Anyone can become homeless.
Anyone can become homeless. contributed

It can happen to anyone: the reality of sleeping rough

YOU have 50 cents in the bank, no place to sleep and the weather is turning nasty.

Where do you go? What do you do?

This is the reality faced by many of Bundaberg's homeless population - an invisible group who have struggled to make ends meet.

Forget squabbling with your family about what's on TV that night, these people are scouting out a safe place to rest their head.

"You're constantly battling to find a dry place or a safe place to sleep, especially when it starts to rain," Kaithleen, a 35-year-old, tells me.

For her, a problem as simple as not having adequate photo identification spiralled into life on the streets and the first night she slept rough was tough on her mentally.

"I didn't sleep that first night. Weird things go through your head," she said.

"It was scary because you think, 'Where am I going to stay? Am I going to find a safe place to sleep? Are the police going to come along and arrest me?'"

Generally Kaithleen said she would stick to areas near buildings, even though it often meant sleeping on cold concrete, because she felt safer.

"If I stayed in an area that sort of had security people going around it ... I was more protected than if I slept in the bush, under a tree or in a field," she said.

Aside from finding somewhere to sleep, the next hurdle becomes feeding your rumbling tummy.

Kaithleen said she became used to surviving on very little, eating maybe once a day, twice if she was lucky, and learning to ration on the weekends when there were no soup kitchens operating.

She said she lasted a week on what little money she had left in the bank, buying homebrand items from the supermarket and heating pies on outdoor barbecues, before her money dwindled.

"You couldn't buy a big carton of milk or anything because you didn't have anywhere to store it.

"On a weekday you can get free lunches but on the weekend there is nothing. You're left to your own devices. You learn to not live on a lot."

Kaithleen said she would shower two to three times a week to make herself feel decent, but the process of washing what little clothes she had was slightly more difficult and often involved a cake of soap.

The thing about Kaithleen is that she could be any one of us. She is not a drug addict, a gambler or alcoholic. She simply fell victim to the unemployment merry-go-round.

Life before the streets was vastly different for Kaithleen. She was working on an island in the Whitsundays as a cleaner when the resort got into trouble.

"Guests were really starting to get very vocal about the state of their rooms," she said, unable to tell them the resort was in financial difficulty.

That was four years ago and it was the last full-time job she has been able to obtain. She has done bits and pieces during that time, but nothing substantial, and soon found herself with only enough money for one more week's rent.

"It was heartbreaking to know that I put myself in a situation that I had to move out of the house that I was in,'' Kaithleen said.

The last time she paid rent she knew she would have to move, rather than go into debt. "I thought, 'Okay, that's it. That's the last of the rent I can afford to pay.' I packed up my belongings and tried to put what I could in waterproof bags.''

Pride, she says, is a a major stumbling block. "It's embarrassing to say I haven't had a decent meal in three or four days, give us 20 bucks. You can't bring yourself to say it," she said.

"I don't think people realise how close they are (to homelessness) or how lucky they are.''

She said some people showed her kindness, but rarely delved below the surface.

"People would ask how you were and if you were all right if they saw you walking around the streets at 5.30 in the morning. But it wasn't, 'This is ridiculous, you shouldn't be sleeping out, come with me'. "

Now, thanks to a friendship she has struck up with a Centrelink employee, Kaithleen is in a one-bedroom unit and searching for work.

If there's one thing she could say to people, it's this: "If you can see someone isn't okay, don't just walk away, try and get them the help that they need."