What is the reality of homelessness, and how do we cope when its chaos encroaches on our lives?
Without further ado, the facts are these: I am a proud man. I am a deeply unhappy man. I am a coward. All of these truths, these ugly seams, tore open recently when my mother became homeless.
That’s a word that has cropped up in all our lives, I’m sure; a concept we have brushed up against and witnessed from afar: the shabby bearded man in clashing clothes that sag around his shrivelled body, or the cadaverous woman pushing the trolley full to the brim with her everything. I have always paid particular attention to these drifters, without really knowing why. In fact, the first short story I ever wrote was about a homeless man – granted, a man I posited as the original Merlin, chained to the sidewalk by the guilt of some horrible crime he committed in medieval times.
It was a rubbish story, but I bring it up now because even then I was thinking about the invisibility of these people, and their timelessness. We don’t grant them a past in which they might once have resembled us, and by robbing them of a history, we steal their future too. Fixed in the imagination as a natural part of urban landscapes, they are endlessly present, and so the majority of people are content to pretend they don’t exist. It’s more comfortable that way. But what if one of them was powerful once, a figure of legend, my teenage self had wondered. I never thought to ask: what if one of them was my mother?
The facts are these: I am twenty-six years old. I am a bisexual man raised by a conservative Islamic household. I have five nephews whose names I do not know, and who in turn, know nothing of me. I have sisters and uncles I don’t speak to, an older brother I keep at arm’s length, a mother I orbit or who orbits me; either way, we share a haunted sky. I keep things distant so I can live the way I want while retaining some semblance of family. I keep things distant because cowards avoid confrontation.
On the eve of my recent birthday, I was trying, and failing, to keep my disintegrating world together. I had $1000 left in my bank account, or a month’s rent at my shared duplex in Ashfield, and no income. I had been unemployed for two months, staving off destitution with the odd freelance article, while doing my best to maintain the polite fiction to all and sundry that I was okay.
I was not okay, and neither was my mother. Her long tenancy battle with Centrelink was finally coming to an end – and not in a good way. Threats were being made of sheriffs and warrants and forced evictions.
‘Oh God,’ she told me on the phone. ‘Can you believe? I just want to die, I’m so embarrassed.’
I had been trying to help out those past few months, putting her onto the Commonwealth Ombudsman, telling her to lodge a complaint against her incompetent Centrelink case manager, and how to do so.
I wasn’t used to this responsibility, or this level of contact with my mother. We’ve never been the Brady Bunch kind of family. We stay apart. At best, we spoke every six weeks or so, and never about things of consequence. Which is to say, I had no idea how to deal with the fact that we now needed to talk so often, or that distance was increasingly impossible. I don’t think she knew how to deal with it either. Some weeks I forgot to check in, or if I did, she missed the call. I was always relieved when she didn’t call back.
I told my brother I was worried about her, but he told me not to be, that he was going to take care of it. Grateful to be off the hook, I put it out of my mind.
No one ever expects the moon to crash to the ground.
Two weeks later, my mother was homeless, the sky emptied. It didn’t seem real, but then, no one ever expects the moon to crash to the ground.
In that small window of time, I managed to pick up casual work and secure (briefly) my own roof. Still, I felt I should tell my housemate that I might not be able to afford to stay much longer. I couldn’t guarantee I’d be able to pay the rent outside of a few weeks. He told me he completely understood and not to worry about his side of it.
‘But where will you go?’ he said.
I opened my mouth, closed it again. I had no home to go to beyond this one. My brother was staying at an aunty’s, and not for free either. The idea of living again with the confines of my family was anathema – avowed homophobes, they remain in the dark about my sexuality. There was no way I could return to their closet-shaped houses.
‘I have no idea,’ I said. ‘I’ll find somewhere, I guess.’
It was around this time I stopped attending social functions, desperate to hoard my dwindling cash as well as hide the true depth of my depression. Friends would ask me afterward why I hadn’t come, and I would lie and say something – anything – other than, ‘I tried not to cry for extended periods of time, succeeding only rarely.’
