Two years ago I wrote an essay for Meanjin titled ‘A View from a Treehouse’ (no. 3, 2016). It was the story of my brush with homelessness. Divorce, debt and redundancy had crashed me out of my comfortable existence and into a chilling moment where I lost my job and was within days of losing my home and my children as well. At the last minute serendipity gave me a sublet on a tiny flat with a jury-rigged enclosed wooden patio on the second floor, sitting just under a huge old tree. I called it my treehouse and it became my workplace and my refuge.
When I finished writing that essay I thought the worst was over. I was wrong. Imminent homelessness loomed constantly over the first year in the treehouse. As the second year ground on, it morphed from being a threat to seeming like an inevitability.
Nearly half a million Australian women over 45 will become functionally homeless in the next ten years. Not necessarily sleeping rough, but couch surfing, staying with friends or family and feeling they have become a burden where once they were a loved companion.
I learned things about being poor I hadn’t known, hadn’t wanted to know. Being poor taught me things about myself I wish I didn’t know. Being poor is humiliating. The burden of generosity weighs heavily. People come to visit me in my treehouse. They put wine in the fridge and are horrified to find it empty. They use my bathroom and see it covered in dust but denuded of soap and toothpaste. They come back with bags of shopping and put money in my bank account and I am curled in a ball of mortification and gratitude.
Being poor costs more than being rich. Overdue bills attract penalties. Interest on unpaid loans adds up. I couldn’t afford to pay the registration on my car so it lapsed. Six months later my mother paid twice the cost of the registration to get my car back on the road so I could do work I couldn’t get to without it. I needed a new laptop because I can’t do what little work I get without it. But I had no savings so my only option was to borrow. That costs money too. An $800 laptop can cost nearly twice that with interest and late-payment fees.
In June last year I had a job interview in the city. I thought I had a good chance, but a payment I was expecting didn’t come through in time and yet again the bank account and the myki card were empty. I went to the interview anyway and there were ticket inspectors on my tram. I didn’t have the money for a ticket so of course I didn’t have $75 for the on-the-spot fine. Two weeks later the $265 fine landed in the mailbox. I stopped opening my mail after that so I don’t know how much they want for it now. I didn’t get the job.
I learned very quickly how frightening it is to be poor. Rent is due on the first of every month. As the weeks track by I’m falling further and further from the amount I need. I feel sicker and sicker. We’re down to eating rice and frozen vegetables. I can feed the whole household for less than $100 a week if we don’t eat meat or fish or fruit, if we don’t snack or have seconds or eat too much or too often. If the kids eat with friends or family a couple of times a week the dogs and I can get by on Weetbix. But still there’s not enough money for rent and now it’s due in three days and I won’t have it.
The terror of homelessness looms again and I borrow more money so the rent is paid but the debts are piling up and I can’t make the repayments. The cost of the debts grows and I cut back further and further. Newspaper and magazine subscriptions are long gone. The pub next door has internet I can use when mine gets cut off. The dogs don’t get fresh meat any more. Shoes and jeans are wearing thin. School uniforms are getting ragged. None of us have had a haircut in months. I go to job interviews and I look silly in my scuffed shoes and expensive clothes. Those designer outfits are the remnants of another life and eventually I sell most of them on eBay.
More than half of all renters in Australia are in rental stress, defined as spending more than one third of their income on rent. Less than 1 per cent of the rental properties available in 2017 were affordable for the sick, the unemployed, pensioners or people on the minimum wage. One in six Australians experienced food insecurity (not having enough money to buy food) at least once in 2016.
Being poor makes it harder to get work. The longer I’m unemployed the less employable I am. I’m shabby and unkempt and I’m trying to hide desperation in job interviews. It doesn’t work. What skills do I have to sell? I’m a problem solver and a dilettante and a writer. I’m good at those things but they don’t make for much of a résumé. I haven’t needed to present them in a résumé before. I was young and quick and clever and that was enough. Big bursts of money were fun when there were two of us and they were evened out by another income, smaller but steady. All the fun went out of it when I was alone and the bursts turned into little pops.
