What I learned from living homeless for 24 hours

To gain a deeper appreciation and to raise awareness for those experiencing homelessness, David Murray, Buildxact CEO, took on the Roughin’ It Challenge.

 

On Saturday the 17th of April, I undertook the Roughin’ It challenge, established by Launch Housing, an independent Melbourne-based community organisation passionately committed to ending homelessness.  

The challenge required me to spend 24 hours in conditions that would give me a deeper appreciation for those that experience homelessness. Every night in Victoria, approximately 24,000 people don’t sleep in a bed, or in their usual bed. Homelessness can occur for many reasons, many of them uncontrollable for the person experiencing it.  

For the challenge, I had no bed, one bag of belongings, and only $10 to survive on. I had to carry everything that needed in my bag, excluding food, and keep it with me the whole time. The $10 was to cover my food or anything else I might need like transport or Panadol.  

Before I tell you about my experience, I’d like to sincerely thank everyone who donated to the fundraiser. Because of your generosity, I raised over $4,300 for the homeless in Melbourne, far surpassing the $1,000 target I set myself. Thank you!  

 

My challenge experience  

On Saturday morning I prepared my bag for the 24 hours ahead, starting at 1pm Saturday to 1pm Sunday. In my bag, I packed a sleeping bag, towel, toothbrush, toothpaste, torch, spare jumper, spare t-shirt, utility knife, water bottle, reading glasses, and a book.  

I left home just after 12pm and made my way along the Yarra River from my house in Malvern East to the city. As I was making my way in, a challenge SMS came in from the Roughin’ It organizers telling me I couldn’t use public transport.  

This was a problem.  

My plan was to arrive at the top end of the city and use the free tram service to make my way around the city to meet with people experiencing homelessness and understand their stories.  

Instead, I had to walk. I live about 10km (6.2mi) from the city, so by the time I started out to meet people, I already had done a fair bit of walking.  

As I walked around the city, I met with several people experiencing homelessness. All but one of the people I spoke to was surprised that I stopped to speak with them. In fact, one person got a fright when I spoke to them. The lady said I surprised her when I spoke to her because nobody normally speaks to them.  

I decided I would give each homeless person I spoke to $10 to spend on whatever they liked. Seven of the eight people said that they would use it to find shelter that night, to have a shower, and have a warm place to sleep. The lady who didn’t need it for a place to sleep was asking for money to see her son who is in prison in Ballarat.  

My emotions in speaking with each of these people were initially nervous, approaching each person with wariness, unsure what response I would get. My attitude quickly changed as it became clear, I had nothing to be concerned about.  

One person I spoke to was just grateful to have someone to talk to. When I asked him if he was going OK, he smiled at me and said, “Yeah, I’m doing OK, nothing to complain about.” Here was a person sitting near Flinders Street station with blankets around him and a few bags containing his belongings and he was saying he had nothing to complain about.  

I met another person who was selling the Big Issue magazine. For those unfamiliar, the Big Issue is an independent magazine sold on the streets by people experiencing homelessness, marginalisation, and disadvantage. Vendors earn 50% of each magazine sold.  

I purchased one and spent 15 minutes talking with this lovely lady who was curious about me hiking around the city. I didn’t tell her what I was doing but rather asked her about her experiences in hiking. The lady took great pride in telling me about her walking trips to Mount Stirling and Cradle Mountain. I left the conversation feeling energized as I hadn’t expected to have a conversation like that on my travels. It made me change my perspective on the people who sell the Big Issue. I have always purchased the magazine but have never stopped to speak with them – I will do so going forward.  

 

“I left the conversation feeling energized as I hadn’t expected to have a conversation like that on my travels. It made me change my perspective on the people who sell the Big Issue.” 

 

After walking around Swanston Street, Flinders Street, and Collins Street, surprisingly, I couldn’t find anyone else to talk to. It was about 4pm and I decided to walk up to Marvel Stadium and see if the football was being televised on the big outside screen as I didn’t know what to do with myself. Where do I go?  

Regrettably, the game wasn’t shown. It was about 4:40pm so I decided I would make my way home.  