Mum would call me every few days to report on the house hunt. Things seemed in hand, then.
‘Your uncle has a new house, it’s huge, you should see it,’ she said, gushing, as ever glossing over the fact that my uncle and I haven’t spoken in years. Not since he found out via Facebook that I would be attending a Marriage Equality rally. Delete me if you’re serious, he told me. So I did, effectively ending my relationship with the man who was the one constant father figure in my life.
‘Anyhow, he told me I could stay with them for a few days if I don’t find anything in time, so that should be sweet.’
Despite my issues with my uncle, I was glad to hear he was helping my mum out. She was rarely on good terms with anyone in the family, but given her situation it seemed only right they pitch in. Two years ago, she was renting a penthouse in Perth, working a good job in the mining industry. Then my grandmother passed away, and Mum agreed to come back to Sydney to live with and take care of my grandfather, a pensioner in council housing. She spent what money she had paying out her rental contract in Perth.
Several of her brothers and sisters live in Sydney, all of them better suited to caring for an elderly parent. My grandfather died soon after Mum came back to care for him. It was only then that she learned from Centrelink, despite their prior assurances, that she did not qualify for housing assistance, and would have to move out.
‘I left my house, quit my job and moved interstate to come here,’ she said to them. ‘You can’t just tell me to start again from nothing. That’s not fair.’
And yet that’s precisely what they told her. I won’t take you through the endless machinations of bureaucracy that followed, the sudden hopes and swift despairs – it lasted months. Months she fought for this no-good house in Villawood simply because it was all she had, because she’d spent so much time and money improving it, because Jidda had died there. Months of uncertainty that would finally end in her eviction.
I called her the moon because parents, like heavenly bodies, can seem constant and close no matter the distance between you. But it’s not fair to poeticise her. Moons don’t use the word suicide with startling regularity, and no moon I know ever worked all hours of the night to feed her two kids, ever chased a stalker down the street at night without a second thought, ever cursed and fought and lived as much as she did. No moon I know ever tried to end its life, or had to live with the scars after.
The last thing I remember hearing about the house hunt was as follows:
‘Did you check out that place in Chester Hill?’
‘Oh yeah, nah I can’t live there, don’t be silly.’ Her voice crackled in my ear. ‘If a man got an erection in there, his dick would go through the wall, that’s how small the joint is. And they want $320 for it? You gotta be joking. I’m paying that per month just for the storage locker, and at least that fits everything.’
Once the deadline had passed, and the threats of sheriffs being called in were made, I tried ringing her. A number of times. Things had been on the upswing: she’d found a house-painting job, after months of depression and hopelessness, and she had my uncle’s guarantee to rely on. But when I finally got through to her after a couple of days, she said he’d abruptly withdrawn his offer.
She didn’t know why, but she suspected his wife had a private say in the matter. She swore she’d never speak to him again, cursed him a thousand different ways, and that was that. The house-painting job never materialised either.
‘Wait, so where are you staying now?’ I asked.
‘I don’t want to say,’ she said in Arabic. ‘There are people around. I’ll call you back later.’
That was usually code for never, but a little while later she actually did call me back. She told me she’d been squatting in the garage of the house that used to be hers.
‘I’ve still got stuff here, you get me? And they haven’t given it to anyone else yet, but yeah, I just wanna die.’
She put blankets over the concrete for her and her dog, and that’s where they slept. It was just temporary, she assured me, after I told her not to be so ridiculous and to come stay with me. Words I hated to say and she no doubt hated to hear: I didn’t want to welcome the closet back into my home, and she couldn’t get past her pride. The same pride that flared up in her whenever she was wronged, causing her to burn bridges with friends and family with the frequency of a serial arsonist.
I knew all this about her, knew of her scattershot attention span, her constant memory problems, her wild instability – knew, in short, that she’d never have the capacity and patience to work the welfare machine, a Borgesian nightmare designed to discourage rather than actively support. Still, I hadn’t taken over: it’s hard to give up the illusion of a safety net, even one with as many holes as mine. Hard to realise you can replicate the magic of your childhood by holding the moon between a thumb and forefinger.
