Fiona*, 62, never saw it coming. One minute she was out on the town with friends in Sydney’s CBD, celebrating the start of the 2012 Christmas holidays; the next she was in the back of an ambulance as it sped through Darlinghurst’s festive, neon-lit streets on the way to the nearest emergency department. Her life, as she knew it, was over.
She remembers standing by a railing on a mezzanine floor in the club, looking at her friends on the dance floor below. It was late, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s Thrift Shop was pumping, the floor heaving. Her mates gestured for her to join them. She gave them the thumbs-up; she was on her way.
Just then, a surge in the crowd behind her pushed her up against the railing; as the press of bodies intensified, worsening the pressure, she started to lose her balance. The railing, which stopped at her hips, wasn’t high enough to keep her upright and suddenly, she went over the top of it, plummeting head-first onto the concrete floor below. She’d lost three-and-a-half pints of blood before the paramedics even arrived.
I meet Fiona on a sunny spring morning at her home in inner Sydney’s Woolloomooloo. A large, Mediterranean-blue evil eye amulet hangs on a silk cord from the front-door knob of her unit, a gift from a friend. “I need all the help I can get,” she says laughing.
She moved in two years ago, just before her 60th birthday. When she was first shown this spotless apartment inside a new residential block on this quiet, leafy street, she cried with gratitude. It had been built by the Women’s Housing Company, an award-winning not-for-profit community-housing provider for women on limited incomes – and it was the sanctuary she craved.
She shows me around: the twin silver candelabra on her coffee table beside a vase of pale pink peonies; plumped cream cushions on a grey sofa; a natty, Ikea-furnished kitchen and a balcony with views of the
city and, in the distance, the Harbour Bridge. “I still have anxiety about it being taken away from me,” she says, the soft burr of a Highlands accent betraying her long-ago Scottish origins.
In the mid-’80s, she married the love of her life, a “consummate gentleman” and the father of her only child, a daughter, who is 31 and lives in South Australia. “But as our tree grew, our branches started to reach in opposite directions,” she says. “And by the time I was 40, in ’97, I knew I had to leave.” Fiona moved back to Sydney alone; in time, she and her husband divorced.
Fiona’s accident in the nightclub left her with two shattered vertebrae at the base of her skull and an assortment of symptoms, including extreme vertigo with nausea and vomiting, insomnia, fatigue and short-term memory loss, which would coalesce over time into a single diagnosis: acquired brain injury.
Although she’s loquacious, her mind can’t always alight on the word she wants. “I get frustrated,” she says. “People repeat the question and I get more frustrated. They think I’m angry. I’m not, I’m just frustrated. But they label you. Society’s quick to label you.”
Fiona used to work in customer relations for a European luxury goods company in North Sydney. “I loved my work,” she says. “I thought I’d be there forever.”
But after three months in hospital, her neck encased in a Miami J collar, it became clear she wouldn’t be going back. “I didn’t have disability or income-protection insurance. You don’t, do you, when the sun’s shining?”
But that wasn’t all. Just before the accident, she’d moved all her belongings out of the workman’s cottage she rented in Surry Hills to a new address, a share house with a gay couple – one of them a very old friend – who’d asked if she’d be interested in splitting the rent.
Coming out of hospital, though, she found their phones were dead and the house empty. Finally, a real estate agent told her the couple had done a runner, moved out suddenly without paying the rent, and had sold all of her stuff – her furniture, clothes and jewellery – for cash to take with them. There was nothing left.
Physically very fragile, mentally shattered, her only income her sickness allowance, 2015 found Fiona at her lowest ebb, eking out a miserable existence inside a Paddington boarding house.
“I was in there with all the dreadfulness of society – men and women with alcoholism and other substance-abuse problems and mental afflictions – paying $330 a week for a room with a single bed, a bar fridge and two hotplates. I didn’t even have a wardrobe.” She starts to cry. “Homeless in my 50s! I was the only older woman there and I felt very, very afraid and alone. How had my life come to this?”
Her darkest moments came at night, lying in her bed behind a locked door, the abject horrors of the communal bathroom down the corridor behind her for the day.
“God, it was in an appalling state, faeces everywhere … I had a pair of thongs that I would keep on and then I’d dry my feet when I got back to my room. All the other residents were much younger than me – and I was so afraid of their violence and unpredictable behaviour. Lying in bed at night, I’d ask God why He’d let me survive the accident. Surely not for this hell? It was the darkest period of my life.”
I ask her why she didn’t call her daughter and ex-husband in South Australia. “Too much pride,” she says. “And too much shame. Later I told them some of it, but even now they don’t know the whole story.”
She decided to apply for social housing. “I asked a friend to go with me to FACS in the city,” she says. “I was so lost I didn’t even know how to ask for help, but I knew I must be eligible for something. The woman behind the counter that day – I’ll never forget her – she looked at me and said, ‘I could be you.’ She gave me a number for the [not-for-profit support service] Women’s And Girls’ Emergency Centre [WAGEC] in Redfern. I went to see them the next day. They said, ‘We’ve been waiting for you.’ ”
Horrified by conditions inside the boarding house, Rebecca, Fiona’s caseworker at WAGEC, expedited her into temporary accommodation before putting her in touch with the Women’s Housing Company. She’s never stopped feeling grateful to the women who worked together to get her out of that boarding house and into a unit she still can’t quite believe is hers. She goes to TAFE in inner-city Ultimo two days a week, where she’s studying for a Certificate IV in Community Services: “I want to pay it forward,” she says.
As it turns out, walking into that Mission Australia office three months ago was the best thing Rhiannon could’ve done. With the help of her case manager, Ainsley – “my wonderful saviour” – she discovered that FACS had made a mistake in rejecting her application for priority social housing three years earlier; now it intended to make amends.
Rhiannon is the new occupier of a one-bedroom unit in northern Sydney’s Brookvale, minutes from public transport. It’s small – a world of reduction and altered circumstance circumscribed by its buff walls and nondescript carpet – but it’s clean and safe. And her furniture, reminiscent of the quality, time-worn fittings you’d find in an English country cottage – antique chest, small swing-leaf table, dusky-pink two-seater sofa and, hanging on the walls, framed sepia photographs of elegantly dressed forebears (“My grandfather was a timber merchant”) – is warming and cosy.
On the white eiderdown of her bed, newly arrived from her sister in the UK, is a pair of weighty, custom-made, crewel-embroidered curtains for the French windows of her new living room that open onto a small balcony. “I’m a very, very fortunate woman,” says Rhiannon appreciatively. “I’ve now got a place to live, somewhere to call mine, and I can feel my confidence coming back.”
Homelessness is a harsh place filled with demons and sudden, bright angels. If it has been the most difficult experience of these women’s lives, they’re determined it won’t be the defining one. Now secure in their new homes and rediscovering what it feels like to live without constant fear, they talk of wanting to be useful again – and of helping others. And there’s time for reflection.