The gentle wave that helps float you forward

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Val has a big smile. He is articulate and intelligent. His eyes are bright, and he looks great. On the surface, you would never know his trauma.  

Val had a very tough childhood. As a teenager he tried to stay active to deal with his hurt, including  Aussie Rules football, martial arts and swimming which he particularly loved. Val explains. “Swimming took me to a peaceful and calm place.  You can’t swim properly with an unsettled mind. You need a calm rhythm”   

Smart and ambitious, on leaving school, Val worked in banking and finance and studied Economics for a time at Melbourne University. However, in his early twenties, his mental health cut short his aspirations and career. 

What followed was close to 20 years of insecure and unsafe housing, homelessness and drug use, eventually leading to the physical and psychosocial complexities resulting from his long-term homelessness.  

For many years Val refused help. His turning point was about five years ago.  One day when sleeping rough in the Fitzroy Gardens he watched people walking to work. He wanted some of that life.   

When Val connected with cohealth, a community health organisation, Val was very sick. He was self-detoxing while homeless, battling HIV infection and struggling with his mental health. The connection was a life saver. Cohealth referred Val to St Vincents Hospital for his HIV care, who in turn referred Val to Unison for housing. Val had been rejected by several community housing organisations previously. Unison offered him his first home in 14 years.   

“The year I moved in was dark,” Val explains. “I was unwell, detoxing and coming to the realisation of what my life had been and what I had done to myself over the years. It took me about 18 months to settle and feel safe in my home.”    

Housing brought Val stability and a safe place to get well. He was able to get his physical and mental health supports in place, focus on his health and make new connections. 

“I can’t imagine where I’d be without housing. I don’t think I would be alive if I hadn’t been given housing when I did."

"The stability of a home that is my own has allowed me to commence building a new life. It is a slow process, but with a lot of support I am moving forward; step by step. My greatest fear is to become homeless again. 

Val has been with Unison for four and a half years. He is in a great location close to shops, health services and parkland. It is the first time since he was six years old that Val has felt safe, and he explains how he feels. “I have more clarity and compassion. I can deal with my anger and pain. I now have the opportunity to do what I wanted to do when I was young, and I have devoted myself to my studies." 

And what an impressive list of qualifications and current studies Val has; courses in alcohol and other drugs, client care and infection control, comorbidity, HIV peer support and community services. He is hoping to find work placement at the end of the year and either work in homelessness outreach or with an HIV service. He already engages with cohealth in a number of community activities. 

“I no longer see myself as a worthless homeless junkie.

"I see myself as a person with hope…… like most people. I am making good choices to live a life that is best for me."  

Yes, life has its challenges, but I am able to work through my challenges now. I know I am not a failure."  

Val stresses the importance of housing and wrap around support for people who have complex needs.   

“If the housing crisis is not addressed, more people will present like I did. It takes a lot of time, effort and supports to heal.” 

He adds that just giving someone a roof over their head won’t fix the problem. Service collaboration and teamwork is critical. “When attendees applauded my story at a recent healthcare conference, they were applauding Unison Housing, cohealth, St Vincents and the other services who continue to support me.” 

As Val eloquently puts it;

“Wrap around services are a combined force. It’s like a gentle wave that picks you up and helps float you forward.” 

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