Chambers of the Heart

“Home is where the heart is” – the words roll off the tongue easily enough. I’d heard them spoken many times over the years, but as a long-term homeless man I never really knew what to make of them. For most of my life, I’d considered the notion that ahome might resemble a heart as pure nonsense, espoused by people who’dnever had to think too hard about it, people who hadn’t lived a life like mine.

Did the cliché mean home is a familiar place, where we’re meant to feel secure and loved? Or was it more a state of mind, where the walls and roof are constructed out of one’s sense of happiness and belonging? Whatever the case, no interpretation made any sense to me, and I could speak from experience: I had dragged my own heart 20,000 kilometres every which way, only to find myself forever homeless.

The physical home of my childhood was a wretched, terrifying place where I was beaten almost daily by my angry, alcoholic father. Black eyes, cuts, welts and lurid bruises were the wages of my efforts to protect my younger sisters from the violent cyclones that torethrough our house. Our mother laid into us too, but she added emotional and psychological battery to the mix. That home, in the town of Tamworth, New South Wales, was most definitely not where my heart was.

Nor was the Catholic orphanage where I was placed, along with my sisters and against my will, at the age of 10. St Patricks in Armidale housed a population of wicked nuns whose mission was to “break the spirit of a child so the spirit of the Lord may enter”. But those women destroyed more than just the will of the children thrust into their care. The Sisters of Mercy also broke my skin and my teeth, not to mention the hearts and minds of countless vulnerable kids like me and my sisters.

I had other “homes” after that – boys’ homes, foster homes and reform schools where I learned to harden myself and address any threats with my own growing violent streak. Unsurprisingly, by my 20s, I was living in the gutters of Sydney, totally alone, with no home to go to, and not much of what I’d call a heart either.

After a few years drifting up and down Australia’s eastern seaboard I replaced the word “home” with another, more portable term that accurately described the places where I’d stop for the night: these locations were known simply as “camp”, and they ranged from the occasional couch or the relative comfort of some unsuspecting Australian’s veranda, to being wedged right down in the filthy cracks of society – the same cracks countless people like me had fallen through before.

Over the years, out of pure necessity, I made camp in all kinds of places. I have slept inside industrial garbage bins, on the urine-spattered tiles of putrid public toilets, on train platforms, in boiler rooms, on park benches, in cars, under bushes, in public gardens, in a cardboard box, in a plastic bag, in roadside ditches, in the dirt beneath country churches, and even in the middle of an outback road where I clung to the still-warm bitumen to stave off hypothermia. Not one of these places was where I kept my heart.

I was rarely comfortable, and I never felt safe. To be homeless is to be completely vulnerable – a bashing victim in waiting. Under cover of darknesspolice and security guards could be quick with a baton or a boot to the ribs, to ensure sleeping souls like me didn’t blight society’s aesthetic with our modest, huddled shapes. And then there were the sickos who took pleasure in attacking the homeless. I copped it plenty of times,once ending up dazed and bloodied in a hospital emergency room.

Almost as bad as getting bashed was being “blanked” by everyday Australians who’d look straight through me as if I was made of glass. In their eyes, either I was so far gone from society that I’d ceased to exist, or the sadness of my situation was too much to confront, so it was easier to pretend I wasn’t really there at all.

After fifteen or so years, I was tired of it all. It was clear that society had no stomach for the likes of me, and I could no longer cop society either. Between 1990 and 1999 I shut myself off from the world by retreating into a rainforest in northern New South Wales. I simply wandered into the forest one day and decided to stay. It was a beautiful place and there were no people around to make me feel like shit; already an expert at that myself, I figured I didn’t need any help.

The stillness and quiet of the forest was pure bliss…for a while, at least.  During my years as a hermit in the bush I allowed myself to think the forest might be my true home. In terms of how long I managed to stay in one spot, it certainly eclipsed the other places I’d lived. SometimesI’d ponder whether the forest was the only place on Earth where I could truly say my heart was located – though I could never quite convince myself of that.

