Illustration by Lwnski
Cameron D Hunter, Ed#469, October 2014
Cameron D Hunter has lived in barracks, tents and under the stars. He's also had more than 100 jobs. He first experienced homelessness at age 20. Now aged 42, Cameron explains how easy it is to end up on the streets. And, in time for Youth Homelessness Matters Day, he offers some sobering, hard-earned tips for those doing it rough.
Getting Off the Streets
My name is Cam. Over the years I have been homeless in Europe, Asia and Australia. It seems that, despite many successes, it is easy to end up on the streets. Last time I was homeless, rather than race back into fleeting accommodation, I decided to examine my predicament and establish a series of priorities for looking after myself and getting off the streets.
The most fundamental priorities seemed to be water, health and socialisation. Regarding water: drink plenty of it, and try and avoid drinking alcohol while on the streets. Alcohol often makes things worse. Health begins at basic nutrition and moves into healthy social interaction. Avoid drugs. I realise that drink and drugs can be a major factor in homelessness; if you can avoid them you’re in a much better position to make a change.
Good hygiene – washing, shaving and cleaning clothes – helps make a much better impression on people. It makes you more acceptable and approachable; people are more likely to help you. There are simple tricks like washing a shirt and wearing it wet rather than dirty and dry (this works in Darwin; probably not in Tasmania!).
Rubbish bins in Australia and abroad often turn up useful clothing and items; things that sometimes just needs a clean and can be sold at second-hand stores if in good working order. While homeless I didn’t carry too much as it was burning too many calories and put me at risk of injury. Also, I could move more easily over longer distances.
Recycling is big in Thailand and in Australia. Going through bins or walking beside the road can turn up many bottles and cans. If you live in SA or NT, these can possibly be cashed in at a depot. They can be your next meal ticket.
Now that I am back in accommodation I keep three levels of mobility: what I can carry on my body; what I can carry on my body, backpack and wheeled case; and what I can transport by taxi or car (two suitcases). It is not so different to Dean in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) who always kept a suitcase ready under his bed, wherever that might be. Things can change very quickly and while I may not end up homeless again, I will always be prepared. I also keep some camping kit and an emergency ‘bivi’. Once I could have packed everything I owned into a car in 15 minutes, now it would take me a few hours.
Defining your priorities is a positive step. I still have to work on the basics, like health. I require a hernia operation, but once I get past that hurdle I might be able to focus on having some fun and building some finances for such scenarios.
Some financial commentators recommend saving three to six months’ worth of living expenses, to help you keep swimming if your luck is down. I guess it’s easier said than done when you are up to your neck in debt, but might not be impossible.
If anyone else has practical ideas for getting off the streets I’d love to hear them. Really, I’m just learning. What priorities do people hold when moving from homelessness into a possibly more stable lifestyle? How do we make this transition? Can we escape the cycle?
Shelter or the Streets?
Is there some unwritten law stating that – to avoid being labelled ‘undesirable’ – members of society have to be renting or buying the house they live in? If you’re of limited means it, wouldn’t it be more rational to avoid paying rent? That would amount to one less expense.
I have found that I am better off paying the rent. There are a multitude of benefits that many take for granted: sleeping inside, showering when you want, being able to accumulate more than you can carry, having nice clothes that can be easily cleaned, and having a place for documents so they don’t get destroyed. There are so many more advantages to having a home base, a roof over your head. Heating, fans and storage all seem such everyday things unless you have tried to live without them.
While homeless, I developed an idea I called ‘The Morpheus Identity’: I move, I morph. It was an ethereal existence in which material things were simply tools and props with little room for sentimentality. Everything was constantly changing: body shape, material possessions, appearance. Nothing was permanent. While my living conditions changed, I never got to the point where I had sufficient capital reserves to keep melding, moving and adapting in the way I wanted. At best, it was like being part of the Beat Generation – just 50 years behind the times.
It’s much easier having accommodation. You can choose which tools to use for the day, or take an outing of a month if you like. The things you buy can be kept until they are worn out. Having a long-term view regarding purchases can often work out better on the pocket, too, instead of discarding something then needing it again down the track.
I used to sell up when I was travelling for extended periods of time, rather than place things in storage. I used to feel some pangs of regret for the many fine things I have owned and sold as I travelled from place to place. I don’t feel that sense of loss anymore, but if ever I’m in the position of moving/travelling I will choose storage. Rates are quite competitive nowadays.
When we are on the streets it can seem too hard to get off them. There are, however, agencies out there that you can visit for advice. Centrelink can also give people referrals.
I’m finding being in accommodation much more productive. Not so much time is spent on basics like trying to stay clean. No one has run off with my stash of cans for recycling. I don’t have to carry all my worldly possessions into the supermarket just to get a tin of baked beans. I am no longer at risk of being labelled ‘undesirable’. I’m in accommodation now and can, perhaps, armour-plate myself against fickle fortune.
Maybe one day I will resurrect ‘The Morpheus Identity’, but as one who has a secret home base, no matter where I roam.
» Cam is keen to get feedback on his tips – this can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. By heeding his own advice, he says he has improved his circumstances over the past year – including decreasing his debts and gathering more personal belongings.
This article appeared in Ed#469 of The Big Issue magazine.