My past is a bit shady. I grew up in Newtown and moved to Sutherland Shire when I was a teenager. I was a very high achiever when I was young but with the move to a new suburb I couldn’t fit in.
I think my sexuality made me the odd one out. I knew I was gay very young. I was also a bit different because I was always the bigger, fuller figure. I’d go to school and I’d be bigger than the teachers.
I finished school in Year 11. I went into geriatric nursing and I was in debt so I took on a second job pushing shopping trolleys and driving a tractor around at Miranda Fair. It was the early 1980s and I was 21.
I had a strap stretched over 12 trolleys, and it ricocheted and scooped my eye out. I have a glass eye now. After I lost my eye my life just went blank. I had no motivation or inspiration in life. I had nothing to try and succeed at.
I got about $150,000 compensation. I moved to Newcastle and bought a house. I lived up there for eight years. It wasn’t a good time of my life. I sold the house and I ended up losing the money. After that I became homeless. I didn’t have a cent.
I came back to Sydney in the late 1980s and started living on the streets. I was one of the few homeless women here. The majority were men.
I lived on the streets in Sydney on and off for about six years. When you’re a woman and you’re homeless on the street, if you don’t suffer a mental illness before or while you’re there, after you’ve gone through something like that you do.
I found myself institutionalised because I’d gone a bit nutty. There were plenty of women’s refuges, but you either had to fit into the category of being abused or having children. I didn’t fit into those categories so it was very hard for me to find shelter.
I was very frightened of sleeping in the city because the homeless men had gangs. If you’re spotted around you’re very easily preyed upon. I’ve had a knife put to my throat by two homeless guys here.
I was also drinking and using heroin, and I couldn’t find stable work. Between stints in Sydney I would go to other places up and down the coast. I did menial work but it’s always meant nothing to me -“ I used to go home with that empty feeling.
One good thing has happened in recent years: I’ve found a soul mate, Sharm. We’ve been together for 11 years. We met in Newtown. She wasn’t living on the streets when we met but she was coming close to it.
We used to cross this road and there used to be this guy selling The Big Issue. We weren’t sure what it was. He’d say Big Issue and every time we crossed the street we’d say to each other, I hope this bastard doesn’t start again because I’ve had enough of him.
Around that time, I was in dire straits and I was eating at a food van. A guy I had made friends with said, Get onto The Big Issue, you can make some money.
I was very fearful about it at first because of that other vendor. I didn’t realise it was a magazine to help the unemployed as well as the homeless.
But I gave them a call and started out about five months ago with someone else who was new too. It made it so much easier and I started to enjoy it.
I was starting to sell copies and seeing the same faces each day and having a chat. I started reading The Big Issue and thinking, It’s not just a deadbeat magazine, it’s got some good stuff in it.
I’ve now got something to look forward to each day, and I love selling the magazine on the street. It gives me the chance to be around people and talk to them. Sometimes I have conversations with people for half an hour.
Homeless people or the unemployed can sell The Big Issue. We buy the magazines for $2 and then sell them for $4, so we’re doubling the money. The magazine has been running for 10 years in Australia and it’s sold about 1.5 million copies in that time.
I mainly sell on Oxford Street near Whitlam Square. I also sell in Newtown on Saturdays. I try to sell four or five days a week. Sometimes I get a negative response from people as a Big Issue vendor, but only very rarely.
After four months with The Big Issue I was asked to be a recruitment officer with them. I do talks about the magazine and about drugs, alcohol and homelessness. I love it.
I go to refuges, homeless shelters and also schools. I educate people about The Big Issue and show them that they could be making some money to help their situation.
I went to an all-girls private school to give a talk the other day. I was a bit apprehensive but I gave a bit of a speech. Four young girls came up afterwards and said they hoped everything worked out for me.
A week later one of the same girls came up to me in Newtown and said hi. It made me feel really acknowledged.
The Big Issue has really changed my life. I was very negative because I’d had so many ups and downs. Because I get talking to people and people actually listen, it’s helped me a lot to grow.
It’s helped me a lot in holding onto money. It’s made me hang on and think, I need something for tomorrow, instead of thinking, It’s only money, what’s the use?
I’ve got a steady place to live and it looks like I’ll stay there for a while. I’ve also kicked my drug and alcohol habit in the last few years.
I’m 44 and until now I’ve had no inspiration to better myself. I’ve started to realise that life goes on and that I can maybe accomplish a lot. I want to do welfare studies next year and keep going up the ladder.
Selling the magazine has led me to believe that I can do something because I’ve still got a long way ahead of me. I’ve got a future still. It doesn’t stop here.
Interview by Ian Gould