yes they do,” she pauses because she seems to think it’s more complicated than that. “It’s like when people are put in prison, right, they’re institutionalised, and they don’t know any different, so when they come out they’ll reoffend because they want to go back, because they’re used to that life. There’s a lot of people that are so used to living on the street – it’s an absolute fear of going into a room, into a house – when you’ve been homeless for so long.”

Tracy tells me another story about a girl she used to know who was offered a home, but still chose to sleep outside in the backyard under the stars, because the trauma of being homeless runs that deep. Tracy tells me that she had to be admitted into hospital because she caught double pneumonia twice in both lungs during the winters of 2015 and 2016, as a result of sleeping outside in the cold. She’s been robbed and assaulted on the streets, having received multiple beatings, head injuries, black eyes, and often has to deal with being called a ‘hooker’. She’s been sexually abused three times, and she says that she feels like it’s her fault. When she tells me all of this, an image comes into my mind of a homeless man I spotted outside Langley Park a few weeks back and how vulnerable he looked:

Archigram’s “Cushicle” (1972)

This image eerily looks like the ‘dystopian’ version of the utopic Cushicle by Archigram that provides self-contained protective ‘house-clothes’ for a nomadic person to survive in [2]. Tracy tells me that we can “think outside the square” when it comes to solutions, and her words inspire me to consider how designers can provide innovative answers to homelessness.

“Anything you’d really like to say, as a voice for the homeless people?” I ask her.
“That we need a voice,” she states. “We need a voice,” she repeats. “People ask me today ‘why have you become homeless?’ and I just say well I’m still trying to work that one out myself. I can’t explain it to you because I still don’t know why it happened to me.”

Over the next few weeks we will uncover more of Tracy’s story, including her personal experiences with squatting in abandoned houses, and why she could not trust crisis accommodation like The Beacon, run by The Salvation Army [3].

References:
[1] Dream Centre, “Get To Know Us.” Accessed March 23, 2018. http://www.dreamcentreperth.org/about/.
[2] Archigram, “Cushicle.” Accessed March 23, 2018. http://www.archigram.net/projects_pages/cuishicle.html.
[3] The Salvation Army, “The Salvation Army Open The Beacon Homelessness Facility.” Accessed March 23, 2018. www.salvationarmy.org.au/en/Find-Us/Western-Australia/Latest-news/The-Salvation-Army-opens-The-Beacon-Homelessness-facility/

Disclaimer: all images belong to me. Non-confidential parts of the audio and transcript from my interview with Tracy may be emailed upon request, contact: 21713186 (at) student.uwa.edu.au

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