More than 160,000 people in Australia have been unemployed for more than a year. These are people actively looking for work, not staying home to look after children or family. Many of those people are over 50 and are unlikely to work full time again.
Eventually I swallowed my pride and middle-class guilt and took myself off to Centrelink. I filled in the 27 forms and answered as many questions as I could.
‘Why haven’t you put in your tax return?’
‘I need an accountant, it’s complicated because of the freelance work and I haven’t got any money to pay him.’
‘Well you’ll have to do that before we can assess you. Or give us copies of your payslips.’
‘I don’t have payslips, I’m here because I don’t have a job to give me pay slips.’
‘But you said you’re freelancing.’
‘Yes, but they don’t give payslips to freelancers.’
‘Well, you’ll need to do your tax return before we can give you any money.’
Then they sent me off to the privatised job assistance office. I got there ten minutes ahead of my appointment and was lucky, I only had to wait an hour and a half to talk to the poor underpaid drone who wants to help but has no power.
‘Shaw Jane,’ someone called out. No-one answered. ‘Shaw Jane.’ Still no-one answered but my scalp started to itch.
‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘Shaw Jane, is that meant to be me? My ex-husband’s surname is Shaw, my name is Jane …’
He checked my Centrelink number and yes, it was me. ‘Do you have any identification?’
‘You mean something that identifies me as first name, Shaw, last name, Jane? No, I don’t.’
‘Well you’ll have to bring in the documents to prove that you’ve changed your name.’
‘But I’ve never been Shaw Jane, I’ve never even been Jane Shaw. I didn’t change my name, you did.’
‘We can’t proceed with this without proper identification’
I handed him my driver’s licence, passport and last two electricity bills.
‘No, that’s not right, this says you’re Jane Gilmore.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It says my name is Jane Gilmore because that is, in fact, my name.’
‘Yes, yes, I see,’ he said and tapped at his keyboard for a bit.
‘Look, I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do until you can provide us with proof that you’ve changed your name.’
‘I need to prove that I am not a person I have never been? What documents do you suggest I provide for that?’
We stared at each other in silence for a while, waiting to see who would lose the will to live first.
‘I do want to help you,’ he said, ‘it’s just …’ he trailed off and flapped a helpless hand at the screen.
‘No, I can’t.’
Complaints to the ombudsman about Centrelink increased by 26 per cent in 2015 and then another 26 per cent in 2016. The number of claims processed within the targeted time fell by 20 per cent over the last three years. More than 5000 jobs have been cut across the Department of Human Services in the last six years. The real unemployment rate in Australia is about 9 per cent (1.2 million people), and a further 1.1 million are underemployed.
Poverty is loneliness. I didn’t know how much money it costs to spend time with people. ‘Shall we catch up for a coffee?’ ‘Want to come out for dinner with us?’ ‘We’re going out for drinks, you have to come, it’s someone’s birthday.’ I can’t say I want to come because I haven’t seen a human face for days but I’ll have to drink water and watch you eat and I want to do that because I want to be around people again and remind myself that I’m real. People who love me won’t let me do that. They are too kind and I could not bring myself to burden them with the results of my failure. So I stayed home. I stayed at home so long I forgot how to be me when I was out with people.
Researchers at Harvard University have found that loneliness can be as dangerous to health as smoking or obesity. Lifeline conducted a survey of Australians this year and found that more than 60 per cent of us report feeling lonely often or all the time. Loneliness in this context is not defined as just being alone, it is feeling alone and unconnected to people or community.
