No one grows up wanting to be homeless, but the unfortunate fact is that 1 in 6 Australians will experience homelessness in their lifetime.*
People who are experiencing homelessness in one form or another are struggling, they don’t want to be thought of as bad people or ignored, it could happen to anyone. They’ve just fallen on hard times; people have ended up on the streets for many different reasons often through no fault of their own, particularly during COVID.
Forty-Four year old Brisbane North Team Leader Len McCandless understands this more than most – he lived on the streets during his formative teenage years – and he doesn’t think enough attention is being paid to homelessness in Australia.
After being removed from an abusive home, he was shuttled between 47 foster homes and a dozen institutions in just five years, eventually leaving the system at the tender age of 13, because for him, living on the street was the safer, more stable option.
“I think there needs to be more acknowledgement and awareness so we can help prevent it (homelessness) and offer better support to people who fall on hard times,” he said. “The government funding isn’t enough to pay rent and start to get ahead.”
Len started volunteering for Rosies four years ago while unemployed as a way to give back to the community and get some experience on his resume.
At first, he said the employment agency didn’t like him doing volunteer work, but he believed it gave him experience to help him gain employment (Len is now a mental health support worker, primarily caring for those with a disability and autism) and gave him a purpose by being able to give back to the community.
He said while he was living on the street, services like Drug Arm and Rosies were the only thing that gave him some sort of social interaction and stability in his life – two things he said he never had, homeless or not.
“I think of the people who visit us at Rosies as the forgotten Australians, these are people who haven’t had things work out for them for whatever reason and have no one else to turn to,” he said.
“I can relate to them because I’ve been in their shoes and I know that sometimes it just takes a bit of advice or the right conversation to help you break the cycle.”
It is because of individuals like Len that Rosies sends their dedicated team of volunteers out each night to offer friendship and community for those who need it most.
Of his life between patron and volunteer Len said things were interesting for him – breaking the cycle was about trying to re-teach himself different values. He said having set goals helped, but it was a challenge. While Len was a ward of the state he had no one to rely on, so he said he decided to teach himself the value of better living and got his own accommodation.
“I had lived a life full of mistakes and then I started a self-discovery of what I was doing wrong. I then did a Diploma of Community Service and a Diploma of Alcohol and Other Drugs (Mental Health). The diplomas put me in a position in life where I’m now proud of my achievements.”
Through all the challenges that he experienced, Len is uniquely equipped to provide comfort and support to those that visit with us. Len shared a story of a recent outreach: “I was on my way back to the train station and saw someone camping out behind some shops, alone in the cold. I went back to the van and got a sleeping bag to take down to them to provide some comfort, because I know something like that can make all the difference.”
He said services like Rosies give people a sense of community, which is hard when you have had no stability, have been in institutions and lost a lot of trust in the system and people in general.
On the importance of outreach Len said “you’re not just meeting volunteers, but other people like you. People who have experienced the same hardships and know what it’s like to go it alone”
“Volunteering with Rosies is also part of my journey to socially interact with people. I never had that when I was younger, so I get a lot out of it to this day. I’m helping people who really need it,” he said.