Overcoming adversity

Overcoming adversity

This week’s guest blogger is Simon Furness, Director of Property and Housing at Uniting.

The man who recruited me into the British Army was typical of his generation. When I met Brigadier Bertie Smith, I knew exactly what to expect: Brylcreemed hair, pencil moustache, rigid posture and clipped enunciation that did not invite response.

What I didn’t know before the meeting was that Bertie’s right arm was missing below the shoulder. So, as I approached to introduce myself, I offered my left hand in an attempt to empathise with his disability. Bertie was more practised in this situation than I was, and had a habit of turning his left hand around to unite with his respondent’s right hand. As the back of my hand met the palm of his, I felt my military career slipping away before it started.

When I researched Bertie further, I learned that he had amputated his arm himself in order to extract himself from the wreckage of a helicopter crash. At the time, the adversity that Bertie faced seemed unimaginable to me, but this has since been far surpassed by many of the Uniting clients I’ve met who do not have the same access to pensions and affordable housing that Bertie had via the army.

Affordable housing and compassionate care

Uniting has been housing people under the NSW Government’s Social and Affordable Housing Fund (SAHF) scheme for over a year, ensuring that our contribution to the housing crisis reaches those that most need it. Our first social and affordable housing resident was a Tibetan monk, who suffered 14 years of unspeakable treatment in a prison overseas. He now lives in a comfortable unit close to a small Tibetan community and has access to much needed healthcare.

A more recent arrival, Jim*, was stabbed in the head at the age of six and has suffered from poor health ever since. Having experienced homelessness for much of his life, Jim was previously housed with 17 other men in a four-bedroom boarding house. The other men regularly beat him, forced him to do all the household chores and stole the few possessions he had. Jim came to Uniting with the one prized belonging he had managed to retain – the pair of shoes he had worn at his wedding. Thanks to the support of our dedicated team and some generous donations, Jim now has his own unit, a bed, some furniture, clothes and a second pair of shoes. The smile on his face is all the thanks anyone could ask for.

Another new resident we’re about to welcome into one of our villages is currently living in a packing shed. Her toilet is a garbage bin out the back which she has to empty frequently. She has no hot water and only gets a warm shower when it is sunny. She has bipolar and talks of her loneliness and isolation.

Other social and affordable housing residents include a 73-year-old man who has spent the past two years living in his car – who has been attacked twice – and an 89-year-old Aboriginal woman who has been sleeping on the couches of friends and acquaintances.

Thinking outside the box

You may have read in the media that we recently established a pop-up shelter in a disused residential aged care home for older women experiencing homelessness. To date, we have accommodated 30 women and are delighted that eight have moved on to more permanent housing. This project has also unearthed some amazing stories of overcoming adversities.

In the current housing crisis in Sydney, even a relatively minor life event can devastate an otherwise normal life. Pop-up resident Anne* – who was brave enough to share her story with ABC news – lost her job after 18 years. Unable to pay the rent, she gave notice rather than risk a bad credit record and went to stay with a friend. With no job and all her savings and superannuation long gone, Anne has little hope of affording even the cheapest Sydney rent.

Another pop-up resident, who has had a successful professional career, lost everything when she gave power of attorney to a friend she mistakenly trusted. There are several other stories of women from overseas who have been abandoned by their partners, relationship breakdowns and health events that have rendered prosperous women homeless in one fell swoop.

The strength of community

Accommodation is just the first step; community is the real key to changing people’s lives.

The women in our pop-up shelter welcome new residents by sharing food and warm clothes. They cook together, keep each other company and recently enjoyed watching the Football World Cup together on a donated TV. One of the residents, who has spent years in boarding houses and transitional accommodation herself, regularly collects unsold food from a local café and takes it to Martin Place to distribute to homeless people. Not only overcoming her own adversities, but helping others to overcome theirs.

There is a lot we can all learn from people who are dealing with adversities and still have the compassion to help others.

Get in touch

To learn more about how Uniting works with some of the most isolated, vulnerable and marginalised people in our community, call us on 1800 864 846 or email us.

*Names have been changed. Cover image thanks to ABC news.

Simon Furness serves Uniting as Director of Property and Housing. Prior to joining Uniting in 2016, Simon spent 12 years in senior line-management roles in market-leading companies including CBRE, Vodafone, Telstra and Spotless and eight years as a senior executive in government. His early career was as an officer in the Royal Engineers and Royal Australian Engineers. Simon is a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors and has an MBA and Honours degree in Civil Engineering

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