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'What it’s like to be me' is a new series in the Southland Express shining a spotlight on people living and working in Southland. This week reporter Petrina Wright found out what it is like to be Dan* — a homeless man living rough on the streets of Invercargill.
He is one of our own. A Southlander born and bred. And yet, his life experience is about as far removed from the majority of us as you can get.
Dan, who is aged in his thirties, is homeless. He has been doing it tough on the streets of Invercargill for the past five or six years.
When I first set eyes on Dan, I was immediately struck by his gaunt features and beaten-down demeanour.
I found out later his sunken cheeks were the result of losing most of his back teeth to decay. A result of a poor, and at times non-existent, diet.
Once he bought a $1 bag of lollies and a bottle of soft drink and managed to stretch it out over three days, he said.
“It saved my life at that time.”
Along with his tattoo-covered arms and neck, his overall appearance was somewhat intimidating.
But it wasn’t long before Dan’s vulnerability, brutal honesty and evident inner strength shone through.
Dan is a survivor.
Like any child growing up, Dan said he had hopes and dreams.
“I dreamed of being a builder. Dreamed of being Bob.”
The journey from that hope-filled child to a grown man beaten down by life is a path strewn with misfortune and missteps.
Growing up in a home of domestic violence, drug use and gang ties was arguably not conducive to a good start in life.
Dan left school aged 13. He did have a job for a time, but decided he had saved enough money and quit to party with his friends, he said.
It was his tattoos which ultimately prevented him from getting work and finding a place to stay, he said.
“No-one wanted to give me a chance or take me on because of my image and the stereotypes which go with it.”
Staff at a government agency had told him go back home, “when home was a very unhealthy environment for me”.
Dan’s family had become alienated from their extended family, so there was nowhere for Dan to go other than the streets.
“You are nothing without your family, so that is what hurts when they ditch you.”
His time living on the streets had been punctuated with violence, a desperate need to survive, hospital stays and drug use.
Dan said he had been “bashed” on multiple occasions.
In one of the worst incidents, a group of youths attacked him, stomping on his face so badly he received a severe fracture to his cheek and lower eye socket and concrete embedded in his face, he said.
To avoid the bashings, he started sleeping in public toilets.
Dan said he stole clothes from charity clothing bins, even going so far as to attempt to steal a sleeping bag in broad daylight, such was his desperate need to stay warm.
When asked what he did for food, Dan reluctantly admitted to eating food discarded on the street and sometimes breaking into school canteens after hours.
“Stealing kept me alive. It kept me from dying.”
At his lowest point he said he went without food for three weeks, surviving only on water.
Taking methamphetamine (meth) had helped beat back the cold and hunger.
“You try to find anything you can to help you survive.
“[Meth] kept me awake, killed my hunger and shrunk my stomach.”
However, he was quick to warn others to avoid the class A drug.
“My out was meth and it’s completely destroyed my life.”
Each day on the streets started with him trying to “beat back the anxiety so I can get out of bed”.
“You are always looking over your shoulder worried about being robbed or bashed.”
On top of his drug addiction and anxiety issues, Dan now also suffered from severe bipolar and drug-induced schizophrenia.
When asked how Southlanders had treated him, Dan said there were few who helped.
“No-one wants to give me the time of day really.
“If someone had only asked how I was doing, it could have made me smile and changed how I presented myself.”
Dan was now receiving assistance from The Salvation Army, something he wished he had known was available sooner.
After all he had endured, incredibly there was still a spark inside him. He planned to go to rehab and get clean. Still had hope for a better future.
Dan’s message to the community was not to turn a blind eye to the plight of the homeless.
“Some of the best people in your community, your best mates, are on the streets with no help.”
There was always an underlying issue why someone was homeless, he said.
“They are not out there because they choose to be out there.
“There is nothing good about being homeless. If you’re homeless you have lost family and what makes you a person.”
* Dan is not his real name and was used to protect his identity