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13 March 2023
This time last year, John* had just lost everything. Today, he says he is still alive primarily thanks to you.
Despite careful and strategic planning for a peaceful retirement, at 77 years of age John became homeless after the deadly and destructive flood that hit the Northern Rivers a year ago.
A retired psychologist, John understands trauma both professionally and intimately, and has proved himself a determined survivor. We first met John late December, after he had his pacemaker put in. He had been without a reliable place to live, homeless for 11 months.
“Because I am an experienced psychologist, I thought I could cope with this. It’s the brave face you put on for everyone. In fact, 11 months later, I am still having nightmares,” said John in his gentle accent.
Wading out of the flood waters in the pitch-black early hours of February 28, John thought he was going to drown. “It was really bad. I got out when the water was up to my chest, and it swept me off my feet. Being a poor swimmer, I was thinking it was very possible I will drown.” John had packed in panic mode. “I had a bag of clothes, a bag of frozen food - which is ludicrous, I know - and my medication for my heart because I have to take a lot of medication every day.”
Earlier, he had moved his car to higher ground. John says many people were prepared for the flood, “what we weren’t prepared for was 14.4 metres of it.”
John’s home of 20 years, a beautiful Queenslander chosen for its proximity to the hospital for his ongoing medical treatment, has been very badly damaged with no specific flood insurance cover. He waits alongside 6,500 other people to determine if he is eligible for the State and Federal Government buy-back scheme.
“On the night of the flood, 50 years of my life living here in Australia is gone. All the things that symbolise that life; my treasured possessions, my library of fascinating books, which I considered my mentors and friends, and the home itself, were destroyed.”
“So, what do you do after that? Well, if you have nothing to keep going… but I have a lot to keep going. My three grandkids are the reason I have kept strong. The responsibility in life is to fight till your last breath. Now, when you have children and grandchildren, you’re going to be ready to support and fight for them.”
John applied for social housing a month after the flood, learning soon afterwards of the 11-year waitlist in the region. With consideration for his circumstance and age, John’s application was listed as ‘high priority’. Living on the age pension, he cannot afford private housing where the median rent sits at $500 per week.
John’s two adult children and their small families live in the region but did not have the capacity or room to provide him with suitable accommodation. And with a mandate from his cardiologist to stay near the hospital, John resorted to temporary accommodation for many months.
“After the flood you don’t even realise what’s happened. You’re so busy. The major thing you are trying to do is answer ‘where can I get a place to sleep?’ and ‘where can I get a place to live?’. It’s survival.”
“I lived in a small caravan for several weeks. I couch-surfed. I contemplated a government-funded caravan outside the wrecked home, but I didn’t want to be there.”
John considers this a good trauma response. “It’s actually PTSR; a post-traumatic stress response to a life-threatening event and its chaotic aftermath. I don’t want to go back! I feel uneasy there because I could have died, and the memories of things lost. That’s quite normal.”
The uncertainty and bureaucratic chaos after the flood came on top of an existing and immense housing crisis. John suggested, as many others have, that people weren’t trained for the disaster, there weren’t enough trades, and the government simply didn’t have the resources in place.
“I refuse to roleplay being a victim, as many people told me to be a ‘squeaky wheel’. I’m still trying to do three things; maintain my self-respect, maintain my sense of agency, and remain courteous.”
It hasn’t been easy. The ongoing stress and trauma took a toll, and John was scheduled for a pacemaker mid-December. What the role of the last years’ stress, uncertainty and strain has played in this outcome is impossible to say.
“The whole thing of not having a place, the business of being homeless, I’ve always wondered how people cope! It is very, very hard to choose not to be depressed when your life is very depressing.”
“My big break since the floods was a phone call from Jenny at BaptistCare. I was not sure that I would have lasted that much longer in the very hard position that I was in.”
John moved into a one-bedroom senior housing studio at a BaptistCare location, ten days after his pacemaker surgery. His new home is a short walk to the hospital, with rent discounted below market rate and tailored support available from our team. John’s response has been one of sincere, humble gratitude.
“I went from entering the hospital and wondering if I might die soon anyway, to having a truly peaceful refuge and sanctuary where I can re-establish a life. I find that I am still asking myself, ‘Is this real?’ BaptistCare has been the quiet achiever in this chaos, the Good Samaritan. Knowing that I have a home, I’ve only just started relaxing now, and it feels fantastic.”
John said that the people who donate to BaptistCare HopeStreet have literally saved his life. Our BaptistCare HopeStreet teams need your help to support people to experience safety, regain their independence and have choices in life. Please send your generous gift today.
*Names have been changed. Images are for illustration purposes.