"Work was hard. I was living with a constant poker face. I would make phone calls in the building’s fire stairwell to secure a bed each night, then go back in to the office and lead a team."
I curled up, rolled over and opened my eyes. I was looking at a TV. To the left of the TV was a vase of fake flowers; to the right lay a pile of old magazines.
I was sleeping on a friend’s couch. This wasn’t the first time either.
It took me a while to realise, but I was homeless.
“How could I be homeless?”, I remember thinking. I showered every day. I didn’t sleep in a park. I wasn’t begging for money.
This type of homelessness is so invisible, even I wasn’t aware I was living in it.
I had just split up with my boyfriend of three-and-a-half years. I often found myself in dangerous and self-destructive situations and owed the bank thousands of dollars. There was no way I could have gone home to my family. Home wasn’t a safe place and I had nowhere else to go.
After living on her couch for a few nights, it came as no surprise when my friend told me that the pressure had become too much and it was time for me to leave. She ended up taking me to a place called Oasis Youth Support Network in Surry Hills, Sydney.
I felt anxious, ashamed and alone. I’d never imagined that, at 20 years of age, I’d be here. I was moved to a 50-bed women’s refuge run by The Salvation Army because the beds at Oasis were full. I was grateful but absolutely terrified. This was never where I wanted to be.
I had been living at the refuge for a while when I got a job as Team Leader of an Administration Support Team at a pretty big law firm. Up until this point, I’d never really believed in myself and was surprised and excited when I landed this gig.
Things were finally looking up. But I suddenly ended up having to leave the refuge. I was back to couch-surfing. Again.
Throughout it all, I somehow managed to keep my job. In fact, for almost a year, my work colleagues didn’t even know I was homeless.
Work was hard. I was living with a constant poker face. I would tell my colleagues and others I met that I lived in the CBD and they thought I was doing really well for myself. The reality was very different. I would make phone calls in the building’s fire stairwell to secure a bed each night, then go back in to the office and lead a team. It was far easier to keep my homelessness a secret, to not risk judgment and be taken seriously as a young professional. It was hard, but the Salvos continued to work behind the scenes, providing support, regular coaching and consistency in my life.
Oasis, and other services like it, offer suffering young people like me far more than just a bed. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to address my mental health issues, gain confidence, stability and a great support network. For the first time in my life I really felt what it was like to have a family.
Mother Teresa once said, “We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty”.
Through my experience, I learned that every night there are more than 44,000 young Australians under the age of 25 who are homeless. The scariest thing is that homelessness can take many different forms. Couch-surfing is often just the first step in the cycle. There are thousands of young people who aren’t getting the support I did and who may never get that support.
In overcoming homelessness, I realised that life is about living for a purpose bigger than myself. Pain is so easy to bury, but bringing painful experiences to light can be a great thing – especially if it can play a part in giving others a fighting chance to heal. This is why I share my story.
The thing is, you don’t have to be houseless to be homeless. Homelessness might not look how you expect it to, and couch surfing taught me this first hand.
Just because there is a roof over your head doesn’t mean you have the start to life every young person deserves.
You can help The Salvation Army combat youth homelessness by supporting 'The Couch Project' and sleeping on your couch on September 13. Get more information here.
Bee Orsini is a schools liaison, presenter and workshop facilitator for The Salvation Army’s Education and Outreach Initiative. She has shared the stage with The Dalai Lama, Sir Richard Branson and run workshops at the Positive Schools Conferences. You can watch her TedX Talk 'The Unexpected Face of Homelessness' here.