real life

Vicky was a community volunteer and a loving mother of three. She was also homeless.

When Vicky Vacondios enters her classroom each day, she’s ecstatic.

It’s her happy place, where she can pass on her vast knowledge to students studying a Diploma of Community Services at the Institute of Tertiary & Higher Education Australia (ITHEA).

Vicky’s style of teaching is a bit different to others. She can take learnings from textbooks and relate it to the real life experiences of homeless people, because for years, Vicky was homeless.

Vicky on her homelessness experience, and why she’s signed on to smash stereotypes. Post continues below video.

Video by Bayside Council

It’s a part of her life that inevitably shocks those she comes across.

“When I share my story when I’m speaking to somebody, even my students for the first time, when I speak about where my knowledge comes from – not just from studying the diploma but having the lived experience – the shock on their face is priceless,” she tells Mamamia.

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Vicky, 45, grew up in a traditional, strict, but loving home.

Her upbringing was sheltered, so the opportunity to spread her wings with a part-time job at 14 was something she couldn’t turn down. It was just the beginning of years of hard work.

After leaving school at 16, Vicky held down three jobs.

Not long after moving out of home she met a man and got married. The relationship produced two sons, but it was not working so at the age of 28, Vicky and her boys left to move in with her parents, where the three of them shared a bedroom.

When Vicky was 33 she remarried a man who became violent.

The day after an incident when he suffocated her, a friend noticed her grey lips. That’s when she realised how bad the situation was, so she left.

That same day she discovered she was pregnant with her daughter.

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This was when she first experienced what life was like in a women’s refuge. It was a tough living situation, among others experiencing violence and some who themselves had addiction issues.

She went back to her husband twice.

“It was a very, very terrible time [in refuges], hence why I would go back home. It was just easier. It felt easier,” she says.

The third time Vicky and her children left for good, escaping to the country where they found affordable housing. It was here where they could heal.

Her children got involved with sport. Vicky took up short courses, channelling her energy into educating herself and volunteering at her kid’s schools.

They were happy, but Vicky missed her family. After more than a year away, they packed up their things and returned to Melbourne.

There was more opportunity in the city, but also much higher costs.

“I stayed with my sister, we were all sharing a bedroom,” she explains. “I tried to find a private rental but I couldn’t because of how expensive it was. There was a lack of affordable and social housing.”

Vicky approached a large homelessness services organisation but they couldn’t help.

“They said to me that I literally had to be homeless, even though I was homeless. They said that ‘When you don’t have a place to stay at,’ come and see us.

“I went back a third time with packed bags (all the belongings Vicky had accumulated while living out of town were in storage) and said ‘I’m homeless, I literally have no where to stay’.”

For three and a half months, Vicky and her children lived out of motel rooms. Each morning she would take the children to school before spending her days speaking to services, applying for accommodation and looking at rentals she could not afford.

The motel rooms had no cooking facilities, so she struggled to keep food costs down by cooking. Trips to laundromats to keep the children’s clothes clean quickly racked up costs. Being homeless was expensive.

Then, she was offered a place to live.

“I had a call from a service and they had a crisis accommodation available and I went to have a look at that and it was somewhere I did not want to be, to be quite honest,” she says.

“I didn’t like it and I didn’t feel like it was healthy for my children and I, but I accepted it because if I didn’t I didn’t know if we’d be sleeping in our car or not. That was a worry on a day to day basis.”

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She and her family lived in this crisis accommodation for four and a half years.

“We were amongst domestic violence, there was drugs, a lot of drugs. It was pretty bad.

“There was a lot of judgement, a lot of labelling. I didn’t feel like I was part of a community because of where I was living. I would walk with my head down feeling shameful.”

Throughout this time Vicky had found a passion for advocacy and volunteering, which kept her busy.

She was even offered a seat on a ministerial advisory group – unpaid.

She was disappointed that it wouldn’t bring in any income but she considered the opportunity too big to pass up: “I thought you know what, what a great way to get my voice heard and to speak up’.”

**

Vicky believes at least half of Australians are just one crisis away from being homeless themselves.

One missed insurance payment, one natural disaster, one bad relationship, one redundancy.

“It could take one day, something happens, and then they lose everything,” she says.

“I don’t think you can always be fully prepared.”

national homelessness week vicky vacondio
Image: Supplied.

That doesn't necessarily mean living on the streets. We often conjure up the image of a man sleeping rough on a park bench, or the guy under the bridge pushing a trolley full of his belongings.

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That is the public face of homelessness. That's who we see, sadly, every day, but it's far from the only type.

