Jeremey Gunning admits he is worried people will think the worst of him.
He sits on a chair in the center of Ballarat’s Trades Hall, surrounded by a display of photographs which share the most personal and darkest moments of his life with the world.
“I seem confident, but on the inside, I worry about the judgement,” he said.
The photograph display shows Mr Gunning, with wild hair and a long beard, his dog, a large stack of firewood and his car and a 1970s van parked in the bush near Creswick.
Next to those images taken during his 18 months living homeless are others from some of his proudest and happiest moments.
He accepts a scholarship at a Federation University event in one image and smiles with a group of people he is now working with in his role as a peer support worker at Uniting Ballarat.
Homelessness Week exhibition
Mr Gunning’s story is part of the Experiencing Homelessness exhibition open to the public this week.
It aims to break down the stigmas of homelessness and encourage community action.
He said his photo selection highlighted his journey from the bush to a unit in Creswick and how support from Uniting’s Street 2 Home program got his life back on track.
“I thought it was important to show people the generosity that is required to help people out of homelessness. It works,” Mr Gunning said.
Mr Gunning’s experience of homelessness began three years ago when he was battling depression, experiencing deteriorating physical health and lost his job.
He had worked his whole life but said he gave up when his issues felt overwhelming.
He bought a rundown van for $400 and headed out to the bush near Creswick, then Mount Franklin and Slaty Creek, with his dog.
He had no income and didn’t sign up for Centrelink benefits until Uniting Street 2 Home workers found him camped out and offered practical help and ultimately, a home.
Collecting firewood became a daily job to fuel the large fire that heated his van and cooked his food.
The smell of smoke masked his body odour.
“So many of my photos are of my fire,” Mr Gunning said. “It was pretty cold out there.”
He said his disability made it harder to get firewood so he adapted as he went along.
“The fire was a big part of my journey,” he said.
Mr Gunning was diagnosed with spinocerebellar ataxia, a degenerative condition which causes problems with balance, co-ordination, slurred speech, muscle stiffness and cramps.
Uniting’s support to move into a unit led to improvements in his physical and mental health, a new study venture in community services and a job as a peer support worker with the program that helped him.
“It has been a funny week for me,” Mr Gunning said while looking at his display of photos with his son.
“There has been a lot of reflection and a lot of memories that have come up.”
He said everyone’s journey into, through and out of homelessness was completely different. Yo
“It is emotional, it is ours, we own it,” he said.
“By me doing this, I hope I am challenging the stigma that is attached to homelessness. I need to tell my story because there is stigma, and it needs to go.
Community call to action
Street 2 Home case worker and homelessness exhibition coordinator Juelz Sanders said the exhibition was an “incredible opportunity” for the community to listen and understand.
She said the situation was dire and services needed community help because they could not meet demand on their own.
Uniting Ballarat has had to turn away 570 people who were seeking help at reception so far this year, because there were no appointments left to meet them.
Senior manager homelessness Adam Liversage said it was concerning and heartbreaking for staff.
“That unmet demand is increasing, and we are projecting that there will be 1200 people we aren’t going to get to [by the end of the year],” he said.
“This is the first time we are seeing such a demand on our services.”
There are currently almost 180 households waiting for housing and support on the over 25s priority list in Ballarat, including 84 families.
“We are seeing interest rate increases and the median rental prices increase to $419 in Ballarat,” Mr Liversage said.
“That is unaffordable on any Centrelink benefit and for those on the average incomes as well.”
People feel judged
The Ballarat Experiencing Homelessness exhibition shares many other heartbreaking stories of homelessness.
Beck, not their real name, spent three years living in her car with her two dogs after a family relationship breakdown and violence and trauma in the family home.
“I think one of the hardest things for me when I was homeless was the way people look at you,” she wrote in a display for the exhibition.
“The way they would stare, or point, or mutter things, or look at you with pity or disgust.
“Many people assume you’re a drug addict or I hear them say ‘something is wrong with her that she is homeless’, but they have no idea what’s happened or is happening in your life.”
Uniting Ballarat is hosting a Take Action Day on Friday to encourage residents to sign up to volunteer and donate items like sleeping bags, non-perishable food and blankets.
Ms Sanders said her biggest wish was for people to be kind and understanding of people experiencing homelessness.
“It is an incredible opportunity for us to listen as a community and for the community to really understand,” she said.