How creative writing is helping women heal and find hope.
Between the lines of the stories are the scars.
Barbara unwraps her scarf, sits down at a table in a sun-filled room on the upper level of an historic inner Sydney terrace house and starts to thumb through a small book. The book carries the innocuous title of All in a day at Lou’s Place. This is the first time she has seen it.
“What I wrote is a little confronting,” she says with a nervous laugh as she skims pages at a time, turning the book over front to back to look at its brightly coloured cover. She pauses only when she recognises a name under one of the short stories or poems and looks up to retell an anecdote or small fact about the person behind the name.
The book’s contents offer a glimpse into the path walked by the women who knock on the door of Lou’s Place – a refuge in the heart of Kings Cross in inner Sydney – as they seek shelter from violence, drug addiction, mental illness and homelessness, and seek to rebuild their lives. She’s proud to be able to call herself a published author.
“I think the writing activity helped me get my thoughts together more. It helps you assess yourself and see how you’ve grown since that time you wrote those words.” Lou’s Place is a more than a drop-in centre. It’s a sanctuary. A place where women in need can find a moment’s peace, the joy of clean clothes. Make up. Shampoo. A friendly smile.
A place where they can “just be”. They don’t have to explain themselves to anyone, don’t have to answer questions or feel watched. Lou’s Place uses arts, music and other activities to help the women find enjoyment in their otherwise difficult lives, as well as help them develop practical life skills.
Dr Ruth Walker, a senior lecturer in learning development at UOW, first became involved with Lou’s Place as a volunteer, knocking on the door after many years of walking past every weekday morning on her way to Kings Cross Station to commute to Wollongong. She put her professional experience to work helping women at the refuge improve their writing skills and ability.
Through that exercise, she saw an opportunity for the stories, poems and thoughts from the women themselves, gathered over about 10 years, to be produced in book as a way of giving the women something tangible to hold. “Working with the women at Lou’s Place was eye-opening for me,” Dr Walker says.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the range of women and their conversations and writing astounded me. Many of the clients in the refuge were older women seeking support and friendship, after their family and community had failed them.” On some days, women who were interested in playing word games or writing love poems attended Dr Walker’s class. Other days, women who wanted help drafting a letter to a landlord or help finding the words to document a response to a court hearing dropped in.
“Most of the women were troubled with a range of family, relationship and health issues. Others were younger and hopeful, asking me about courses they could take and using their writing as a way to imagine a different life or a happier future. The women I worked with in the writing workshops gave very specific directions for the book, which they wanted to have an overall optimistic message.”
Oh dear one, you wonderful creature, you washing machine.
You take my clothes dancing, swing them back and forth.
Oh sweet smell of delight as you wash my clothes all hours of the day and night.
The fresh fragrance wafts through my flat and casts delight.
Oh the joy of clean clothes.
Now you sit so sad and forlorn, no chance to be reborn.
My heart breaks for those like me who would know
the disappointment of a washing machine that will no longer go.
Between the lines of the stories are the faces.
Barbara admits she’s a little nervous today. But much less than when she first came to Lou’s Place more than a decade ago. She was born into a British military family and moved around throughout her childhood; England, East Africa, Germany and finally Australia, when her parents thought this was where they’d retire.
They went back to England when she was 19, and that’s when she thinks her life started to unravel. She fell in with the wrong crowd and got into drugs when Heroin had a tight grip on Sydney. She was homeless for a period and spent countless nights sleeping on couches where she could.
She doesn’t reveal her age, but according to Lou’s Place, she is somewhat typical of the 30 to 54 years age group that make up the majority of women who have knocked on the door of their Kings Cross terrace house in recent years. Of those, about two-thirds report that they’re couch surfing or staying with friends and one in ten are sleeping rough.
Her past, as she tells it in her own words, “wasn’t all bad”. For a time she made a living from her home-made skin moisturising cream. “They had all sorts of oils and scents: raspberry, cardamom, juniper …. 35 ingredients all together,” she recalls, adding that to make the creams, you need a good sense of smell, and heavy, prolonged drug use destroyed that.