My grasp on the “heart” part of the old saying was tenuous. What did people mean when they referred to the human heart? Was it a byword for love? If so, that concept was alien to me. As far as I knew, no-one had ever loved me. And I hated and mistrusted just about everyone and everything in the world.

I was totally alone in the forest, living, foraging and sleeping in the undergrowth with nothing but insects and native fauna for company. But I knew that if I stayed there long enough, I would die and rot away to old bones on the forest floor. Meanwhile I was slowly poisoning myself with the drugs and alcohol thatI concoctedmyself, or procured during rare trips to town. Eventually I was faced with a weighty choice: forest or society? Life or death? To my great surprise, I chose life.

I walked out of the woods, and day by day, piece by piece, slowly reassembled my shattered life. I stopped drinking and drugging, and started to give myself the education I’d been denied as a child. In electing to give society another chance, I soon realised I needed to give my fellow human beings another chance, too. That would require me to be open to forming relationships, instead of pushing people away. Rather than erecting walls, I’d have to make myself vulnerable. I needed to grant people entry, instead of locking them out. I’d have to welcome them into my heart. That was a terrifying prospect, but I was committed to doing it. After all, I had chosen to live.

The long, gradual pursuit of my education provided the perfect framework for my burgeoning connection with aworld I’d always thought hated me. Along every step on the path that eventually led to my gaining a PhD, I was blown away to meet many beautiful, supportive and loving people who were willing to take my hand and help me emerge from the darkness of my past. One by one I allowed these people into my heart, where they all took up residence and made themselves right at home.

Inside the rooms and corridors of the rambling old shack that I call my heart: that’s where I’ve truly found my home. It turns out home isn’t some fleeting camp, nor is it made of wood or bricks,nor the ferns and palms of a rainforest.

My home is made out of people. They are the familiar walls that wrap around me and make me feel safe. They are the windows through which I can observe the world from new perspectives. They are the doorways that beckon me to step into new adventures and better relationships. They are the roof that keeps me in check.

I looked up that old saying. It turns out a Roman philosopher named Gaius Plinius Secundus is credited with coining the phrase “Home is where the heart is.” His musing may have endured fortwo thousand years, but with all due respect to Gaius, I still disagree.

For me, the words work better the other way around: my heart is where my home is.  

Signal Flare

You may or may not know that Signal Flare grew from very humble beginnings. It all began with the Pie and Cokes that Grant the Polite Guy had with other homeless people when he was homeless himself. He invited another homeless person to have something to eat with him saying he didn’t want to eat by himself, and from his meagre earnings as a Big Issue vendor he bought a meal for them both, then sat back and listened to the other person’s story. If this person wanted to get back on their feet Grant would do whatever possible to help him/her make this happen.

And the Pie and Coke tradition continues. I thought I’d tell you about Sunday’s Pie and Coke as the person I had it with shared some truths with me that deserve hearing, and he is not only fine with but also proud of me sharing what he says.

We had a Whopper meal at Hungry Jack’s, in front of which we happened to bump into each other. My first ever Whopper, LOL! He had a Coke to go with it, I had a water.

He said “When you have nothing, nobody likes you. Nobody wants to talk to you. It’s like you’re not there. You don’t even have a life. It’s like you don’t exist. It’s like you’re not even alive. But when people support you, you start having things, you start to be alive, and you can start to support other people.” He wondered out loud whether he was alive or not, and came to the conclusion that he was. He was grateful for the support he received and talked about his family who, he said, didn’t like him because in their eyes he didn’t do anything with his life, he didn’t pull his weight. I told him it seems to me that he does do something with his life. I know he looks out for other homeless people, wanting to make sure they are safe. When I bump into him he always asks if I’m alright, with real concern in his voice and eyes. He does do something with his life, even though it doesn’t translate into wealth or possessions. He does what is within his capabilities and that is awesome. Thank you for doing what you do, mate, and I’m glad you understand that you’re doing it!

It was great to hear him say in very simple wording that people who are supported feel better and that support can empower them to help others. Bravo! I thought that was worth sharing 🙂 

Angry young terrorist in the making

For a nation of immigrants Australia sure seems to spend a lot of time demonising immigrants. I wonder what the cost of that might end up being and if it will ever be a thing of the past.

