One day Clarissa and her five children, aged four to 13, had a home in Baulkham Hills. The next day they were out on the street after a fire destroyed the house they were renting. It happened in the blinking of an eye and introduced the 30-year-old single mother and her children to the bewildering and frightening world of the homeless. Clarissa had little time to take stock after fire destroyed her rented home and left her and her five children with nowhere to live. “The main thing is that no-one was hurt in the fire,” she said.
“In retrospect, apart from ensuring everyone was safe, the one smart thing I did was make sure I rescued my ID and personal documents. This was a godsend later when I was trying to negotiate the public housing maze.”
Clarissa and the kids stayed with a neighbour the first night and the next day began trying to find another home. “The neighbour and I called every service we could think of,” she said. “Priority Housing told us to go out and find a rental property and they would pay the bond. But that’s not easy to do with five kids in tow and no car! I can tell you also that real estate agents aren’t interested in single parents with large families.“ Clarissa says she felt helpless: “I didn’t really know who to call or where to turn. The more people I met in similar situations, the more I discovered that this was a common experience. You just don’t know who to call and you run up against a lot of unhelpful bureaucracy.”
At the end of her tether, Clarissa started asking her local State MP for help in finding suitable accommodation. Her determined phone calls and visits led eventually to her and her 13-year-old son being placed by Housing NSW authorities in a series of “fleabag” hotels where they spent the next six weeks. Her four younger children went to stay with their dad who had separated from the family several years before. In the meantime Clarissa had to keep looking for rental accommodation as part of the prerequisites for possibly being offered public housing.
“We must have applied for 20-30 properties but never got a single bite. I’d been renting for 13 years and had never encountered anything so discouraging. “The hotels were a real eye-opener. We met people who’d been in these places so many times. There were some terrible stories,” Clarissa recalls. “Living in the motels nearly drove us nuts and my son became quite angry and frustrated. It was also very expensive. We couldn’t cook and had to buy takeaway all the time. I told Priority Housing that this was a ridiculous situation, but that probably wasn’t the smartest way to help my cause.”
Messy custody battles with her former husband added to her problems. Clarissa says her husband did little to help, knowing that the longer she stayed in the motels, the more time he could have with the little ones. Meanwhile, persistent pressure on her local MP finally paid off and eventually she and the family were re-united in another rundown property in Baulkham Hills. “It’s not a palace but it doesn’t leak and it’s in the area where we lived before and the kids can continue going to the same schools,” she said. “It’s only got three bedrooms so the dining room is my bedroom.”
It’s been a long and often depressing journey but for now Clarissa and her bright and bubbly kids are settled and reengaging with the community. That includes re-establishing contact with Wesley Family Centre The Hills where Clarissa had been involved in a women’s group for more than six months. Her eldest son had also attended counselling sessions. “They are good people and the counselling is really helping my son,” she said.
Looking back, Clarissa says she’s emerged stronger from her “brush” with homelessness. “When you’ve lost everything, there’s nowhere to go but up. “I spent a lot of time watching the way counsellors and other community workers deal with people in my situation. That’s why I’ve decided to enrol at university this year in a social work course by distance education. I think I might be able to teach them a thing or two!” I didn’t really know who to call or where to turn. The more people I met in similar situations, the more I discovered that this was a common experience.