Some people may find the content of this story traumatic and disturbing.
This story is about homelessness – not about slipping through the cracks and into homelessness – but being pushed into homelessness. A Salvation Army program in Melbourne CBD works extensively with people sleeping rough around Melbourne. Our clients are not two of those people. This case was about preventing two people becoming part of that cohort.
The program referred Cheryl to our Melbourne office, a 67 year old woman who had been a responsible and reliable public housing tenant for 12 years. The Office of Housing (OH) had made an application to Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) to have her evicted from her public housing apartment as she was in arrears on her rent, for the first time ever. If evicted, Cheryl would be homeless.
Cheryl was in arrears, true. To understand why you need to understand this is not only Cheryl’s story, it is about Cheryl and her daughter, Jodie, who also became our client.
37 year old Jodie was a PR Executive, raised by her grandmother, had attended an exclusive private girls school, had a successful career and many friends, until her world was shattered by the revelation of a shocking family secret.
Jodie had been raised by her grandmother, hating her mother, whom she believed hated her. When her grandmother died, the truth was revealed to Jodie. Jodie’s mother, Cheryl, had been brutally raped by her father – Jodie’s grandfather – and fell pregnant with Jodie. Jodie’s self description of the effect of this upon her was: “I couldn’t breathe. I felt guilty. I was riddled with disgust. Disgust at what had happened. Disgusted at what I was.” To Jodie, her mother’s demons now made sense. Jodie’s world fell apart – she lost her job, her long term relationship and her accommodation. Her mental and physical health deteriorated as anorexia asserted a pernicious and deadly hold over her. She stood on the Bulla Road bridge dragged back from her attempt to jump by police. She came close to death more than once after that as treatment in Melbourne lost ground to the anorexia. She became critically unwell, and she was admitted to a Sydney hospital with an internationally focused treatment for intractable anorexic patients.
During this time Jodie accepted Cheryl’s entry into her life and Cheryl steadfastly supported her daughter, to the point where, when Jodie was admitted to hospital in Sydney, Cheryl took over paying Jodie’s rent, at the expense of her own rental payments. Cheryl therefore fell into arrears, to save her child who she had lost once before. Cheryl was prepared to bring eviction proceedings upon herself, preferring her own homelessness to the risk of her daughter being homeless at the end of her treatment.
Both lived in public housing, and on their trajectory when referred to us, both were at serious risk of homelessness.
Salvos Legal Humanitarian appeared in VCAT to defend Cheryl in the eviction proceedings. We were aware the Department of Health and Human Services (the government department within which OH sat) had a Temporary Absence policy that permitted a property to remain available to a tenant at a significantly reduced rental for lengthy periods of absence due to ‘special circumstances’. Application was made on Jodie’s instructions from her hospital in Sydney for a grant of temporary absence. This was rejected by OH, on the basis Jodie fell outside the examples they usually encountered – family violence, imprisonment, respite care and temporary nursing admission.
Salvos Legal Humanitarian appeared on three occasions in VCAT fending off repeated OH applications to remove Cheryl, while pursuing internal appeal processes of the Department of Health and Human Services on behalf of Jodie.
Our goal was to obtain a temporary absence grant for Jodie, allowing Cheryl to resume paying her own rent, and pay off the arrears, saving both from a decent into homelessness.
We were working assiduously on two fronts, to keep OH at bay in opposing their application for possession against Cheryl, while vigorously prosecuting Jodie’s Temporary Absence Application within the the Department of Health and Human Services appeals process.
Jodie returned to Melbourne a little over 12 months after treatment in Sydney. The Department accepted her Temporary Absence Application, and rebated 6 months of rent. We were successful in having the OH’s proceedings against Cheryl struck out.
We see and hear from Cheryl and Jodie from time to time. Jodie is a bright, effervescent young woman, holding her weight and getting to know her mother. Cheryl still lives in her public housing unit and loves seeing her daughter.
If you are affected by this story or you are experiencing a personal crisis, please contact lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit www.lifeline.org.au.