When we think of homeless people, an image is conjured of the old, drunk man on the park bench, or the ‘bag lady’ who roams the streets. However, this is not always the case. From the 12-year-old child to the woman working in a government department, homelessness is a lot closer than we care to think.
The rain was belting down hard, puddles were forming around their feet and raindrops were trickling down their necks. Daylight was fading and a dark sheet flecked with storm clouds took over the sky. People all around them were fleeing home, where a warm shower and comfy bed awaited them. But with nowhere else to go, they sought cover under the Kingston Bridge in the Auckland CBD. They had a mattress that had seen better days and worn blankets. They lay there on the uneven surface, avoiding any large rocks that could disturb their sleep. Here, they settled in for the night, pulling the blankets high over their heads to avoid the glaring glances of the odd passer-by. For these girls, this was as close as they came to home.
Sitting in Merge Cafe along Karangahape Road is a businessman, who frantically types away on a last minute report, someone’s grandmother who gleefully sips at her tea and a teenage girl who devours eggs on toast. Everyone looks different, going about their life in a different way. But no one would suspect that the girl who was chomping down toast had been homeless since she was 12. By just one look at her you would not know she was subjected to smoking meth at the age of 7, or in the care of a child molester just a few short years ago. It was here at this cafe with a difference where this girl and her two sisters opened up and shared their life story, determined to change the stigmatism that surrounds people without a home.
Don’t judge me, you don’t know me. You don’t know the reason I’m living on the street.
Lucinda (21), Tess (18) and Jasmine (17) Hemara grew up on the beautiful, serene island of Waiheke, however, their childhood was anything but tranquil. Plagued with drugs, alcohol and violence, the three girls each found themselves out of home and on the streets not long after their 12th birthdays.
We went into Child Youth and Family Services (CYFS) care because dad was “useless”, he was an alcoholic and a “druggy” Jasmine said. “He couldn’t take responsibility for us so he signed us over. He just couldn’t do it anymore, he was the child and we were the adults.”
It is a common assumption among people that living on the street is a choice, that those people do have a home to go to they just choose not to. However, for these sisters this was not the case. Especially for Lucinda who was the first to leave home when she was thrown out because her older sister, Kelly wanted to kill her. She was just 12-years-old and she found herself spending time on friends’ couches or making do with the odd evening hidden away in a public toilet or at the beach. “I was so embarrassed,” she said. “Friends were willing to look after me but I felt like a burden.” However, home was not a place the 12-year-old could be. Her dad was an alcoholic and a drug addict and Kelly, who is also a drug addict and involved in gangs, had just gotten out of jail and moved in with their family. She was heavily pregnant but was bringing drugs and sex in and out of the house and she also suffered from bad schizophrenia.
“It got to the point where dad said I can’t have you in the house because Kelly has to live here. I was only 12 years old,” Lucinda said. From Waiheke Island to the Auckland CBD, drugs and alcohol followed her in order to cope with the fact that her father had just kicked her out. Not long after, Lucinda called her mum in Australia and begged to be taken in and luckily enough, Lucinda flew to be under her mother’s roof. Unfortunately, she couldn’t accommodate for the other two girls as the mother’s illness prevented CYFS from signing them into her care.
Instead, Jasmine lay in a hospital bed after trying to OD on pills. She had run away from yet another CYFS home, something that had become a habit, “this was a pattern, every 3 months [I would runaway].”
“She drops everything when it gets too hard or too scary because she is so used to not having that responsibility,” said Lucinda. “She would get comfortable and get scared that she was getting comfortable and that she was going to get let down so she would run.”
Every time she would run away, she would go and join Tess who was already on the streets. “It was horrible, for me anyway,” Jasmine said, “not showering, not keeping yourself clean. I hated that.” Luckily for Jasmine, Tess had been on the streets for a while and was familiar with this way of living by then. “Every time I went and stayed with her she made sure I was fed, every single time at least I had eaten.” Tess and Jasmine were subjected to more as they were on the streets night after night whereas Lucinda fell into the hidden homeless category. “I just hated being looked at, that was one of the main things about it all. I just hated people looking at me. When I first came on the streets I was embarrassed. I would always hide under my blanket,” Jasmine admitted.
I just wish people would not judge a book by a cover.
From street violence to nights where they had guns pulled on them, Tess and Jasmine experienced the harsh reality of living on the streets. “There were some bad experiences. I mean, you get a lot of, like, creepy guys asking you for things. Like, really inappropriate things.
Their sister Tess was still living on the streets until a week ago, when she was lucky enough to get temporary housing from Lifewise. The fact that Tess was on the street while the others were not was tough for Lucinda. “It breaks my heart to not be able to help her as much as I would like to, she’s my younger sister. As the older sister, as any sister… you hate seeing them struggle and have to go through things when you know if they just had that bit of help, they would be able to stand on their own two feet,” she said tearfully. “Once I get to the spot where I am standing on my own two feet, I am more than happy to pick her up.”
Even while Tess was still on the street, she attended an education action course daily, breaking just another of the common stereotypes of people on the streets being lazy and uneducated. “I just wish people would not judge a book by a cover. Don’t judge me, you don’t know me. You don’t know the reason I’m living on the street,” Tess said. “I dress well and people just think, oh she isn’t even homeless. But I am…[We] don’t just turn up there for no reason… you try walking in my shoes.”
Jasmine and Lucinda currently live together in Lifewise accommodation and have both found themselves a job with Skinny Mobile thanks to opportunities Lifewise and Skinny Mobile have created. The girls are looking to get a new home, somewhere that Tess can come and join and where they can have a massive family dinner at Christmas.
“I feel like I am the most settled I have been in my life. Just being back with family, gaining my independence. Becoming stronger on my own. Having my own responsibilities. I feel like I am pretty settled,” gushed Jasmine.
These girls show that homelessness is so much more than the images you have painted in your head. Rather, it is an ongoing issue of individuals who are excluded from a basic human right.