Being poor made me very sick, literally. It started as just a weird little rash on my leg. Uncomfortable and unsightly, but nothing that looked sinister and certainly not something for which I should waste $30 on doctor’s fees. Thirty dollars can keep us all fed for three days. So I ignored it. I kept getting worse and I kept ignoring it. I’d finally got some work at a medical facility; the prospect of regular pay and the fear of long hours wiped everything else from my mind. Even when I started feeling sick I ignored it. Flu, I thought. Odd because I never get sick, but it’s been a rough couple of months and stress can weaken your immune system. So I bought some cold and flu tablets and kept turning up to work. After three weeks I was feeling unspeakably awful and the rash on my leg turned a disgusting crusty brown. My first pay hit my bank account and I finally went to a doctor.
The thing on my leg wasn’t a rash, it was a staph infection, an antibiotic-resistant staph infection. It sounds like I’m writing a bad script for a made-for-TV movie but this really did happen. Less than a month into the first job I’d been able to get in a year and I couldn’t go back because you are not permitted to take an antibiotic-resistant staph infection into a medical facility where it can kill people. Too scared to spend $30, I cost myself thousands. I was lucky the infection didn’t kill me. I had left it so long that it had a good solid grip by the time it was diagnosed. It took months to recover, and there I was, back in the hole again but this time sick and scared of dying as well as broke.
Despite our excellent healthcare system, there is a lack of equity in delivering affordable medical care. In 2014 one in ten Australians had trouble accessing health care because of the costs involved. This figure is almost certainly underestimated as the data was collected before the start of the Medicare freeze.
All I could do was turn back to the only thing I knew and try writing for money. Writing is always hard, writing when I’m panic stricken and feverish and my brain is filled with cottonwool and imminent mortality is damn near impossible. I got a few pieces out but not enough. Not nearly enough. Again my mother had to pay my rent, my friends bought us food and I stayed in bed.
Being poor is failure. I had soaked up the notion that hard work was all I needed to do to protect myself from poverty. So even though I thought I had worked hard, if poverty was happening it must have happened because I hadn’t worked hard enough. This wasn’t happening to all the people I knew who had jobs and succeeded where I failed. My mother had warned me about this. Save some money. Buy a house. Stop thinking there’s no place for disaster in your life, she had said.
But I hadn’t listened or if I did, I didn’t believe her. Work was always there when I wanted it, even when I didn’t want it. It was just something I did, like showering every day and having a glass of wine on Friday nights. The constant presence of work was occasionally an irritation but it was immutable. Until it wasn’t. My failure to find work became a personal failing, a shameful secret I had to hide from those people I didn’t want to know how badly I had failed.
Being poor made me a liar. I lied to people who loved me. If I went out at all, I watched them eat dinner, jangling with fear and hunger, talking too quickly about the huge lunch I’d eaten and how I just couldn’t fit in another mouthful. I lied about being too busy with work I didn’t have and I lied about how great things were when in truth I was hiding in bed terrified of waking up the next day to hungry children, hungry dogs and an empty fridge. I lied about who I was becoming and the reality I was living. I lied about why I stopped seeing people and I lied about where I was going. Every word I said became a lie.
The failure and lies became shame and an acknowledgement of arrogance. Why did I think the world would accept my desire to be a writer and reward me with a liveable wage? Did I do it in the knowledge that all those people who had carried me through would be there if I needed them? Are my dreams more important than theirs? What did they give up for security and why should they pay for my refusal to do the same? Do they resent me? Would I if I were them? Are they helping me while secretly wondering why they have to pay the price for my failure? All my choices led me here. If I hadn’t chosen that marriage, that divorce, if I hadn’t chosen to have children or pets or dreams I could have prevented this.
The average income from writing for Australian authors is less than $13,000 per year. Women are 66 per cent of literary fiction authors, 75 per cent of genre fiction writers and 90 per cent of children’s authors. More than half of them are over 40 years of age. Nearly 3000 journalism jobs have disappeared in Australia over the last five years. More than 60 per cent of journalists who’ve lost their jobs have experienced significant income loss and ongoing job insecurity.