By now, I was thinking seriously about what to do for dinner. It had been playing on my mind for days leading up to the challenge – what am I going to eat? As the day wore on, I thought about it more and more. How do you eat three meals on $10 when I spend $15 on a sandwich most days in the office!?

 

“How do you eat three meals on $10 when I spend $15 on a sandwich most days in the office?”  

 

I went to the supermarket and purchased a piece of ham, a piece of cheese, and one tomato. I had already purchased a roll from a bakery on my way in which cost me $0.50. So, dinner cost me $2.28!  

The walk home was along the river. It was a balmy evening, and the experience was actually really enjoyable. It was during this time I reflected on the conversations I had with the people experiencing homelessness. Two areas converged from the discussions and my observation.  

Firstly, they are sitting there with the world passing by with no one interacting with them, so how do they feel? It must be hard to keep focused. To have a positive outlook. To have hope.  

Secondly, the constant need for money is evident. When I asked if the money I had given would help, they said it would, but they needed more. Giving food or other gifts to them in isolation is not what they need, they need money to purchase what they decide they need to get by.  

I stopped in a park to have my dinner. It was hardly filling. By this stage I had walked about 23km (14.3mi) so far that day, carrying all my belongings. My stress levels were also raised and as a result, I was getting pretty tired.  

As I approached home, I received an SMS from the Roughin‘ It organizers advising I had received an act of kindness and could buy myself a treat. This gave me a boost!  

I was nearing my local bottle shop and decided I would treat myself to a refreshing beer. The lady in the shop who I know by face only (I’m not an alcoholic, but I do go in this shop frequently enough), asked me what I was doing.  

I explained to her and showed her the fundraising page and my efforts in raising funds. I also said I was getting a beer because of the act of kindness, to which she said, “Screw that, get a bottle of scotch!  

I declined the suggestion as I didn’t think that was quite in the spirit of the act of kindness.  

Here’s the thing with this part of my story.  

I needed that beer.  

I was tired, mentally and physically, but it gave me a lift because of the pleasure associated with having a drink, which came unexpectedly. I know that I have judged people living on the street for taking money and spending it on alcohol and drugs. But here I was, doing the same thing.  

In fact, many of us do that after a hard day’s work, or some other emotionally difficult thing such as the passing of a loved one. Yet, people on the street experience emotional stress every day, so why shouldn’t they seek a stress reliever in the form of alcohol? Why do I judge them for doing that?  

 

“Yet, the people on the street experience emotional stress every day,
so why shouldn’t they seek a stress reliever in the form of alcohol?”
  

 

Now, I’m not saying advocating to have drunk people living on the street is a good thing, but we need to do more to help these people get back into the services that can help them. For me to judge them for escaping the pain and stress they are in is simply wrong. I have a deeper appreciation for their situation now.  

I finally made it to my destination, exhausted.  

It was 8:15pm and I had been out and about walking for eight hours and clocked up 28km (17.3 miles). The rules of Roughin’ It meant that I had to sleep outside but in a secure location.  

I set my sleeping bag up on the pavers outside, better the pavers which are hard, than the cold grass which will get damp. During the day, I had received a text that I needed to set my alarm for 2am so I could wake up and move my bed at least two meters. This was to simulate what a person living on the street would experience if it started to rain and they had no shelter.  

I brushed my teeth, got into my sleeping bag, and crashed – it was 9pm! 

My attempts at sleeping were interrupted by possums, dogs barking, the pool pump turning on, the bright moonlight sky, the hard ground, and the fact I couldn’t fully relax because I had no shelter over me.  

I woke at 12:45am and moved my bed to another part of the property, again on pavers. Bearing in mind, I had to always keep my bag close to me, also simulating a person sleeping on the street.  

At 6am I got up. I was both tired and sore.  

The first thing to enter my mind was food. I had to get to the supermarket to buy breakfast as I was on a tight schedule. Before I had committed to do the Roughin’ It challenge, I had already committed to be the goal umpire for my daughter’s football at 8am.  

