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From hitting rock bottom to getting back up

Michelle Tyhuis with partner Andrew Perkins and youngest child Yarramundi Tyhuis-Perkins.

The day Michelle Tyhuis packed her few remaining things into her car, and drove with her partner and three young boys north to the promise of sleeping in a garage, was about the worst day of her life.

"We hit the road in my car with what money we could gather together, put a little bit of things in storage, but abandoned most of it which was very heartbreaking," she says. "I suffer from severe anxiety and depression so the final day drove me a bit over the edge."

Suddenly the family had joined the ranks of more than 105,000 people who are homeless on any given night in Australia. Michelle was determined to find a way out, but it proved to be a tough three months before they had a place to call their own again.

She accepted her best friend's offer for the family to live in her garage in Townsville 1350 km away. Michelle says it was the only option left.

She had almost exhausted the support in Brisbane where she had grown up, was educated and went on to establish a good career then family of her own. Her high profile job in media in Brisbane had come to an abrupt end while on maternity leave when she became very unwell with asthma and mental health issues. This collided with relationship conflict and a financial crisis where mounting debts meant the family was unable to make rental payments.

Red Cross was great for the emotional support. They guided me through the tough parts of it and they advocated for me.

In Townsville, with the family sleeping on air mattresses on the floor of the dusty garage, it was staff at the Red Cross Homelessness Services Hub (The Hub) in Townsville who pulled it all together for the family.

"The team at The Hub, led by Wilma Kemp was great, getting us into accommodation quicker. They saw we were in dire need, and I had too much to handle by myself. They put on caseworkers to help us which was wonderful and there were a couple that I worked with and they took me to emergency accommodation to look at," Michelle says.

"Sleeping in the garage strained my relationship with my friend, the dust was not good for my chronic asthma, and the boys are pretty active and it was important for me to have a good accommodation for them."

Addressing the root causes

One in every 200 Australians is homeless and the causes are many and varied: poverty, unemployment, domestic violence, a drastic shortage of affordable housing.

Red Cross caseworkers identified several areas where Michelle needed support. They linked in with health professionals, legal services and relationship counsellors.

They were able to find emergency accommodation, provided furniture to set up their new home, including white goods, beds, table and chairs, and food vouchers. Michelle says Red Cross played a crucial role.

"The emotional support I guess, having someone there I could ring up and say, "Look, I tried these guys, they're not helping me. I'm falling apart.' They were there, they understanding and they guided me through the tough parts of it. And they advocated for me to make sure we were at the top priority of housing.

"Things have got drastically better since then," Michelle says with a broad grin. "Since we moved into the house we have the freedom and the space to calm down and regroup and look to 2014 to start again. The kids are in a new school and they love it."

She set up a home media business, and when she was online she ran across an advertisement for a great job which she successfully applied for.

"I love the job. It's really challenging and it contributes to my children's future because it's publishing children's books, which is something I'm passionate about."

Michelle says she's happy to share her story with others and is passionate about helping others who have hit rock bottom.

"Have a belief in the future. If you have mental health issues like I did have heart. Be committed to getting the support you need because being alone doesn't help. Having others to hold you up is what brings you through."

Last year Red Cross supported 2747 people facing homelessness. Learn more in our report on Red Cross homelessness services.

Photo: Cathy Friel