This week is Homelessness Week in Australia. It's a timely reminder that more than 116,000 Australians are living without a permanent home. The following is one man's account how his life turned upside down in an instant. Please note, this story contains sensitive content. For support call 131 114, text 0477 131 114 or chat online with www.lifeline.org.au.
Just another member of the community
Former truck driver and volunteer, Toby (not his real name) never imagined he would end up homeless.
"I was working as a public servant and in private security," Toby said.
"I spent 18 years with CFA volunteering on the road and rescue team too.
"I was part of the Black Saturday effort and as a result I developed PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) as well as anxiety and depression.
"PTSD is a huge factor as to why I am homeless."
The 40-year-old said his life slowly unravelled after seeing the horrific scenes of Black Saturday in 2009.
It was in 2012, during a bushfire in the Grampians National Park that his PTSD set in.
"I was driving trucks for Victoria police ... then stuff started to happen," he said.
There are a lot of triggers ... I deal with that on a constant basis
"I went from a decent wage to f**k all.
"Then I met someone and moved in with them; I was paying what rent I could on Newstart allowance.
"That breaks down ... Now I have to pay for accommodation, travel, medication, and put food on the table while on $525 a fortnight.
"No wonder people end up on the street."
Unable to make ends meet, Toby ended up sleeping in his car.
"You park your car in the bush... park it somewhere where you feel safe enough," he said.
"It's not a place you want to be in the middle of winter.
"What works today might not work tomorrow."
An untreated psychological condition and mounting pressure weighed heavily on Toby.
"When you live in your car, where do you shower? How do you sort out your personal hygiene?" he said.
"I have nightmares, and when you wake up in the middle of the night, you can't sleep and you just feel unsafe.
"I did attempt suicide."
Light at the end of the tunnel
Fortunately, Toby was able to make contact with Grampians Community Health, who secured emergency accommodation for him.
"I have a roof above my head at the moment, which means I can cook, shower and sleep securely," he said.
"I still need to travel to Ballarat to see my psychologist and I have to travel to the Austin hospital to see my psychologist.
"I don't get any financial assistance from CFA; I put my life on the line for 18 years and I get no help from them.
"I know I'm not the only one (from CFA) that is in this situation, and to be honest, it is f**king crap.
"You know, no one should have to put their life on the line and then have to drag their ass into Centrelink.
"I didn't do it for medals or certificates - I did it for the community. Now I'm left not feeling right."
To help with his PTSD, Toby has a service dog, Lilly.
"She's helped me more than anything," he said.
"I'm sensitive to medication, so she is my medication on four legs.
"She picks up on my cortisol levels; when I have a nightmare, she sits on my chest like a weighted blanket, to bring me out of my nightmares."
A long journey ahead
Toby admits some days he cannot put a sentence together due to his PTSD.
"I've been flat for the past couple of weeks because of the social distancing," he said.
"But today I am good because the sun is out.
"There are a lot of triggers - the sound of a screaming kid might set me off, or even someone's perfume of aftershave might set me off.
"I deal with that on a constant basis."
When you live in your car, where do you shower? How do you sort out your personal hygiene?
To help with his PTSD, Toby has undergone a number of different treatments, including cognitive behaviour therapy, equine therapy and transcranial magnetic stimulation.
"Last year, when I just got my emergency housing, I had to go into the psych ward for treatment," he said.
"It meant I had to stay in the ward for eight weeks. I was lucky to have this house when I came back, but that plays on my mind"
"What happens if I have to go in for more treatment?
"I think there should be more public housing for people. The waiting list for public housing is quite long ... and it will get bigger and bigger due to COVID-19."
Toby said the pandemic has made his life more difficult, because it ruins his much-needed daily routine.
"PTSD is non curable - when you've got it, you're stuck with it," he lamented.
"For most of us, it's a struggle to get up early in the morning. To have an appointment, where you have to travel, creates that routine.
"All of the sudden this pandemic comes in and there goes your structure. Everything goes to phone appointments now."
The CFA responds
Jo Crabtree, the Victorian CFA acting executive director of people, culture and safety, said it was disheartening to hear Toby's story.
"CFA devotes significant resources to awareness, prevention and treatment services," she said.
"While we have had psychological support in place since the Ash Wednesday bushfires, we saw a spike in mental health issues amongst our members following the Black Saturday fires.
"This led to us adopting a new psychological first aid approach after 2009. Today peer support teams are deployed to major incidents."
Ms Crabtree said CFA provide a range of free resources to support the mental health of our members and their immediate families https://www.cfa.vic.gov.au/health-and-wellbeing.
"Depending on the individual and the circumstances, these can include free psychological counselling, support for psychological recovery, specialised clinical advice, one-on-one visits through our Chaplaincy program, peer support, wellbeing training or coaching," she said.
"Compensation is available to volunteers and auxiliary workers who sustain a personal injury (including psychological) or medical condition as a result of service as a member of CFA.
"This compensation scheme is established under CFA legislation and is designed to support injured volunteers.
"These benefits include loss of income or earnings and reasonable medical and associated expenses such as hospital, ambulance, rehabilitation and travel costs."
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