One grandmother’s reflections on poverty, homelessness and belonging. By Josiane Behmoiras.
Midway through eating a cucumber my grandson asked, “Are we going to live in this house for ever and ever?” We held our breath – his mother, his grandfather and I – because this child’s simple question had no possible answer within the course of our shared history. Except, perhaps, “Who on Earth lives for ever and ever?” But that is no answer for a child who has only been on Earth five years.
We were sitting around the table, eating a meal, something roasted; everything would be alright. This wasn’t about homelessness (not yet). I tried a quick response: “Well…we may. Do you want more potatoes?” He paused. Eyed me. A blowfly was buzzing in the stillness.
How can we rationalise impermanence – not the existential kind of impermanence, the ‘living in the moment’ kind, but the impermanence of insecurity and lack of choice, of loss and exile? Perhaps I could’ve replied, “Life is a big box of lucky dips!” But right then I didn’t have the courage to speak. My voice would have betrayed me.
House-dreaming has been in my body forever. Always, in dreams, in day-dreams, in conversation, in writing – there is the house, nestled in the form of a wish, lodged in some corner of me. A miniscule model of shelter, with all its potential for knowing peace, comfort, a ray of sun, crumbs on the kitchen table. The world outside separated from the world inside. A wish for permanence. Always.
“The house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.” French philosopher Gaston Bachelard doesn’t prioritise ownership of the house. For him, shelter is about experiencing a moment in time: being cocooned inside the house, the fragrance of lavender in a linen cupboard. In The Poetics of Space, he lists everything that belongs to the house: dwellers, windows, doors, doorknobs, cupboards, drawers, attics, cellars, the garden.
Bachelard never mentions the word ‘homeless’. In the countless temporary houses and shelters I have known in my life, I never belonged to the house. Nor did I “dream in peace”.
I am sixty-five. I don’t own a house and my savings are inadequate. At any moment, I could become one of the ‘hidden homeless’, night-sheltering away from public eyes, hiding from the elements, from animals and odd humans, icy winds, stings, sharp objects.
Older women are the fastest-growing group of people experiencing homelessness in Australia. Free-falling into the margins, hovering at the bottom of endless government housing lists, waiting for non-existent homes. There are aging women roaming the country in bombed-out campervans, pretending to be happy campers. (Avoid isolated camping sites! Shower in gas stations, or use Wet Wipes. Truckies will usually help if you break down.)
Australia is no country for old women.
Strictly speaking, the statistics talk about single aging women, while multi-generational family units like ours don’t get counted. There is no room in my imagination for couch surfing, or sleeping in our car. Please, no: not with a child who dances along the days, intent on recasting his daily experiences into song. Again, I try the mantra of the sleepless: I thought about all that yesterday, I will think about it tomorrow, but now I am going to sleep.
In a Proustian moment, I revisit each of the ten temporary houses I have inhabited in Australia. The horseshoe nailed to the wooden fence at number 13 Williams St: a path leading up to our small fibro forever-house amongst the gumtrees. It turned into our never-house within two years, when interest rates soared, when our mortgage superseded both our wages (a tile factory, a spring factory). Our daughter said “Bye-bye house!”, waving her toddler hand as we drove away with our belongings.
Since then my daughter has lived in eleven rented houses, and my grandson’s five years have spanned four houses. The counting must stop. Passing the sign on the highway, the boy singsongs the name of our town. I lose hours of sleep making complicated monetary calculations about the odds of permanently settling here. Nothing adds up.
Poverty burdens you with guilt and apology. We take the blame. We’re not frugal or hardworking enough, our ‘lifestyle choices’ are too wishful. Pleading illness or disability, begging for help in this way or that, we are a burden on productive society. We make everything awkward. People avert their eyes or shrug. It’s a very complex problem. Something must be done. So say the politicians, the media, the experts, the activists. And old women like me.
We compartmentalise homelessness, offering free hot meals and blankets for rough sleepers, forgetting the other 93 per cent – the hidden homeless. A Salvation Army pamphlet slips from the pages of a car club magazine: Did you know there are 18,000 homeless children in Australia? it asks. How could this be?
I toss and turn. Think about those eighteen thousand homeless children, hidden from sight, each spinning a singular dream. A network of young beating hearts connected by secret knowledge; their latent power and rage, which they may one day unleash on themselves, or someone else. In the dark, tick-tick-tick, the children are growing up, while we – politicians, experts, public servants, activists and old women – grow smaller.
We fail to grasp that the homelessness crisis is a metaphor for our collective future. Economic rationalism, globalisation, climate change, food wars. In Stop Eject, Paul Virilio warns us about the exodus of a billion humans, forecast for 2050; about the shift in human identity from belonging and staying, to displacement and moving on, when the questions “Where are you from? Where do you live?” will be obsolete.
Go to sleep now. Take five deep breaths.
A clear night, frost predicted. Morning may bring the wonder of crunchy white grass. A day of hot chocolate, of smoking chimney.
Yesterday, the child was idling in his socks by the back door, when he asked, “When are we going to move again?” I kneeled and busied myself with the shoelaces on his dancing feet.
“Our house is our corner of the world … our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word.” So said Bachelard.
At the bottom of our backyard, my grandson pokes at a bonfire of gum-leaves with a stick, humming a song. Sweet smoke unfurls, rises above the roof and drifts into the woods. I turn aside and mimic spitting, as in our Jewish tradition: Tfu! Tfu! Tfu! Three times: to ward off evil spirits.
This is an edited version of Josiane Behmoiras’ essay The Flying Roof. The complete essay appears in the recent book We Are Here: Stories of Home, Place & Belonging (Affirm Press, edited by Meg Mundell), a collection of true stories by people who have experienced homelessness.