Out Of The Forest: Gregory Smith's Way Back From Homelessness

3 September 2018 Dr Gregory P Smith

Out Of The Forest: Gregory Smith's Way Back From Homelessness

Dr Gregory P Smith

After a traumatic childhood, and a lifetime of disadvantage and discrimination, Gregory P Smith disappeared into the invisibility of homelessness. The author and academic reveals how he found his way out of the shadows.

There are few worse ways to be woken up than with a kick in the face. Maybe getting your ribs stomped on, or having a police baton rammed into your kidneys, or copping a jet of freezing water in your eyes. Those are all pretty ordinary, but I reckon a kick in the face wins hands down for shock, pain, fear and pure misery.

Most Australians would find such a rude awakening impossible to comprehend, but anyone who has ever been homeless knows that sleep time is when society’s most removed, reviled and hopelessly exposed people are the most vulnerable. The risks posed simply by nodding off are very, very real.

After a childhood that was blighted by physical and emotional violence, and teenage years spent in an orphanage and juvenile detention, my homeless journey took me up and down the eastern seaboard on an endless trek to nowhere.

This pitiful existence played out in the gutters of Sydney and Brisbane. I wandered all over NSW and Queensland, too; into the regional centres, the little towns and the lonely spaces in between. But no matter where I curled up to sleep, safety was my number-one concern.

I was attacked numerous times over the years and even wound up in hospital courtesy of a beating by twisted types who get off on assaulting rough sleepers. And they don’t just give you one little kick in the face, either – they want to hurt you. I’ve come to with my face bashed in, my head wet with blood, burning, ripped-up lips and smashed fingers.

Other times it’s just the system that’s against you. One of the worst developments for homeless people happened when local councils hit on the idea of watering public parks at night. You can be sound asleep when suddenly a hidden sprinkler nozzle a metre from your head goes “click” and starts spraying jets of water up your nose.

Homeless life is an exhausting grind. You’re always hungry for food and sometimes you’re hungrier for the milk of human kindness. Society generally reviles you.  

Years can disappear in what seems like hours; time means nothing when you have no foothold in society. The usual calendar markers like Christmas, birthdays, holidays, footy grand finals, long weekends – none of these things exist when you’re homeless. Instead, the sun comes up and then the sun goes down. Days are just days that are either hot, cold, windy, warm, wet or dry. Night-time is the same, just with darkness and apprehension thrown in. It wears you down.

One day, at the end of another aimless walk to a lonely corner of the map, I wandered into a rainforest in northern NSW. When it dawned on me that I liked it because there was no-one else there, I decided to stay for a while. After a while, I decided to stay forever.

I withdrew from society in that forest. By living as a hermit, I thought I had solved one of my major problems – that of having to deal with human beings.

My survival required me to evolve somewhat – or perhaps “devolve” is more accurate. I slept out in the open and often in the pouring rain, and I grew accustomed to hunger, mania, sickness and pain. For sustenance I ate (among other things) lizards, worms, bats and bugs. On infrequent forays into local towns I’d scavenge for food in garbage bins.

But after 10 years alone and sleeping on a bed of fern leaves, something strange and unexpected happened. On the brink of death I began to realise that my only things of value in life were human beings; my long-lost sisters, the daughter I hadn’t seen in so long.

I had almost resigned myself to the fact I would die in the mist and the dirt; just lie down, rot away and be done with this world. But it was the nagging thought of the people who’d be haunted forever by my disappearance that eventually convinced me to give society another chance.

When I entered the forest I felt I had triumphed by escaping from people. How uncanny to think that it was people who brought me back out.

Today, 18 years after I walked back into the world, my life is bejewelled by strong, loving relationships with family, friends and colleagues.

I had hated people and society for so long that I lost sight of what truly makes us human. What makes me human: my treasured bonds with other people.

In many ways, to be homeless is to be friendless. I am living proof that both of these miserable conditions can be corrected, no matter how far off the map we wander.

Dr Gregory P Smith's story featured in edition 566 of The Big Issue. The full journey can be found in Dr Gregory P Smith's memoir, Out of the Forest.

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