Client stories

Damien's story: Lived experience with homelessness and LGBTIQ+ client advocacy

Interview with Damien, VincentCare Community Volunteer

Damien Chandler pictured in front of his artwork

Damien first experienced homelessness in 1990, at just 16 years of age. From that point forward, his housing situation was tumultuous, until around five years ago when he received the support he needed to find more stable housing. Now a kitchen hand at VincentCare’s O Café, and enjoying life, Damien was forthcoming in sharing his story. He hopes to support other gender and sexually diverse people, who may be experiencing homelessness or housing stress, and to provide a perspective to service providers who are aiming to be more inclusive in their approach.

Damien’s childhood had been a good one, but during his teenage years, the compounding factors of alcohol use, family discord, and acceptance of his gay identity, began to fracture his relationships in a way that would dramatically alter the course of his life.

“I had a good upbringing with my mum and my stepfather but there were many rules. I discovered alcohol at 15 and was desperate to get out and get on with my life, so I moved to Brisbane to be with Dad and his partner. When his partner outed me for being gay, life became unbearable, and Dad tried to get me committed. So I packed my stuff up and walked off up the road with no idea of what I was going to do [or where I would] even sleep that night.”

Long-term or chronic homelessness is rarely experienced as the result of one-dimensional problems. Often, multiple factors will attribute to the severity and longevity of homelessness. For Damien, drugs became a defining factor in how he would experience homelessness — choosing his next fix over necessities, safe accommodation, the support of loved ones, his own physical and emotional wellbeing, and even adherence to the law.

“I would use speed for four or five days and then just fall down in a park somewhere. I would bounce around the men’s hostels for food, but night times and early in the mornings were my time to be roaming the streets and breaking into businesses so I could keep on using. Drugs were the only priority in my life.”

In Brisbane at the time, Damien longed to participate more actively in the social scene, and to find freedom to express himself as a gay man. He made comparisons between his situation, which was highly limiting, and that of other gay men who he perceived to be having fun, ‘out clubbing all night’, but with the freedom to return to the comfort of their homes to rest, change their clothes, and live constructive lives.

He refers to the stigma of being gay and homeless as ‘embarrassing’, and recounts one experience as a case in point — “I cobbled together some drag, got dressed in the public toilets and hid my boy’s clothes in the bushes. I went out for the night and it was great. When I came back in the morning all my boy’s clothes were gone and I was stuck in drag.” Damien attended a community centre that day to receive donated clothing.

Despite the many forms of discrimination faced by people who are homeless who identify as LGBTIQ+ — including with some service providers and fellow clients
— Damien’s experience in accessing homelessness support services has been overwhelmingly positive. Beginning in youth hostels in his teens and progressing to men’s hostels, before finally accessing case managed services and support through VincentCare, Damien has amassed nearly 30 years of first-hand experience with homelessness services, and the community who utilise them. He considers himself lucky to not have experienced much “drama and negativity” on the basis
of his gender and sexuality. He puts this largely down to his personality — “being authentic gives me strength.”

Sadly, for many people experiencing homelessness who are also gender diverse, the experience is not always a positive one. Damien wants to help advocate for other gender and sexually diverse people who are experiencing homelessness, or at risk of it.

“I went through all of that for a reason. I had a really good run. I was always safe. I want to make sure other LGBTIQ+ people who need a bed, a feed, or just some time out somewhere, have that same safe experience I had.”

When asked what can help service providers to facilitate this, Damien says they are already, largely heading in the right direction, but stresses the importance of continuing to develop policy and procedures that are inclusive. He appreciates the organisations that “honour and celebrate” the LGBTIQ+ community.

VincentCare is proud to witness the monumental progress of clients such as Damien, and to see them actively participating in a way that gives back to their community, and further strengthens their own recovery.

When asked about his current situation and hopes for the future Damien responds with optimism and clarity, “I’ve had stable housing for almost five years. I volunteer with VincentCare and I’ve been employed in the same job for nearly three years. I enjoy creating pieces of art. My life is full and I’m happy. If I do what I did yesterday, today then tomorrow is going to be a good day.”

Originally published in the May 2019 edition of Parity, the national magazine for Council to Homeless Persons.

Fill 1 Copy 3 Created with Sketch.