Down and out, down under

Jenny with a koala © Jenny

I spent four months travelling last year, including two months in Australia. It was an incredible experience, but not everything went quite according to plan….

By the time I reached Sydney, I was running very low on money and was growing pretty tired of living out of a bag and sleeping in hostels. I was delighted when an English friend of mine offered to put me up in her flat. Sleeping on her sofa in a proper home with a spotless bathroom was Heaven. But within a day, I’d started to develop a weird rash on my leg, which spread very quickly until I was covered in red welts, as itchy as mosquito bites, but more painful.

I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with contagious scabies, which the doctor said I’d probably picked up in one of the hostels. I knew I was under an obligation to tell my friend. I phoned her to break the news, and it felt like I was like owning up to having an STD; I couldn’t help but feel really ashamed and embarrassed.

She came and met me in the city centre, and there, out on the street, she handed me my belongings, saying she was sorry but I couldn’t stay with her anymore. Marooned on the streets with my bags, searching for somewhere to stay – which was a tricky business – I grew increasingly upset and felt pretty desperate.

I was really short of money and couldn’t afford a hotel, and it was difficult to find a backpackers that had beds available at that time of year. And I was covered from head to toe in bites and was sure that if the hostels suspected anything they would have refused to have me. Although I’ve had worse experiences while travelling, I was nonetheless thousands of miles from home, suffering with a horribly uncomfortable, unsightly and highly contagious skin infestation and feeling that I’d nowhere to turn. It was not fun.

I was walking through the subway under Central Station, when a man selling the Big Issue asked if I would be interested in buying one – to help the homeless. I snapped back, “I AM homeless”… and promptly burst into tears and turned away. Then I felt his hand on my shoulder, and when I looked up, he was looking at me with genuine concern. He asked me what was wrong and I spluttered something about how everything had gone pear-shaped and I had nowhere to stay. At which point, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a twenty dollar bill, and pressed it into my hand.

I was struck dumb by the fact that a homeless man had just tried to give me money. Irony aside, I was very touched by his genuine concern for me. He introduced himself as Bob, and said he knew of a women’s refuge that might put me up. I felt I couldn’t accept the money but he insisted on at least buying me a coffee. We had a sit-down near his pitch outside the station, and chatted for ages about life and its many twists and turns.

He told me, very self-effacingly, about the issues he’d faced in his life that had resulted in him living on the streets or in refuges. It certainly helped me gain perspective on my own situation – which was resolved within a few days, with no serious consequences. It really made me think about the kindness of strangers, and how help can sometimes come from the most unexpected of quarters.

Many people are predisposed to prejudice towards the homeless but it just goes to show you can’t judge a book by its cover.

Written by - Edited by Charlotte Amelines

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