In the lead up to Christmas most of us have the good fortune to look forward to celebrating or relaxing with family and friends. But we know that this isn’t the case for a large proportion of people in New South Wales, with over 35,000 people recorded as experiencing homeless in the last census. There is a growing trend of people becoming homeless for the first time later in their life, particularly women over the age of 50.
Nicolle is a client of St Vincent’s Homeless Health Service, which had a life changing impact for her.
St Vincent’s Homeless Health service provides health assessment, treatment, referral and care coordination for people experiencing homelessness. The services offered include COMET (Community Outreach Medical Emergency Team), a team who visit people sleeping rough or in crisis accommodation to do health assessments, treatment, referrals and care coordination.
Nicolle had limited opportunities from a very young age. Her life started to unravel when her parents separated. Periodically Nicolle was sent to live with her father, who had problems with alcohol and other drugs. When she was only 11 years old she became a ward of the state and was bounced from foster homes to youth refuges, where she suffered abuse from her carers. Seeing no other choice, Nicolle ran away to live with some other kids on the street in Kings Cross. She never finished school.
Nicolle was homed with social housing and for many years she tried to hold things together while she raised her eight children. But her partner was violent and controlling and her children were taken away because she couldn’t provide a safe home for them.
After repeated traumatic experiences of abandonment, neglect and abuse, Nicolle turned to drugs to numb her pain. The drug use led to criminal activity and Nicolle was incarcerated. She didn’t want to give up the place she’d called home, but when she fell behind on rent payments she was evicted and all her possessions were thrown away. With nowhere to go once she was released, Nicolle slept in Green Park for five years.
“When you’ve got nowhere safe to live it’s impossible to keep things like ID and birth certificates. I don’t think people understand how hard it is being homeless and not having that stability when you’re trying to get a job. You’d be lucky if you woke up with your shoes on some mornings, let alone if your backpack was still under your head.”
Nicolle eventually found some happiness with a new partner, Brian, and she adopted a dog she is devoted to called Bahtji, which means “best friend”. Brian was seriously ill, but he was afraid to seek health treatment and relied on Nicolle to look after him. When Nicolle developed an infection in her leg that was so severe she couldn’t walk, she was admitted to hospital. While she was there, Brian passed away. With no-one else to look after Bahtji, Nicolle left hospital against medical advice. Because the tenancy was in Brian’s name, after his death Nicolle was evicted and alone again. She and Bahtji found shelter with a friend, sleeping on the floor in a temporary arrangement.
Her wounds were not improving and Nicolle could hardly stand, much less walk to the bus stop and get to hospital. St Vincent’s medical team were worried her leg would have to be amputated if she didn’t get urgent and regular treatment. They made referrals to services in the community to support Nicolle with her health, but no one could take her on because she had ‘no fixed address.’ That was when the St Vincent’s COMET team, Emma and Tim, began to visit her three times a week to check on her and dress her wounds.
Thanks to the medical care she received, Nicolle is mobile again, she can walk her beloved dog and she is on a waitlist for NDIS support. St Vincent’s Homeless Health Outreach team advocated for her housing support application and it has been approved, so her dream of having her own place for her adult children to visit at Christmas may come true.
Despite the tragedy and trauma she has suffered, Nicolle isn’t bitter about her situation, she has even forgiven the former partner who caused her such enormous harm. She is deeply grateful to Emma and Tim and she says no matter how bad things are, Bahtji can always make her smile.
St Vincent’s is committed to the mission of the Sisters of Charity, to serve and care for people who are marginalised or experiencing poverty. St Vincent’s Homeless Health Service receives support from donations made to St Vincent’s Curran Foundation. This allows St Vincent’s to offer a range of services to connect patients with care, treatment and support from specialists like Aboriginal Health Workers, social workers, mental health professionals and peer support workers.
By donating to the Healing, Hope and Humanity Fund, you can ensure St Vincent’s can continue our vital COMET service and support vulnerable people like Nicolle, when they need it the most. We are only able to continue this vital service with the support of our community of donors.