“The man in the mirror, I didn’t know who he was. I couldn’t have a mirror in a room, I couldn’t walk past a window where there is a reflection, I couldn’t shave. Who is this beast that you’re looking at? I couldn’t give a shit, I can’t look at him.”
These are the words of Don, a former self-employed bricklayer who became mentally and physically ill in 2008.
“I ended up getting a divorce that caused me to lose everything. I was trying to do two jobs, it just snowballed and that’s when I became sick after that. Never get too busy making a living that you forget to make a life,” Don says.
“It could be you in a couple years’ time. It can happen to anybody like that in a blink of an eye.”
Don now occupies a room at the low income housing estate Carrical House run by Servants Community Housing.
It is a towering, decadent red brick mansion not unlike the others that populate the affluent Hawthorn East area. What is noticeably different however, are the people who live there.
These residents arrive on site sometimes bearing eviction notices, bruises or criminal records, expecting more of the violent conflict and prejudgments that have so defined their lives.
Some have bounced from hospitals to psyche wards to prisons, juggling thoughts of their debt or absent children, wondering where it all changed.
“I was in a dark hole for a long time. I had no purpose, no purpose to do anything,” Don says of his life pre-Carrical.
“I was on about 105 pills a week, depressants, anti-depressants, lifters, downers.”
Don shudders, recalling previous stints in homeless shelters and psyche wards.
“You could hear guys sharpening knives through the thin walls. It was all druggies, ex-prisoners, people getting stabbed and killed,” he says.
Fiona, a long-term resident of Carrical House, agrees nine years at Carrical have offered her much needed space.
After a rough childhood in the country and becoming a young mother she struggled to find comfortable housing and employment in the city.
“I was at a rooming house and it was not a good place,” Fiona says.
“There was no opportunity to find anything better. Everything became scrambled. The first person who said they would share accommodation with me, I handed him money I thought was for a bond for a room … turns out it wasn’t.
“He took my money and pissed off and I never saw him again. That kind of confused everything. I had nowhere to live.”
Fiona and Don are just two of the roughly 90 residents at Servants, established in Melbourne in 1986, that wield incredible life stories.
Forty nine out of every 10,000 people in Victoria are homeless according to the ABS Census of Housing and Population.
Thirty nine per cent of newly homeless Victorians end up in unsafe or severely overcrowded dwellings, proving there is demand for safe community housing with an added element of respect.
Arriving at Carrical is entering a sombre but welcoming atmosphere. Residents are seated together in a communal smoking area, playing cards, rolling cigarettes.
Instantly there is a sense of community that permeates.
Long-term Servants CEO Matt Maudlin, who seamlessly blends into the picture, emerges and proudly leads you around his second home.
“I think people almost want to breathe and exhale after being in an out of psyche wards, in and out of hospital, violent rooming houses,” says Maudlin.
“Here, two meals a day, manager on sight, a door you can knock on at three in the morning if there’s a problem, and guess what? All the fellas here seem to be really friendly. That’s the delight of it.”
Maudlin attributes the friendly environment and overall smoothness of Carrical House’s operation to relaxed house rules, eschewing strict curfews and restrictions.
He mainly trumpets his decision of working personally and relationally on an individual basis with residents.
“It’s not a case of, hey, here’s your key, give me two weeks rent, I’ll see you in a fortnight, make sure you have your rent in a fortnight or you can fuck off,” he says.
“It’s about building a community. If you need to work on your behaviours, we sit you down and talk to you. We say come on mate, you can’t be doing that, we don’t wanna kick you out.
“We learned we should be creative in finding ways to encourage a resident we don’t want to live here to leave, how to encourage them to move on to another place.”
Operating empathetically in this manner sets Servants apart, Maudlin says, as confrontations and conflicts, though challenging, are now rarely seen on their premises.
“Violent behaviour is easier in a way. If someone threatens me or belts me in the nose it’s like, good job, because then I can get the police involved and that can just expedite the whole thing.”
Despite these risks and abrasive moments, Maudlin maintains his position has been, and is, extremely privileged.
“I have five children and then there’s Servants,” he says.
“I was talking to somebody about getting rid of a troublesome resident today, one of the residents, and she said once he’s gone, your babies are safe aren’t they? And I said, yeah, they are.
“It was one of those moments that made me realise, if you’re gonna mess with my wife and my kids, you’re taking your life into your own hands, and if you mess with my residents, you’re doing the same thing. It was a very illuminating moment.
“When you see a desperate group of people who have had the shit kicked out of them in some way and that’s why they’re here, when you see them form community and kindnesses and friendships, it far exceeds those really ugly moments.
“I knew that when I moved in here in 1998 there was something really special about what was happening here in terms of residents and disenfranchised people coming together as a community, but it was a much rougher place than it is now.
“I thought, there is something there, something golden, a golden nugget, we’ve got to get it out.”
The Servants relational model and Maudlin’s dedication to the cause has seen continual expansion for the company.
It has inspired five popular runs of separate theatrical productions and two books spawning from their partnership with non -profit arts company Candlelight Productions.
Candlelight CEO Eugene Wong says the collaboration between Servants and Candlelight Productions has seen widespread societal influence.
“The massive emails, the comments we got, the people who said ‘my approach to homeless people and people with mental illnesses has shifted massively’,” Wong says.
“There was a person from Sydney who saw the show and approached someone with mental illness on public transport and had a 15 minute very giving lifetime conversation.
“It’s one person at a time, frustrating that it’s so slow, but ultimately very giving,” he adds.
Fiona stands out on her private balcony overlooking Melbourne city and declares Carrical house remains a “perfect piece of heaven”.
“There’s that security, that place that I’ve found that I don’t need to go anywhere anymore, now I’m settled I can stay in one place,” she says.
“This is a community, that’s what is keeping me here, I feel like they’re a part of my community and I’m a part of theirs.”
Don, sitting in front of his photo wall that took years to build, colouring the room with its medals, certificates, and family photos agrees.
“It has given me a home,” he says.
“Having a key, I hadn’t had one of them for over five years, that to me… I swing it in front of people, and I say this is respect, dignity and hope for me, to have my own key.”
Maudlin often envisions a broader scope for Servants. He discusses the possibility of a school leadership program, where students visit and pass on lessons to younger students of its operations and processes. He also aims to run more housing estates in the future.
“I know we can do more of what we do. It is about dollars and finding facilities we can do up for a long-term lease. We don’t hope for anything, but we know we have a model that works,” Maudlin says.
Don concurs. “Here, every day, I’m not alone. Someone turned the light on, opened the door and said don’t be in the dark any more.”