I was only homeless once in my life. It lasted about a week. Technically we weren’t homeless at all, but we were living in a hostel and I hated it.
We’d landed in Sydney, Australia as part of a student exchange programme and had five months of study ahead of us. We needed to find a place to stay, near to college, with reasonable enough rent.
All of us had arrived with meagre savings, having spent most of our money on the long-haul flights. We were fully prepared to accept typical student accommodation, but, underprepared for the battle to find a roof over our heads.
The first place we looked at offered twin beds in a large, old dilapidated building. It was right next door to Redfern, the very place we had warned to go nowhere near. Outside there were old lean-tos full of junk and the bedroom windows had bars on them. I looked out through one of the windows onto a big square cage and enquired of the landlord what it was for. “That’s for the rats,” he replied clearly.
Much of the accommodation on offer was owned by Chinese people, usually women. The rooms were often small and awkward shaped. We viewed a few houses and while at least clean, there was something really stifling about them, that we just couldn’t accept.
As the days passed, we waited for the various newspapers to come out which would list accommodations. This was before the days of internet searching for houses and the delay began to lead to my despair. We couldn’t enjoy our first few days or even explore the city, because, we were homeless, and it permeated all our thinking and tasks.
On the fifth day of looking, I called a number for a house in an area we were interested in looking in. “It’s not quite ready for viewing,” said the landlady, “but if you want to come ahead that’s fine.” ‘Not quite ready’ did not prepare us. She opened the door into a building site. It literally didn’t have a kitchen sink. The back door was missing a large chunk, under which not only could rats and small dogs pass, but probably Shetland ponies too. And there was a large pile of rubble in the ‘sitting room’. “It does need work,” she said.
Later that evening, when it got dark, we went to an appointment to view another house, in the same street as Rubble Ville. Again another Asian lady was the landlord. She met us outside and opened the front door. Hearing our arrival, a young Chinese girl sprinted from the kitchen to her room, which was right beside us in the hall. She slammed it, locked it from the outside and shouted at the landlady in Chinese. I don’t know the Chinese words for “No way are you giving away my room, bitch!’ but I’m pretty sure that’s what she said.
After some mooching around, the landlady brought us into the kitchen, where the other tenant, a Chinese man, was taking rice from a deep fat fryer. She indicated for me to go through a door off the kitchen and when I opened it, I was confronted by the earlier met young Chinese girl, sitting on a toilet, with her trousers, quite naturally, around her ankles. She rose in anger and I saw everything. Far more than I expected on a simple house viewing. More Chinese expletives. I backed out furiously, fully committed to not taking this house.
Eventually we secured accommodation but with a few sacrifices. I found a beautiful house, but had to live with the landlord and his girlfriend under whom there were strict rules and regular furious scribbled notes such as, BIN NIGHT TONIGHT, MAYBE SOMEONE ELSE’S TURN??? and SOMEBODY LEFT FOUR CRUMBS OUT LAST NIGHT AND THERE WERE COCKROACHES THIS MORNING. THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE!! My fellow travellers took a place that had no beds or appliances and slept on mattresses on the floor for five months and rented a fridge for $10 a week. But we made do. And of course, we had a roof over our heads.
The current accommodation crisis in Ireland, the result of a nasty recession and housing boom, has brought back some of these house searching memories. I think of the many variants of homelessness and housing crises. Families forced into accepting homes that are simply not suitable for children; tiny apartments, damp and old houses, hundreds of steps with a buggy. I think of people living in their cars, elderly mothers taking back their sons, mixed age children sharing beds and mothers and kids dragging suitcases to B&Bs.
Worst of all are those who have explored all other avenues, failed and spend their nights bedding down on the streets. Recently on RTE television they interviewed homeless men at a food centre over Christmas. They all told of their wonderful Christmas’ as children, running down the stairs to see what Santa had brought. Little did their parents think that those children, who were obviously loved, would be spending future Christmas’ begging, surviving on handouts and curling up in a damp sleeping bag for the night.
The whole story of Christmas is based on the homeless Mary and Joseph searching for a bed for the night. They are lucky to find a shed, some straw and a manger. As I sit in my cosy home, with a roaring fire and twinkling Christmas lights, it seems as though this never-ending story has been lost on many, myself included, as we compete with each other for the best wrapped, most expensive-looking gift under the tree. It’s obvious that the gift of a home, the one we are sitting in, secure in the roof over our heads, is of course, the best gift there can ever be.