Of course, not all Australians hold anti-migrant views, but there are enough out there to ensure an endless supply of “fed up” voices on talkback radio and to give succour to politicians like Queensland Senator Fraser Anning and his yearning for a return to the white Australia policy.

Yet you don’t have to tune into talk-back or listen to speeches in the parliament to hear nasty, racist sentiments expressed in Australia. I’ve been hearing it point-blank for years from a person I know well in a regional city I frequent.

“Bloody immigrants!” Tony would seethe as he gestured across the road to a neighbour’s house. “They come over here and take our jobs and houses! They get money for free and too much support from the government!”

I was well acquainted with the targets of this bitter — and entirely false — judgement. The “offending” household was a family of South Sudanese refugees; Mum, Dad and three adorable kids under 10.

Given a sanctuary in Australia from the horrors of civil war, the family had wasted no time contributing to their new nation and making a better life for themselves along the way.

Both parents worked hard; the Dad had two jobs — one as a road worker and another packing shelves at night at the locals Coles. They earned enough money to rent a house, pay their taxes and put their children into school with the rest of the neighbourhood kids.

And yet … “Bloody immigrants. Bloody reffos. They’re taking our jobs. All they want is hand-outs.”

The family was subjected to this kind of abuse for years and all that negativity, all those projected fears and false accusations indeed left their mark — mostly on the kids.

Nowadays the children are older — into their impressionable teenage years — and they are much less engaged with the community than their peers.

Looking back, the tragedy had unfolded in front of me in slow-motion. Bit by bit, comment by comment, these young Australians had been worn down and made to feel unwelcome in the country that had promised them a new beginning.

People react differently to bullying — be it passive or overt — and in the case of the eldest boy, well, he became extremely angry. Over time the fury in his heart had spilled over into the community. A couple of times the police had become involved.

Observing this young lad made me think back to a younger me. After all, I’m something of an expert on being young, disconnected and full of rage.

I found it easy to imagine myself in this young man’s shoes. Were I a boy watching my parents work hard for years to make a place in the community only to hear them scorned, jeered and showered with racial slurs, I’d be pretty upset at the world, too.

If I were continually told how unwelcome me and my family were, told to “go back where you came from” every other day, I’d feel trapped in a world that hated me, too.

And so the prejudice of some Australians became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The “immigrant” with the darker skin and funny-sounding accent who had been vilified as a threat had ultimately become enraged and volatile. A real threat, now, they reckoned.

I can’t help think that if he had been a Muslim as well as South Sudanese the neighbours would be calling him a terrorist now. What would that escalation bring to the cycle?

It’s a depressing thought.

If I think of this in terms of this youth’s anger being a form of mental illness, I ask myself what an effective treatment might look like.

I have some ideas about that. Do you?

The Big Issue

There are few worse ways to be woken up than with a kick in the face. Maybe getting your ribs stomped on, or having a police baton rammed into your kidneys, or copping a jet of freezing water in your eyes. Those are all pretty ordinary, but I reckon a kick in the face wins hands down for shock, pain, fear and pure misery.

Most Australians would find such a rude awakening impossible to comprehend, but anyone who has ever been homeless knows that sleep time is when society’s most removed, reviled and hopelessly exposed people are at their most vulnerable. For them the risks posed simply by nodding off are very, very real.

After a childhood that was blighted by physical and emotional violence, and teenage years spent in an orphanage and juvenile detention, my homeless journey took me up and down the eastern seaboard on an endless trek to nowhere.

This pitiful existence played out in the gutters of Sydney and Brisbane. I wandered all over NSW and Queensland, too; into the regional centres, the little towns and the lonely spaces in between them.

But no matter where I curled up to sleep, safety was my number one concern.

I was attacked numerous times over the years and even wound up in hospital courtesy of a beating by twisted types who get off on assaulting the homeless. And they don’t just give you one little kick in the face, either – they want to hurt you. I’ve come to with my face bashed in, my head wet with blood, burning, ripped-up lips and smashed fingers.