“I came here and needed to change my life,” she says. “I was at another centre getting straight and going there to be with other people and this woman told me there was a better place to go.
“I don’t remember who she was but she told me about Lou’s Place. Homeless people in all sorts of situations need somewhere like this, a safe place. Now that winter is coming it’s very hard to find somewhere to stay and women are frightened to sleep rough at night, they get tired, their nerves are frayed. “When I came here I had no faith or trust in anyone. I was very nervous and shy. They gave me back my confidence. It was a life saver.”
Between the lines of the stories are the hopes.
In the book there’s a short poem about the humble washing machine, written by long-time Lou’s Place visitor Naomi. It speaks to the sheer joy in life’s practicalities that most would take for granted. Naomi, a well-spoken, eloquent and obviously educated woman who grew up in Papua New Guinea and various pars of Australia, first came to Lou’s Place 16 years ago when she says she was “struggling to cope”.
Another woman living on the street told her about the refuge. Her tale, like that of so many at Lou’s, is a complex mix of drugs and a life of mere survival. For her, the lifeline that is Lou’s goes beyond the staff and volunteer support, and extends to the shared experience the women have. “Besides the practical things like a meal or shampoo, there’s a connection and acceptance from others and the comfort of familiarity,” Naomi says.
“There’s a wealth of wisdom among the women who visit Lou’s each day and we have a chance to share our riches with each other.” Those “riches” are now recorded in the book, an experience she describes as “humbling”. “Lou’s Place is like a surrogate parent and this is the family home. The people here are all my relatives, so to speak. They believed in me and facilitated the environment and resources I could choose to use to live a better life.”
Long after her contribution to the book was complete, Naomi continues to write. She says she is taking hip hop classes and wants to write a book. “The washing machine is about life. About finding out how to live it the best you can.”
Between the lines of the stories are the lessons.
Dr Walker recalls an encounter at a writing workshop where a young girl, who visited the refuge for meals and access to social work support, showed her an essay that she had written for her university course. “She had managed to continue her studies despite living out of a car. She had come to the writing workshops but had never asked for help with her assignment, which she was proud of submitting by the due date and on her own.”
Dr Walker says that in her academic teaching, she encourages students to think about their actions and choices in relation to the University and their future work practices in the ‘real world’. I’m also interested in how the University engages with the world, in questions of social justice and educational integrity, in thinking about the purpose of the University and its place in the community.”
Here’s a real world figure to think about: of the women at Lou’s who disclosed they were homeless, more than one in three (37 per cent) said domestic violence was a contributing factor. “The women taught me a lot about the importance of personal motivation, on the value of listening and respecting other people; and how sometimes success is not measured by individual achievements but in kindness and the capacity to respond to those who are struggling,” Dr Walker says.
Collectively, the women decided to divide the book into four parts that reflected the experience of the daytime refuge: happy days, rainy days, yesterdays and special days. Some of the photos were taken by women at Lou’s Place, some by volunteers, while the cover featuring photos of women wearing hats that originally belonged to Judith, a regular visitor to Lou’ s Place who died in the early stages of the book project.
“A woman in a hat – it just makes you feel better,” Judith is remembered to have said. Dr Jacky Redgate, a senior lecturer in photography at UOW and an internationally recognised visual artist, helped with the photography workshops to ensure the book was the women’s work as much as possible. She, along, with local artist Jessica Wright, also volunteered her to expertise to the book design and production.
“From people like Susie Manfred, one of the founding members of the Marmalade Foundation behind Lou’s Place, who helped enormously to coordinate volunteer contributions and photographs of artworks and jewellery, through to the 200 copies provided by the UOW Printery, the book was truly a community project, and I was proud that UOW and my colleagues were so willing to support this project for Lou’s Place,” Dr Walker says.
For the women like Barbara and Naomi, the stories on the page are more than words. To the women, they represent a person, an experience, a place and time. Some have since passed away while others have moved on after receiving help and support to get back on their feet.
“I’m very proud [of the book],” Barbara says, “It’s beautiful.”
- The production of ‘All in a day at Lou’s Place’ was supported through the UOW Community Engagement Grant Scheme.