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When we see someone experiencing homelessness, we often take that snapshot of the person’s life and call it the whole story. Freeze framing someone’s life at those random moments can feed judgement, condemnation and despair. We are all more than a series of moments, we are all human and we all have infinite worth. At St Bart’s we see the whole story.

Mere generously offered to share her story, one that she describes humbly as a ‘journey’.

How do you go from being a teacher’s assistant for 17 years, with a home and four beautiful daughters, to living rough on the streets and out of your car for more than two years? For Mere, it only took a few life events, and she was thrown into the depths of homelessness. Her recount below is one of hardship, hope and true inspiration.

“In the wild ride of 2020 and 2021, life threw me some curveballs that felt like a rollercoaster in a storm. My four daughters graduated, waving goodbye to high school. I felt proud but there was also an emptiness that came with it. I’d been a teacher’s assistant for 17 years, working at the same school where my daughters attended, so it was bittersweet not having them there with me anymore.

There was no preparation for what was about to happen. I was hit with serious health issues that required major surgery and was forced to resign from my job. I was the ordained Minister for the Māori community in Perth at the time, which I was very dedicated to, but I was stretched thin, burning the candle at both ends. I needed a breather, a timeout to sort out my physical and mental health. So, I applied for sabbatical leave to get my head together. Little did I know that break would toss me into the deep end of homelessness.

I was living at my partner’s place, but he was having his own struggles becoming blind in both eyes, he was forced to go back to his family to assist him with this awful card he’d been dealt. With no job and no home, I had nowhere to go.

Experiencing homelessness was something I never thought I would ever be faced with. Couch surfing and trying to share houses became this crazy saga of resilience. Every day felt like writing a new page in a book where the plot was always uncertain.

I ended up living in my car for two years. Two years! I would drive around the southern suburbs, trying to figure things out. Centrelink payments were capped at $230 a week from the Department of Housing. Rentals were not only impossible to come by, but they were completely unaffordable. Summer of 2022 hit, and it wasn’t just the heat making life unbearable. Self-care became this uphill battle, and safety was a luxury as strangers approached my car in the dead of night. It was too hot to sleep with the windows up and the safety bubble of my car was no longer there.

In the midst of this struggle, I stumbled upon a night shelter for women. I cycled through it three times, getting more and more frustrated. The streets were tough, but I couldn’t function in that shelter life either. I bounced around various services, until finally, I was offered the opportunity to stay at St Bart’s.

Transitioning from the streets to a shelter wasn’t easy. It was like stepping into a new world. It sounds strange, but after being out in the open and on your own for so long, it’s a big adjustment. But I was welcomed with open arms and no judgement, and I built a strong rapport with the ladies at the St Bart’s Women’s Service.

Nine months here has changed everything for me. The Pathway to Employment at St Bart’s led me into the mining field as a 777 Dump Truck Driver with Red Dog Mining. A 2:2 roster became my new rhythm, and this chance became my ticket to financial stability. I could never have possibly imagined that I would be driving a dump truck on a gold mine!

The mining gig wasn’t just a job; it was a lifeline to rebuilding. My “I can do!” attitude and integrity earned me a spot as a confident team member. For the first time in a long time, I felt valued, that I was an asset. I am well respected as part of the team, it’s like a family up there. I am now taking one step at a time. I am just about to purchase a new car for myself, so I won’t have to worry about constant repairs. I am now eyeing a bigger goal for the future – applying for a key start loan to get my own place.

Inspired by my own journey, I have kicked off the Street Present Program. It’s about urging others in the same boat to find their independence, to not just survive but to thrive. St Bart’s has saved my life.

After the storms in life wash away the grit and grime, the sun shines bright. I will continue to press forward and kick goals with humbleness and integrity. The best part? My girls. They mean the world to me and being able to spend time with them and be a role model for them, knowing that I am a good mum and I have done everything I can is truly humbling.

And you know what? That’s the real deal.”

Mere Rukuata

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