TWO years ago, I began researching a long story about homelessness for The Big Issue. My article followed the fortunes of two people: Albert, who had been homeless most of his life; and Dee, who was on the brink of it, for the first time.
It was a privilege to be let into their lives. Afterwards I tried to stay in touch, but Albert changed his number before long; I don’t know what he’s doing now. Dee and I, though, are still in contact. After the article was published, something extraordinary happened that involved us both, and a man named Rob, from Sydney, who happened to buy a copy of that edition.
Dee had just turned 40 when I met her. It was two decades since she’d moved here from New Zealand. Lately, she’d had a run of bad luck: a serious workplace injury and an associated legal dispute, then cervical cancer, and then her long-term rental house was put up for sale.
She had moved to a flimsy unit, far away from her neighbourhood, but even so, was paying higher rent. One of her daughters moved out. Dee fell further and further behind; the eviction notice was only days away.
When I visited, she introduced me to Brandi, her big handsome dog. “She’s depressed – it’s too small here,” Dee said. “Her face wasn’t grey, but she’s gone grey like me.” She rubbed the dog between the ears. “We’ve turned old, haven’t we?”
Another time, when I left her house, she walked with me as far as her letterbox. In the article I wrote this:
“It was the first time I’d seen her outside her unit, unencumbered by the closeness of the walls and the darkness of her lounge. As I walked away she bent down to pick up her mail and called out, ‘Want to take my bills?’ She gave me a big throaty laugh. I laughed with her and for an instant everything seemed like it would turn out okay, until I remembered it probably wouldn’t.”
That’s what I thought. Albert had found a place in supportive housing – he’d had a tough life, but maybe things had turned around. For Dee, I just couldn’t imagine a way out.
A few days after the article was published, I opened an email from Rob, who found me through my website. He said he’d been “deeply affected” by Dee’s situation.
“I suppose I personally resonate with her story – I’m a Kiwi myself and have been in a similar situation previously. Nowadays life is good and I am successful and affluent in a middle of the road way,” he wrote.
“I do not wish to make things worse by promising things that cannot be fulfilled, but a simple monthly stipend to help cover bills and rent is, I suspect, well within my power. I made a personal promise sometime ago, after pulling myself out of the dark, that I would not fail to act when I have the opportunity and ability to do so.”
I called him to talk about it. Then I called Dee. She was astonished, but wary. She said she’d talk to him.
A couple of weeks later, Rob was in Melbourne on business. I met him and we drove to Dee’s house, near Frankston.
He was about 40, I guessed – Dee’s age – and wore a baseball cap and a blue-collar shirt. He was a straight-talker: before we’d travelled a suburb, he was telling me how he’d nearly become homeless during the financial crisis. He had accumulated debt in the hundreds of thousands, and suddenly, he had no income. For a few months, he covered rent by selling his possessions. He contemplated living in his car, but narrowly avoided it. Slowly, he righted the business. The debt was under control by then, but he was still a renter – not a one-percenter.
His phone rang as we approached Dee’s street, and before we had time to gather our thoughts, she was answering the door.
I sat next to Dee on her L-shaped couch, chitchatting to ease their nerves. After a while, we all stood to make cups of tea, and then Rob sat next to her instead. Dee handed him a stack of bills and paperwork; he made notes as they calculated what she earned and what she owed. He offered to pay her next month’s rent, plus some outstanding bills, and put money in her account every month to top up what Centrelink didn’t cover. For as long as it took.
“Sometimes you just need to know that somebody will be there for you, that you can rely on someone,” Rob said, turning towards Dee, and looking her squarely in the face. “All I ask of you – and I know you’ll do this – is to genuinely look for work. I understand that things take time. It may not happen, and that is okay. I will be here. I’m not going anywhere.”
They hugged. We all cried. “I’ve been around the block,” Rob said. “There’s nothing you can tell me that I’ll be shocked by, and nothing I’ll judge you for.”
When Rob dropped me off, back in the city, I called Dee. She was relieved, giddy. She said she felt as though she had known Rob a long time, as though he was fatherly towards her. In the car, he’d told me he felt like he knew her too. It turned out they’d grown up not far from one another and on the same side of the tracks.
In her flimsy, darkened lounge that day, I got shivers all over. And I still do, every time I think about it.
It hasn’t been easy, since then. Every few months Dee and I exchange a text message or an email. She writes like she talks: fast, without fuss or restraint. I got an urgent email one day asking me to contact Rob, because she hadn’t heard from him.
“…im pissed. and hurt i opened up and shared my life with him and he dumps me like a piece of crap with no explanation. hope youre well and happy new year. dx”
In May, she sent me this:
“…now impossible to survive without robs help. thank god hes been my saviour and weve been talking a bit so thats awesome. My plan is to get a JOB!!! But shit michael ive just had ultrasounds of my elbows and been diagnosed with golfers elbow, lol funny name aye… my arms swell and ache for days sometimes…”
About a year after they first met, Rob wrote me this:
“Dee and I patched things up. I sent her a long email and laid things out honestly, and she understood that what felt like me ignoring her was actually just me struggling to keep faith with all my commitments… ”
I called them both this week. Rob was on the Gold Coast, on business again. Business is good, but it means he works very long hours – the work of about three people, he guesses. And that means he doesn’t call Dee as often as he’d like. “I feel a bit guilty that I haven’t helped her in other ways that aren’t financial. But I’ve come to realise I really don’t have the time,” he said.
This kind of arrangement, he said, is “probably not for everybody, but there probably should be more of it. There are a great deal of us who have the wherewithal to do it, but we don’t, because it’s too hard, or someone told us once that everyone should fend for themselves. So we just let other human beings go to the wolves.”
He said “probably”, because he knows that helping is not simple. But there was one idea he wanted me to write down:
“If someone is in trouble and they are going to be helped, they need to be helped for a long fucking time. People don’t just get well and all of a sudden it’s peachy. That’s Hollywood. That’s storybook. That’s not how it works in the dirty messy world.”
The day I spoke to Dee, one of her daughters had just returned from New Zealand. They will live together this year, and that’ll help with the bills. When she gets over her golfer’s elbow, she wants to work again. But lately, her depression has been worse than ever, and Brandi, too, has gone grey all over.
Dee and I reminisced about that afternoon when the three of us sat in her lounge. “It still makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck,” she said. “And every single day I know I can pay rent because of Rob. He is making my life bearable. I wish I could yell it out to the world.”