‘Finally, I don’t fear the future’

Sitting in her family home Serena* can now, for the first time in almost five years, plan for a safe and secure future for herself and for her children. “I’ve had this heavyweight lifted off of me because now I’ve got a home and it’s mine and. No one can take that away from me,” she says. But things were very different for Serena when the COVID-19 pandemic began.

As Victoria entered its first COVID lockdown in 2020, Serena and her children found themselves victims of the state’s housing crisis. Forced to vacate her rental property so the owners could complete renovations, Serena, who couldn’t bear the thought of her children, then seven and two, living in a car, made the heart wrenching decision to place them in her now ex-husband’s care.

“It was such a difficult time to find myself homeless,” said Serena. “Things were so uncertain and changing all the time. I tried everything but application after application for a home was knocked back. I know I was not in the minority, but it was really awful. My life wasn’t heading anywhere good.”

As she attempted to navigate the maze of new and everchanging policies and pre-approvals required for rental properties at this time, Serena relied heavily on support from her new partner’s family, who paid for them to stay in a caravan park. However as the rules and regulations around housing continued to change, Serena was again forced into emergency accommodation.

At the height of the pandemic, she was sleeping on friends’ couches, living out of her car and even taking a tent into bushland. In order to see her children every fortnight, Serena spent what little money she had paying for motel rooms.

Over time, her new relationship eventually turned abusive, marred by family violence and drug use. In addition to these challenges, she also braved a number of historic and debilitating medical issues, including a knee injury, which caused her chronic and unbearable pain.

“There were days when I could barely stand or get up steps because I was in so much pain, but like any mum, I had to prioritise my kids’ needs. I would just grin and bear it.”

It was at this time, and due to her unstable situation, that Serena’s ex-husband was awarded full custody of their children.

“Losing the kids was unbearable, but my ex had a stable environment compared to what I was living in, so that made sense. I became very depressed and really started to believe that my children were better off without me. I believed I had failed them because I couldn’t even put a roof over my head.”

Serena eventually found refuge living with her brother, a relationship that soured after her sister died, and she found herself homeless yet again. During this time Serena connected with Community Services in Maryborough and learned that she qualified for the Homes 4 Families Program. The Program, funded by the Victorian Government and facilitated by McAuley, supported families who had escaped family violence and were residing in crisis accommodation during the COVID-19 lockdowns, into safe and secure, long-term housing with wrap-around personalised support.

“When they told me that I qualified for the program, I jumped at the opportunity to be able to get my own place and get back on my feet. I want to be a good role model for my kids and hopefully get them back living with me in the future.”

It wasn’t long after that Serena was told she had been accepted into the Homes for Families program, and that she would finally have a home of her own.

“It was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had,” said Serena. “It was like I had a heavy weight lifted off me and I finally saw a slither of hope that things would get better. Someone was looking out for me that day, it was exactly what I needed.”

The Homes 4 Families program provided Serena with a fully-furnished three-bedroom home, and a McAuley caseworker supported her to build a new life. In particular, McAuley helped Serena to identify and access the medical services she so desperately needed including dental, podiatry and physiotherapy. The program has also provided funding for Serena to receive a much needed MRI and access to a surgeon who will finally put an end to her chronic knee pain.

“These are all things I couldn’t have accessed without McAuley’s support. Before I had a permanent address I couldn’t even get a doctor to see me. Once I was in the program, it was my caseworker who suggested I should see some specialists. Now I’m closer to normality, physically, than ever before and I know that I can put myself first sometimes and I don’t have to feel bad about it.”

Thanks to her improved health and wellbeing, Serena now has a job where she feels valued and is recognised for her hard work and while her children still remain living with her ex-husband, she hopes to one day have them live with her again.

“I’m hoping to be able to get the kids living with me again, but even if I can’t, just knowing that they now have their own bedrooms and their own spaces and a backyard to play in is incredible. Knowing that I can give that to them changes everything.”

Serena has come to consider her McAuley caseworker a close and trusted friend and is confident that she now has a strong and stable foundation to build a future on.

“I am eternally grateful for being accepted into the Homes 4 Families program,” said Serena. “It’s saved my relationship with my kids. There are lots of reasons people become homeless. For me it was COVID, but these days everyone is living paycheque to paycheque. One small thing can change and suddenly you lose everything. Without these programs more and more people will end up like I was. I haven’t felt safe in almost five years, but today I do. Finally I don’t fear the future.”

*Name changed