Her mood swings were sudden and violent. When we were kids, that often meant a beating, but as adults it was no more than a verbal blast. At the onset of her homelessness, it was my brother who copped it first.
‘Mum, you can’t go on like this,’ I told her after she swore never to speak to him after yet another falling out. ‘You’re going to wind up alone.’
I was terrified of how much it seemed she was coming to rely solely on me. Calling me more, and him less. I knew she’d want nothing to do with me once I came out, so where would that leave her then? Just as she gave up everything to take care of a father she hated, simply to fulfil her obligation as a dutiful daughter, so I too was doing everything I could to be a dutiful son.
She lived in the garage for a week before she finally caved and came to stay with me, and only then because both the house and garage were ransacked twice by thieves, stealing what was left from her hurried move, and breaking the rest.
The first night, I gave her my room, and slept on the couch downstairs. It was, I realised, the very first time she’d seen the inside of my home, even though I’ve lived here for three years. Naturally, there were complications and irritations. That she had a dog and my housemate had a nervous three-legged cat was the least of them.
My mum had all the finesse and grace of a tornado, tearing through the neatly ordered clutter I enjoy. She’d mean to clean, half getting into the process, but then abandon it twice as messy as before. I felt panicked: she was in my home, in my room, my safe space, and everything was coming undone.
To give me extra room, my housemate left the next day to stay at his parents’ empty house. His folks were in their holiday house in South Carolina, so it was fine. This action revealed the ugly underlying pulse of my distress – I had never been more aware of the distance between myself and my friends, who are mostly of the white, middle- or upper- class. A hot mix of shame and guilt surged within me. I hated that he felt the need to leave, but ached for all of this to go unwitnessed.
Everyone knew about my mother by then, about the struggles I strived to keep private. My social world and family life had finally, inevitably, collided and I couldn’t deal with it. I withdrew from all social events, including a shared birthday party. How could I celebrate? How could I pretend to be happy?
There is one thing to be said for collisions, collapses and chaos, however. Unexpected things get shaken loose, histories and anecdotes you might never have known otherwise. One day, while putting ice cream in the freezer, Mum found a bottle of vodka in there. She gasped, turning to me.
‘What’s this? You drink alcohol?’
My mum is one of the least religious people I’ve met, so I sometimes forget that her Islamic upbringing (like mine) can manifest at any point, triggered by some random object.
‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘but that’s not mine. I drink whisky.’
She snorted. ‘Oh, that’s just great, just wonderful.’ Coming from a woman who’d smoked more pot than Snoop Dogg throughout my childhood, I thought that was a bit much, and told her so. This was different, she asserted with the maddening calm of a mother used to her word being taken as gospel.
‘Whatever,’ I said. ‘Everyone in this family is a dirty hypocrite.’
‘Not on this,’ she said. ‘Your grandfather was an alcoholic. Why do you think none of us ever drink? There’s never been a bottle in any of our houses.’
She told me my grandfather was a gambler and a drunk, that when her and her siblings were kids, he’d come into their rooms at midnight and shake them out of their beds, taking their mattresses to sell on the street so he’d have money for the casino. Then buying them back when next he could. She told me of his rages, how he would flip out at any moment and literally upend tables.
‘You only saw him sober,’ she said. ‘But before you were born he was a monster.’
I had a better understanding now of why she’d always hated him. All I’d ever known about the placid old man was that he used to be a restaurateur, and that in Lebanon he’d been shot during the war.
The more his blank outline was filled in, the more I disliked the shape and colours of the picture. His was not the only story that emerged. I learned that one of my dour, respectable uncle-in-laws used to be a drug dealer. That he’d quit when his younger brother got hooked and died from an overdose. I learned that another uncle, long deceased, had been a pimp. The family tree grew and changed and warped faster than I could keep track of while she lived with me; ours was a living history, I realised, and it was wild and old and overgrown in her.
