I had a successful career as a chef and never had trouble finding a job or a place to live. Stepping over homeless people to and from work, a hatted restaurant in Sydney, was my first introduction to homelessness but there’s so much more to it than meets the eye.

I grew up in an affluent suburb. After university I finished my chef’s apprenticeship and was fortunate to travel around Australia with my work. I was living up north when I met a man and we started dating.

Soon, we decided to move back to his home town, where I had no support network. I felt increasingly isolated as he became more controlling.

The financial abuse started when I got a job. He imposed a curfew as he didn’t like me socialising. I didn’t have my own bank account so my wages went into his account, leaving me no control over my own money.

“I was the main earner in the relationship.”

    Our relationship started to fall down when he began smoking a lot of pot. He would disappear for days.

    I knew I had to escape but I had no access to my wages. I proposed to go back to Sydney for work and return when the season started again. I had no intention of returning.

    I packed a suitcase, borrowed the airfare and then stayed on a family member’s couch before securing an apartment.

    But I was having trouble holding down a job because I hadn’t dealt with the trauma of my experience. I suffered increasingly from panic attacks and anxiety, lost my job, then my apartment, and became homeless in my early thirties.

    I felt so embarrassed, I didn’t feel I could tell my family because I lived my entire life being self-sufficient – always working, never needing help from anyone.

    “I didn’t know how to ask for help.”

    I found part-time work at a friend’s catering business while I was living in a backpacker’s hostel, struggling to pay the fee. I pawned my jewellery, anything I had for cash. I did this for eight months until I had nothing more to sell. I slept in an abandoned car close by.

    It didn’t lock and it needed a clean but it was free. I would stay in the backpackers during the day because I knew people that were staying there, use the showers, then creep off and try to sleep in the car. It was impossible, always keeping one eye open.

    I had no money, had sold my chef’s knives, and couldn’t keep jobs because of my panic attacks. I never had any phone credit and could only feed myself through the food vans. I didn’t know where to go for help. Things kept getting worse.

    “I couldn’t process the trauma I was experiencing.”

    I managed to pick up some bar work where I met a guy and quickly moved in with him out of desperation.

    It didn’t seem to matter that he didn’t give me a set of keys so I couldn’t really leave unless he did. I put up with a lot and suffered terrible emotional abuse because I was trapped, again.

    It became so untenable that I moved into another bedroom in his house. Then he started bringing other women home and it was awful. I sold him my last value asset, my laptop. That got me enough money for two nights at the backpackers.

    I booked myself into a mental health short-stay at Royal Prince Alfred -you can present to the hospital experiencing mental health issues. They gave me a bed and medication for my anxiety and depression, which I sorely needed. Then I gained access to crisis accommodation through a service called Link2home.

    There’s so much more to homelessness than people living on the streets and there isn’t a lot of crisis accommodation or services available for single women because it will go first to women with children.

    Through my experience of homelessness, I didn’t have the mental capacity to apply for Centrelink, or even to fill in a form. It sounds absurd to say this now but that was my reality – I was wrecked with trauma.

    Then I was given a case manager from Mission Australia, who was incredible. He helped me to find transitional accommodation. The housing system is complicated and layered and the government only gives you 28 days of crisis accommodation per year, often in unsafe environments.

    28 days to sort out mental, physical and employment crises isn’t enough.

    I’ve lived in transitional housing with different organisations and finally found longer-term housing while working with some exceptional case managers, who specialise in working with single women who have experienced trauma.

    I’ve been able to get on top of the mental health component, which you can only really do in a stable environment. Without a home, it’s virtually impossible to do that. Everything starts from having a home.

    I’m lucky to have pulled myself back together enough to go back to work and study to be a community services worker. I’m retraining so that I too can become a case worker and help others experiencing homelessness like I did. It can happen to anyone.

    Written by Leona Profuggus

    As told to Rebecca Foreman, writer for The Equanimity Project 

    View the article on Money Magazine