Lee's story: Struggling to shield her kids

Lee believes there were two reasons she survived a traumatic experience when homeless—their names are Seth and Katie. “A few times I felt close to ending it all but the kids kept me strong,” the 42-year-old mother said. “I had to make sure they wouldn’t be permanently scarred by the experience of having nowhere to live.” And it’s the kids who still sustain their mother now that she has found relative stability in community housing in Sydney’s northwest.

During our interview Lee was quick to show us her fridge door, plastered with notes from Katie and Seth’s primary teachers commending them for their reading, effort and exemplary manners. Lee’s nightmare began a few years ago when an acrimonious relationship breakdown robbed her of her home and small business. “I’m usually so positive but depression set in—I stopped working, and just couldn’t bring myself to go to Centrelink for help,” she recalls. “We were renting in Penrith but there was no money coming in and the bank account was running down.” Fortunately, sometime before Lee had met Horace, a Wesley Mission case manager who had been working with Lee and her kids via Wesley Brighter Futures, our early intervention program that focuses on keeping families together. Horace convinced her to visit Housing NSW and get on the list for public housing.

That proved a traumatic experience: a case worker who took Lee under her wing died suddenly and then Housing NSW lost her paperwork! Fortunately, Horace had kept copies. Lee joined the queue for public housing and in the meantime she and the kids found themselves placed in a two bedroom cabin in a caravan park at Emu Plains. Then it was into a motel at Richmond for two weeks over Christmas followed by another “cockroach-infested” one nearby. Each time she was told to save for a rental bond but found the demand incongruous. “How was I supposed to save a bond when I was in a motel, couldn’t cook and was spending up to $100 a day buying takeaway for me and the kids to live on?”

Lee lost patience with “the system” and she and the kids stayed with her grandparents in another part of Sydney, sometimes sleeping in her car and sometimes on the floor of their garage. But the stay was short-lived as her grandfather’s bouts of alcohol-fuelled violence made her fear for her kids’ safety. “I was lying awake all night with a kitchen knife in case he came near them,” she said.

Things were falling apart on other fronts, too. Her dad was now homeless following a marriage breakdown and Lee’s mum, who had a lifelong gambling addiction, took what little money Lee had left.

Through it all, Lee kept her focus on the kids and drew her strength from them. “They barely missed any school during the six months or so that we were homeless. I rented a friend’s old car for $50 a week and made sure I was able to get them to school each day,” she said. “I was determined that they weren’t going to become depressed by this experience so I tried to make it an adventure for them, living in different places and using the swimming pools at the motels. I always made sure I didn’t cry in front of them.”

Then the sky brightened when Horace was able to arrange a three bedroom home for the family in a nice neighbourhood through Wentworth Community Housing. Things have stabilised and the kids are thriving at the local primary school. “I feel calmer now and can start to plan again. During the period of homelessness, however, I was mentally at rock bottom,” Lee says.

“I don’t think people realise how quickly this sort of thing can happen. I grew up with money and have always worked but all it took was the relationship breakdown to find myself and the kids out on the street. “It’s a terrifying experience.”

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