Content warning: this story contains retelling of traumatic experiences
Andrew has been coming to Wayside Chapel for the last two years. Although he had already gained permanent housing, he comes to Wayside for human connection and is a much-loved member of the community. He likes to look at things with humour and positivity. But it wasn’t always that way.
As a gay man, growing up in a small country town, Andrew really stood out. He was the self-confessed “only gay in the village.” Due to a strained relationship with his father, plus the relentless bullying from the people in town, as soon as he turned 18, he packed a bag and headed to Sydney’s Oxford Street because “that’s where all the gay people were, in my mind, anyway.”
“When I came to Sydney, I arrived at Central and stayed in a cheap motel in the city for a while. But, as soon my money ran out, I ended up just having to sleep rough. Sleeping in places like Hyde Park.”
Life on the streets is not safe, particularly at night. Andrew started hiding and sleeping in the bushes to avoid gangs and violence. This became a nightly fear. He would sleep with his back against the wall and tried to look inconspicuous.
Andrew lived on and off the streets for four years around the inner city, including parts of Kings Cross. This led him to Darlinghurst St, known colloquially at that time as ‘The Wall’, where he became a sex worker. During his time, he ultimately discovered heroin.
“It just took the pain away. Well, it didn’t take it away. It just pushed it back.” Andrew continued his sex work to support his addiction. This cycle unfortunately took a dark turn when Andrew contracted HIV. That one night changed Andrew’s life forever.
Distraught, alone, thinking he was going to die, Andrew’s mental health declined rapidly. Fortunately, he was surrounded by angels in the form of nurses and social workers. Originally diagnosed at Kirketon Road Centre in Kings Cross, he was transferred to Caritas, a psych ward on Forbes Street, part of St Vincent’s Hospital.
“Looking back, it was the best thing they could have done for me at that time, because with big news like that, sometimes you just need time to sit with it for a little bit. And when I was in there, I was able to talk to the nurses about it and say, “What’s going to happen here?” And they would talk me through it.”
Over time, HIV weakens a person’s immune system so the body has a very hard time fighting diseases. Andrew’s immune system was so vulnerable that he developed tuberculosis in his brain, meningitis and had a minor stroke. This wiped his memory completely and he was moved to palliative care.
“16 years ago, they gave me two weeks to live.”
However, a miracle happened. Andrew managed to pull through.
These days, Andrew is very grateful to have housing and has a better relationship with his dad and family. He works as a community educator, speaking at high schools about his experiences of homelessness and living with HIV/AIDS.
“If they can learn from my mistakes then I’ve done my job. I had a student come up to me once and he said, ‘My uncle has AIDS, but we’re not allowed to talk about it in my family.’ I said, ’Well, mate, you pretend that I’m him and you just ask me any question you want.’ And as quick as that, he asked, “So when are you going to die?” I said, “Mate, we do not die of AIDS in this country anymore. We have fantastic doctors, great medication. And it’s all free. You’re living in Australia, it’s the best country in the world.”
Anyone who knows Andrew knows he is a very funny guy and loves to crack (usually very cheeky) jokes. He is able to cleverly use humour to talk about even the darkest subjects in his life. He recently performed a standup act at Wayside Chapel’s Open Mic Event for the Week of Mardi Gras.
It is opportunities like this that keep Andrew coming back to Wayside Chapel. Andrew first came to Wayside in Kings Cross around two years ago. He was drawn in by the food from the low-cost café, but then he began to participate in activities and social groups. Drama and yoga were his favourites.
“I used to have the best sleeps on Wednesday nights after yoga. It was like a ’refresh’ button once a week.”
But the other reason he comes to Wayside Chapel is the community. He saw the outreach team as his lifeline during COVID-19, as he, like many others had to self-isolate at home due to his vulnerable immune system. At the start of the pandemic, the outreach team would leave chocolates and a card in the mailbox for him. He didn’t need food, he just needed connection.
“It made me feel not alone. The way they would go out of their way just do that for me, was really cool.”
Slowly, he was able to come back to Wayside Chapel in Kings Cross to start seeing people again. He treasures Wayside Chapel as a place where he feels loved.
“I know people here now. I have mates here. I can come up and say “hi” to people. I feel like this is my community. And that’s pretty special.”
Provide support to people like Andrew and become a monthly giver to Wayside Chapel. Click here.
If you require assistance, information or immediate support, the following services and organisations may be able to assist:
Lifeline 13 11 14 – 24/7 crisis support and suicide prevention services.
1800 737 732 – 24 hour support for people impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence and abuse
MindOUT! – LGBTI mental health and suicide prevention
QLife line – national counselling and referral service for LGBTI people
1800 184 527
Alcohol Drug Information Services (ADIS)
1800 250 015 (24 hrs)