One day, I was shocked to hear her ranting about a cousin who’d gone to stay with her abusive husband’s family.
‘She stole from all of us,’ Mum said. ‘I hope she’s the first one he slaps when he gets out.’
Considering my mum’s first husband Talaal was so abusive he’d hospitalised her, I couldn’t believe she’d say something like that. But she had no sympathy whatsoever for my cousin, who was only a few years older than me.
‘Well, did anyone help you get away from Talaal?’ I asked.
‘No, they all wanted me to stay with him,’ she said. ‘Like, oh no, you can’t divorce him, it’s haram, it’s wrong. But that’s not the case here. Layla – the scrag – she keeps going back to him anyway. Why? People think you can change these men and it’s so dumb. Why would you live in hope? Hope is a disease. A debilitating disease.’
My grandfather had been particularly vocal on the subject of her staying with Talaal, she revealed. Nothing she said could sway anyone. That’s why, while several months’ pregnant with my older brother, she jumped off a two-storey balcony.
‘That’s what it took,’ she said. ‘I had to show them I’d rather die before they accepted it and even then, it was only because Mum threatened to leave him that he gave up.’
She only survived the suicide attempt because she landed on her feet, shattering her ankle and breaking a leg. The baby, miraculously, was unharmed.
She was sitting at my desk as she related this, cleaning her nails, sun shining on her dusky skin, black hair, and pearly white teeth. She looked old and tired and worn, her hair thinning on the sides of her head. It occurred to me then that, despite the chaos, the annoying dog she was dangerously attached to (and who was dangerously attached to her, howling whenever she left the room), despite the extra effort I was going to after work to find her a rental place, and the depression routinely threatening to crush me, I had it all wrong. While my pride and hers were flawed, mine at least was easily fixed: I just haven’t put it in the right place.
What would the moon look like without its many craters? No moon at all – at least, none that we’d recognise as our own.
I should have a measure of it in her, this woman who drives me mental in a thousand different ways; who has so many flaws and faults but who remains standing despite having endured more than anyone should. I have been treating her, for too long, just like society treats the homeless: as if she had no past and was endlessly present when, in fact, she is a product of all her experiences. What would the moon look like without its many craters? No moon at all – at least, none that we’d recognise as our own.
The facts are these: I grew up poor, moving from one shoddy rental to another. I have always known or existed on the edges of working-class poverty, and I suspect I always will. It’s another reason I’ve looked so often to the homeless because I’m so afraid I’ll wind up in that position myself. But for now, I am employed, securing crucial breathing room. My mother knows me, but there is much she doesn’t know too, and so long as this is the case I will be able to help her when she needs help.
She has a home now, and so has been hoisted back up into the sky on frayed threads – once more a distant but perhaps not so unknowable being. So while I continue to repair my damaged world, restoring my pride, I find myself confronting my lies. It’s not enough to simply speak a truth, you have to live by it as well. I know that now, and so, on the evening of Tuesday 16 December, in a haze of fear, I came out to my brother.
He accepted with the equivalence of a text-message shrug. ‘Don’t be silly,’ he said. ‘I’ll always have your back.’
And just like that, I learned the nature of facts is fluid, is often just opinion masquerading as certainty, all of it influenced by world-defining fears, fears I am dismantling one by one, person by person.
The so-called facts are these: what I know is constantly changing, and if I am vain, or wrongly prideful, or cowardly, it by no means has to be set in stone. I am twenty-six, bisexual, and my brother still loves me, something that for the past decade seemed inconceivable more often than not. Now that I know I will have family no matter what happens, I find it so much easier to think of taking care of my mother – that former support net who needs our support now, that broken moon, that flawed human woman. It is so much easier to look up at the sky when the ground beneath your feet is firm at last.
Let me give the last word, then, to my brother: what metaphor can I leave him with, given the casual ease with which he saved me? Only the night will do: always there, whether the fickle moon shows itself or not, the night holds everything together, all the stars in distant galaxies – all the light we can see.