Other times it’s just the system that’s against you. One of the worst developments for homeless people happened when local councils hit on the idea of watering public parks at night. You can be sound asleep when suddenly a hidden sprinkler nozzle a metre from your head goes “click” and starts spraying jets of water up your nose.

Homeless life is an exhausting grind. You’re always hungry for food and sometimes you’re hungrier for the milk of human kindness. Society generally reviles you.

Years can disappear in what seems like hours; time means nothing when you have no foothold in society. The usual calendar markers like Christmas, birthdays, holidays, footy grand finals, long weekends – none of these things exist when you’re homeless. Instead, the sun comes up and then the sun goes down. Days are just days that are either hot, cold, windy, warm, wet or dry. Night time is the same, just with darkness and apprehension thrown in.

It wears you down.

One day, at the end of another aimless walk to a lonely corner of the map, I wandered into a rainforest in northern NSW. When it dawned on me that I liked it because there was no-one else there, I decided to stay for a while. After a while, I decided to stay forever.

I withdrew from society in that forest. By living as hermit, I thought I had solved one of my major problems – that of having to deal with human beings.

My survival required me to evolve somewhat – or perhaps “devolve” is more accurate. I slept out in the open and often in the pouring rain, and I grew accustomed to hunger, mania, sickness and pain. For sustenance I ate (among other things) lizards, worms, bats and bugs. On infrequent forays into local towns I’d scavenge for food in garbage bins.

But after 10 years alone and sleeping on a bed of fern leaves, something strange and unexpected happened. On the brink of death I began to realise that my only things of value in life were human beings; my long-lost sisters, the daughter I hadn’t seen in so long.

I had almost resigned myself to the fact I would die in the mist and the dirt; just lie down, rot away and be done with this world. But it was the nagging thought of the people who’d be haunted forever by my disappearance that eventually convinced me to give society another chance.

When I entered the forest I felt I had triumphed by escaping from people. How uncanny to think that it was people who brought me back out.

Today, 18 years after I walked back into the world, my life is bejewelled by strong, loving relationships with family, friends and colleagues.

I had hated people and society for so long that I had lost sight of what truly makes us human. What makes me human: my treasured bonds with other people.

In many way, to be homeless is to be friendless. I am living proof that both of these miserable conditions can be corrected, no matter how far off the map we wander.

The Park Bench Moment

“Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter”.  Izaak Walton

Everyone has a story to tell, please feel free to share yours by leaving a comment.

bench-blue-sky-city-160934.jpegTravelling with Dr Gregory Smith (or Dr G as we started to cheekily call him), for an eight-venue roadshow event for thousands of jobseekers in Northern NSW and South East Queensland in 2015, was one of the most fulfilling times of my career.

I quietly listened to his talk eight times (having to film them at each event) but never tired of hearing his story.

After the events, for months I could not stop thinking how this person, now an academic, could completely turn his life around – once a so-called ‘do not approach’ figure, somewhat deranged on drugs and alcohol, not showering for years and living in a forest in almost complete isolation for ten years.

But it was his ‘park bench’ moment that greatly impacted me. After ten years in the forest he was very unwell, weighing less than six and a half stone and having to walk with a stick. He knew he had to get out or die and luckily he was supported by a social worker at the hospital he stumbled into. He stayed in the hospital long enough to get some support (even get some Centrelink benefits organised – he had money for the first time in however long…). Sitting on the park bench he said he had all the essentials (bought with his money), a backpack of drugs and alcohol to get himself through again. To numb the pain. What happened to make him get off that park bench, leave the backpack behind and start his life again, from scratch?  From the Park Bench to a PhD Academic?  A small light inside had not gone out – the light of hope coupled with an inherent tenacity- his saving grace.

At those events, when Dr Gregory spoke and touched the audiences hearts, you could likely hear a pin drop. In a room full of restlessness, Dr G had his audience captured and transfixed.

Dr Gregory’s story changes and alters the way you perceive yourself, others and the world – he humbly tells his unforgettable life story with humour, depth and intelligence. Any audience will be spellbound and inspired by his life journey.

(Michelle Dowding, New Sky Talent)