Packing everything back in my bag, I set off feeling many aches and pains from the walking the day before and sleeping on the hard ground, but the rumble in my stomach was motivation to get to the shop.  

Keeping in mind my tight budget, here is what I had for breakfast.  

Now, I love a coffee in the morning. Thank God for 7-Eleven $1 coffee!  

With the money I spent on dinner, breakfast, and coffee, I had $2 left. While I knew I only had to get to 1pm, my anxiety went up significantly. If I had to go another day, how would I go about it again? I couldn’t eat another ham, cheese, and tomato roll. How would I get a hot meal? Even though it was a simulation so to speak, it really made me anxious.  

As I walked to my daughter’s football game, I pondered how this must be for people experiencing homelessness. It must lead to acts of desperation, to feeling hopeless. Living hand to mouth. But this is also the extreme of people experiencing homelessness.  

In Victoria, 24,000 people are experiencing it every night in some form – how do they cope? How do the kids cope? How do they feel not knowing where they will be sleeping tonight or getting their next hot meal?  

I had received another SMS. No mobile phone use from 9am to 1pm! Great, no music, no YouTube, no communication with anyone.  

I arrived early at the football ground so I sat out of eyesight to pass the time. Why did I do this? I was embarrassed about what people who knew me would say about how I looked and what I was doing.  

This feeling was bizarre. I wasn’t homeless, I wasn’t any different from the last time they saw me, all I had was a backpack with me that I would have to explain. Somehow, the impact of sleeping outside, worrying about my food had impacted my strength of character and self-worth.  

Those that know me well will recognize this is very unusual, but it had a real impact. If it had the impact on me experiencing what I did for one night, how would it be if I had to do it for a week?  

 

“Somehow, the impact of sleeping outside, worrying about my food had impacted my strength of character and self-worth.” 

 

As I waited, one of the other dads walked past and asked me what I was up to. This was a good conversation, he was really engaged with what I was doing and thought it was a great initiative.  

We approached the other dads at the ground, and I walked up to four fathers that I have known for many years. One of them immediately asked me what I was up to having the big backpack. As I explained, three of the four guys switched off. They weren’t interested in hearing what I had to say from my experience the day before.  

This shocked me and to be honest, I found it appalling. With attitudes like this from people who can make an impact, it will be very difficult to make a major change. For me, this is about education and awareness. They clearly have a preconceived idea about homelessness that needs recalibration, as I needed.  

I umpired the game, always keeping my backpack with me. Following the game, my wife and daughter left me at the park. It was 10am.  

Now what am I going to do?  

I had three hours to kill. I decided to go back to the park bench I was waiting at before the game. Now if anyone knows Gardiners Creek, it is a busy place on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Walkers, runners, bike riders, skateboards, scooters, you name it, all of it goes along the creek path.  

There I was, sitting on a park bench with a backpack, reading my book. How self-conscious did I feel! I also felt lost. I didn’t like being looked at as people went past, I didn’t like sitting there with nothing to do, no money, and no access to my mobile. It was very isolating.  

 

“I also felt lost. I didn’t like being looked at as people went past, I didn’t like sitting there with nothing to do, no money, and no access to my mobile. It was very isolating.” 

 

Around midday, I started walking towards home. I took a longer way than the direct route to my house. This included going past a bakery and buying two party pies with my remaining $2.  

I arrived home at about 12:45pm, relieved to be there. Over the 24 hours, I had walked 42km (26.1mi) on not much fuel. I dropped my bag and hugged my family. It was awesome to be home and able to use all the comforts the home brings.  

—  

This is an experience I will never forget.  

It has changed my views on homelessness and those that experience it massively.  

My request to those that read this now is to do one thing. To tell five people about what I experienced and visit the Roughin It website. This will help raise the awareness as my goal is to do this again next year and rather than 500 people do it like this year, we have 5,000!  

You can read more about homelessness here.

This is the first activity that I’ve done with Launch Housing, but it won’t be the last. As CEO at Buildxact, I see many exciting opportunities to bring together our residential builders with Launch Housing, helping to provide support for those experiencing homelessness. Watch this space!