Being poor turned me into a thief. Life became surreal. Sitting in class in one of the wealthiest universities in the country hoping no-one would hear the rumblings of hunger and wondering if I could get away with another tram ride home I hadn’t paid for. The clash of worlds was distracting but once you’re the machine of privilege no-one wants to see you fail. The support structures were there. Personal, professional and practical. But I wondered what they’d think of me if they knew I was leaving class and stealing food on my way home. Pity? Shock? Disgust?
There was a time where I would have felt those things about someone who was doing what I was doing. I felt the shock and disgust about myself at the time. Now it just makes me sad. I only did it a couple of times and I was very lucky not to get caught. If I had I would have added a fine and a criminal conviction to the pile of things that being poor had stacked up to make me unemployable. It was an incredibly stupid thing to do but I thought I had no other options. I did, of course, but terror and desperation are not conducive to clear thinking. I thought I had already asked too much of people, I was too humiliated to ask for more and there were too many hungry people waiting for me at home.
Nearly 12,500 people were tried for shoplifting in the Magistrates Court in Victoria between 2013 and 2016. One-quarter of them were sent to prison and another quarter were given fines. Close to half those people were over 35 years of age.
Being poor is elitist. It’s not the same as poverty. Even at its terrifying worst it never seemed like reality. It was bewildering and lonely but for a long time I still believed it was temporary, a bad patch. I’d had them before, I figured I would probably have them again. It took a long time to sink in that this could be something more. This could be forever. Not just an unfortunate present but a never-ending future.
I might be able to scrape up bits of work. Get cleaning jobs or casual work in retail. Maybe I could keep writing for money sometimes but what would I do when that work was no longer available? When it wasn’t enough? What would happen to me after I turned 50? After 60? No money, no house, no assets, no super. Doors were closing all around me and the only clear path I could see terrified me into immobility.
Would I have to disrupt the peaceful retirement my mother had longed for and live my chaotic, failed life in her spare room? Homelessness was the only alternative, but it seemed grossly unfair to take the peace she’d worked so hard for because I’d failed to do what she had. So I froze and I hid and I waited.
I was poor but I had something true poverty doesn’t have. I had no money but I retained the trappings of a white middle-class upbringing and the life I’d lived before my world came crashing down. I had friends with money and acquaintances with connections. I had education and an acceptable idiom. I had an inherent belief in my ability to change my circumstances and a list of contacts I could call on to help me.
Poor I might be but that’s not the same as poverty. Poverty doesn’t have options or even a belief that options could exist. Poverty is generations of being poor with no proof that life can be anything else. Class is not about money, it’s about your understanding of your place in the world and even at my lowest I understood the possibilities I’d grown up with. All those things led to a phone call that led to a job that led to a place in a Masters course at Melbourne University that, even after only one semester, led to more work and more money and more connections. Finally, maybe to a way out. But it might not be enough.
Being poor turned me into a thief and a liar and a failure. And it almost killed me. I’d be a fool to think a couple of easier months is a permanent change instead of a temporary reprieve. The treehouse isn’t a haven any more, it’s a waystation. I sit here knowing that luck and privilege have kept me here this long and they might be enough to keep me here a bit longer but I’m one bad choice, one serious health issue, one mistake away from joining the hidden homelessness statistics I used to write about. And now, most of the time, I think it’s too late for that ever to change.
Almost three million people in Australia are living on or below the poverty line right now. Australia’s poverty rate remains above the OECD average, despite our relative prosperity. Just over one-third of people living in poverty are wage earners not living on welfare. The 2017 HILDA report showed that 35 per cent of Australians under 50 have experienced poverty over the last 15 years. More than 40 per cent of those people remained in poverty for longer than three years. Some, particularly older people, will never find a way out.
Jane Gilmore is a regular columnist with the Sydney Morning Herald. She is completing a Master of Journalism at the University of Melbourne and is also the creator of #FixedIt, a project dedicated to changing the way the media reports on men’s violence against women.