There are people living with family, couch surfing, or desperately trying to find a roof so they don't have to spend the night in their car. There are people in motels, in refuges and crisis accommodation.

According to 2018 data from the Council to Homeless Persons, three out of five people who seek homelessness help are women.

Vicky believes her homelessness journey would have been less harrowing if services were better equipped.

"Rather than me having to be on the doorstep of the service, I believe what would've helped me was a service that worked with me while I was living at my sister's house in order to apply for different types of housing.

"Back then I didn't know my stuff like I do now... I didn't know my options.

"If I had options, I would've been able to work with the service worker and obviously with them having the knowledge I expect them to have, I believe I would've broken the cycle much earlier."

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Vicky and her three children - two sons aged 20 and 17, and a 13-year-old daughter - stayed together throughout years of living with family, in refuges, temporary and crisis accommodation.

"It was terrible for them as kids," Vicky says.

"They felt the labelling as well. They got treated differently at school, there were even some teachers - not all teachers - that had a bad eye on them because of where we lived."

Her son would invite friends over, but once their parents saw where they lived he'd suddenly be labelled as a "bad influence". It eventually led him to seek out friends in similar scenarios.

The family lived among drug dealers while in communal living and as a young teenager, her eldest began to use ice.

This led to years of drug abuse. It was, she says, "torment", but Vicky remained supportive of her son and used his experiences as a way of educating her two younger children.

Until last year, when she had enough.

"I got to my wits end about last year. It actually felt like my son was dead, like I lost my son a few years ago even though I was still there for him," she says.

Thankfully, this seemed to act as a wake-up call.

"He ended up going to a Christian rehab. He stayed there for two months - it was a rehab where there were older men, not a youth one - and he started reflecting.

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"He thought 'I don't want to be 40 years old and addicted to drugs'. His whole life has turned around and he's clean."

Her son is now working and undergoing training for a manager position.

He gave his consent to his mother to tell his story, in case it offers hope to others in similar scenarios.

Vicky says she is the proudest mother in the world.

**

Vicky and her two youngest children now live in a three bedroom house in Melbourne.

national homelessness week vicky vacondio
Image: Facebook.

They have a roof over their heads and a stable home, but Vicky says the experience of homelessness "never leaves you".

"It always reminds me how lucky I am," she says.

"Even though I'm only earning one wage and we're not considered to be past that poverty line, I still think that we're very blessed and very wealthy within."

When her daughter began high school this year, Vicky used it as an opportunity to get back to full-time work.

She has years of volunteering experience, her Diploma of Community Services and her training and assessor qualification. She's also a member on the City of Melbourne Homelessness Advisory Committee and does work for the Council to Homeless People.

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When you speak to Vicky, you cannot hear an ounce of anger or bitterness. She worked through that years ago, she explains, and channelled it into education and knowledge.

The rewarding feeling of walking into her classroom to teach those who will one day be on the front lines, dealing with people like her and her children, cannot be overstated.

"I love being a trainer because I'm having an influence and sharing my knowledge with future workers who are going to work with the most vulnerable people in our society. It's very empowering and it's such a great feeling to be able to give and share with others what I've learned and what I've gone through and the knowledge that I've gained from it.

"It's not just what comes from the education department, it's learning about current issues in our societies and actually getting involved in the community sector."

Vicky has joined the My Name Is... Project, run by Melbourne's Bayside, Port Phillip and Kingston councils because it aims to tackle the stereotypes associated with homelessness in order to help eliminate it.

"A lot of the people that I met during my homelessness situation, who were in similar situations were amazing, beautiful people," Vicky says.

"They had such beautiful souls and they would give the coat off their back to you. I learned a lot from people who were actually experiencing homelessness and I learned a lot about the sector from them, because they knew a lot from being clients. I met a lot of loyal people and made lifelong friends."

When she was homeless, Vicky put on her make-up and dressed to look professional as a way to help herself both navigate the system and feel like the strong, confident woman she knew she was - even when she didn't feel like her.

To an outsider, she would not have fit the mould of what a homeless person looked like.

"Somebody who was barefoot on the tram and had a smell," she recalled. "Someone was like 'Is that person homeless?' and I was like, 'I don't know. I didn't look like that and I was homeless'.

"You don't know who's homeless. So many people experience homelessness. You could be standing next to a man in a suit and he could be homeless.

"I want to break stereotypes, I want to be part of change."

National Homelessness Week is running August 4-10, visit Homelessness Australia for more on how to get involved.

You can learn more about the My Name Is... Project here.

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