Imagine if your grandma had no place to call home. Sweet and frail Ivy spent 20 years sleeping in the tunnel of a train station, swept aside like a piece of rubbish. Sadly, she is far from alone.

At the age of 60, Ivy should have been basking in the autumn glow of a happy life. She’d been a stay-at-home mum, primarily involved in her children’s school activities and volunteering.

But when her husband of 35 years suddenly divorced her, Ivy found herself on a frighteningly fast downward spiral.

With no savings, no super and no job skills, this family matriarch who had once held everyone together, had nowhere to live. Not wanting to be a burden on her adult children and too ashamed to ask for help, Ivy quietly disappeared from her family’s life, exchanging the picket fence on which she’d once gazed for a dark and dirty railway tunnel. The trains came and went, but Ivy went nowhere.

A ticket to nowhere

When you start to scratch the surface of a glossy city like Sydney, you’ll see many older women just like Ivy who are homeless and in desperate need of help. An estimated 1 in 5 of the total homeless population are over the age of 55. This depressing statistic is made worse by a housing crisis that has forced thousands of older women into refuges, hostels or onto the streets.

But the statistics are easily glossed over. To understand what they really mean, we need to listen to stories like Ivy’s.

Surviving on the street is a full-time job. How do you shower? Where’s the next soup run? Where’s the safest place to sleep? Who is going to help you and who is going to assault you?

Ivy wasn’t streetwise. She was often attacked by passers-by who didn’t like the “old bag” sleeping on the floor. She was kicked, punched and spat on. She quickly learnt that the only way to survive was to pay other rough sleepers to protect her from the ruthless predators that saw her as easy prey. But she always slept with one eye open.

Ivy’s one small pleasure was to feed the pigeons with the leftovers she’d scavenge from the bins of a nearby food-hall.

The days quickly became weeks, then months, then years. Dehumanised and alone, the thought of re-entering mainstream society was terrifying to Ivy.

A home with heart

Ivy was approaching her 80th birthday when a bout of pneumonia lead to a hospital stay. Against her will but too fragile to survive another winter on the streets, she was brought to Mission Australia’s Charles Chambers Court.

One of our residential aged-care facilities, it offers a safe and caring environment to disadvantaged Australians like Ivy who rightly want to have their individuality and life stories respected. For the first time in 20 years, Ivy had access to regular, nutritious meals, hot showers, her own toilet, a warm bed and 24-hour medical care. She was safe from the violence and hardship of the streets.

But it’s hard to adjust to structure and organisation after the chaos of homelessness. For more than 20 years, Ivy had been stripped of every sense of security. She’d been completely alone. She didn’t trust anyone and her mental health had deteriorated.

At first Ivy didn’t think her life would improve at Charles Chambers Court. Every day, she would put her possessions into a shopping trolley and wheel them to the park where she would quietly feed her beloved pigeons.

She didn’t speak to the other residents or staff. She avoided all eye contact.

It took time to earn this sweet and frail lady’s trust. But gradually, Charles Chambers Court became Ivy’s haven. She liked the warm and welcoming atmosphere here and became a much loved part of our community.

Ivy died peacefully in her sleep this year.

Sadly, there had been no contact with Ivy’s family. It had all been too painful and it had been easier at the time, to disappear from their lives. Time had marched on and mental illness brought on by the trauma of homelessness meant that for Ivy, her family had simply slipped away from memory.

We miss her.

 

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the people we help.

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