As most of you would know already, I work in the public library service. It is a job that I love and one that has more elements to it than most people imagine.
One of those is constant contact with people who are experiencing homelessness, as libraries are safe, free and sheltered spaces.
Jack and Jill:
The story I want to share today is about two, very different, people who were daily visitors to the library service in which I work...and for now I will call them Jack and Jill.
I came across Jill in October/November 2018, she was always in the library during the mornings waiting for her partner to finish work and come past to collect her. We knew that they were sleeping rough, as Jill would keep all their belongings with her in a little trolley.
By Christmas there was a marked decline in her well-being, and she would ask before coming into the library as her feet were so swollen and blistered that she could no longer wear shoes. It was obvious that homelessness was taking a toll on her physical and mental health, but she was always friendly in her bashful fashion.
The strain was also showing in her relationship - there were times when she could be found weeping in the toilets after heated debates with her chap.
Then one day, after a nasty altercation with her partner she asked for help. A humbling moment, she trusted us enough to talk through her circumstances and call the Homelessness Gateway, which responded quickly; Adelaide being in the middle of an extreme heatwave.
I walked with Jill to the centre, this was a huge step for her, she was in essence leaving her partner and was ready to find stable housing. We chatted as we bumbled along, her bits and belongings falling out of her trolley and getting tangled in the wheels, we made slow progress. Jill talked about the numerous events that had led up to this point in her life, my heart broke a little more each time she expanded on her story, which is not mine to share. When we arrived at the centre I introduced Jill and we said our goodbyes - we both cried a little, and that was that. I assumed she would be fine.
I was wrong:
During this time I had noticed a very slim, tallish young man coming into the library every day and sitting in the far corner. He would charge his phone, sip our free coffee and use the wi-fi. This was Jack, unassuming and shy, always polite.
I never had the occasion to speak with him, but I had made a point of saying hello every time we crossed paths.
Then a few days after I dropped Jill at the homeless centre, I walked to the Post Office to send a letter - and there was Jill, completely dishevelled, sobbing in a corner without any of her belongings. I was stunned, I couldn't understand how this had happened. Jack was there, quiet in his presence and reassuring her...but he was also angry. He was homeless and was unable to find the assistance that Jill had been afforded by the virtue of her gender. He was not considered to be at risk and had spent the previous seven months sleeping in the public toilets near the beach.
I called the centre and asked where she was supposed to be - they told me and I literally carried her to a taxi; while people shopping stopped and stared, the tradies working on a construction site also found this amusing entertainment.
The taxi driver, however, was not amused when I explained that we were not going far - Jill was clearly intoxicated with a heady mix of drugs and alcohol...and she cried, really cried, like her heart was dissolving.
This time when I left her, I was filled with unease.
On returning to work I found Jack to make sure that he still felt very welcome to use the library now that I knew more about his circumstances...and while I sat with him, he shared his story and he too cried, sobbed his way through each chapter that led him to this moment.
It was too many tears for one day:
It was too much. I walked upstairs, into the shared work space and found tears streaming down my own face. Jack and Jill were/are both decent, charming characters that have been dealt bad hand after hand and I genuinely felt at a loss, it wasn't in my power to make it better for them.
As it turned out Jill left the centre that was assisting her, she wanted to be reunited with her partner, so once again she became a regular in the library...but now she was making friends with some of the other regulars. Her confidence grew and she was smiling more and more. Jack also started to come out of his shell, he would seek me out for a chat, he too made friends with some of the regulars and was smiling.
Then within a couple of weeks both Jill and Jack announced that they had been offered housing. Jack was given a room in a shared house, and Jill and her partner were given a small social housing unit to rent. The breadth of their smiles when they told me was something to see, only to be matched by mine (I might have even cried a little)....and just like that they vanished and have not been seen in the libraries since.
It is a privilege to work in a space that can offer a safe haven for the truly vulnerable in our community, and a pleasure to see others accept and join in friendship with those who are living in circumstances so difficult.
There are different Jacks and Jills in the library these days and I look forward to the day that they can share the news that they have been offered housing...but until then I will do what I can to make each day just a little easier- even if it is just an acknowledgement and a friendly smile, a chat or just an average interaction in a public space without judgement. Dignity, is free and easily given.
Resources for South Australia.
Homelessness Gateway - 1800-003-308
Hutt Street Centre - 8418 2500
Catherine House - 8232 2282
Orange Sky - https://orangesky.org.au
If you don't know what Orange Sky does - take a look: