PHOTO: Martelle Jackson
‘I was feeling really defeated. Every house I was viewing, I would get knocked back.’
A single mum has detailed how she ended up living out of her van after her struggles with finding a rental property led to homelessness amid the crippling housing crisis.
Martelle Jackson, from NSW, was living in Albion Park Rail, about 100km south of Sydney, with her four-year-old daughter Alaia, when their real estate agent put their rent up $40 a week.
Refusing to pay the increase, the 28-year-old gave the agent four weeks’ notice to move out – unaware Australia was in the grips of a rental market crisis.
As she desperately searched for a new place to call home, the mum realised she was going to be forced to sleep rough – after almost 50 properties she applied for were all rejected.
“I was feeling really defeated. Every house I was viewing, I would get knocked back,” Martelle tells 7Life.
“I was up against a lot of other applications for every house I applied for.
“I would go to open homes and there would be up to 40 people at some of them. Being a single mother, with one income, I didn’t stand a chance.
“The rejection emails would come through saying my application was unsuccessful and I would feel gutted.”
Before facing the brutal reality of homelessness, Martelle – who was paying $420-a-week – thought she could find a cheaper place to live after she was hit with a rent increase.
“I gave my notice to the real estate when they put my rent up $40 a week, not realising we were in the middle of a housing crisis,” she explains.
“I had four weeks to move house and, after applying for 10 properties and being knocked back, I realised that homelessness could be on the cards.
“When I moved out, they put it up for rent for $490 a week.”
In a frantic attempt to stay at her current rental home, she made a desperate call to the real estate agent.
“I told her my situation and begged to stay until I found a place and she said, ‘You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do’,” she says.
“With no other option, I had to pack up our home and move everything into storage.”
With her daughter staying with her dad full-time, Martelle spent the next three months alone in her van, which she spontaneously purchased in 2019.
“I wasn’t going to put my daughter through this so she stayed with her dad while I lived in my campervan until I was approved for somewhere,” she says.
Far from glamorous
As she lived on the road from March 2020, Martelle explains how her “van life” was far from glamorous.
“Lots of people say that’s a dream, but when it’s not planned and where you want to be, it’s not as enjoyable,’ she says.
Her humble van features a bed, fridge and a sink – but no shower or toilet.
“The van I was living in had leaks in a few spots. One of the leaks from the window was right where my bed was so I’d wake up in a damp bed whenever the weather was terrible, especially with torrential rain,” she says.
“I had a really bad cold at one stage, and was suffering from migraines.
“I’d set an alarm at 5am to pee on the side of the road so passersby wouldn’t see me.”
She would wake up early every morning for a swim at the beach to “prepare” herself for a “cold shower” in the communal public bathrooms.
After moving to Australia from the UK at 14, Martelle has been living independently without any family support.
As she faced homelessness, she said she didn’t want to stay in a refuge with her daughter so she desperately searched for a rental property on her own.
“Honestly, my daughter was the only thing that kept me going… The thought of being able to tuck her in to bed every night and get her ready for school in the mornings,” she says.
“I kept pushing every day to be back home with her. I was lucky to have the camper van.”
‘Felt so ashamed’
After sleeping rough for a month and a half, Martelle was put in touch with a community support network called BaptistCare HopeStreet in Port Kembla.
“I remember the first time I turned up there, I walked in and was greeted by a lovely woman called Bianca. I instantly broke down in tears as I felt so ashamed to be in the situation I was in,” she recalls.
“I thought, ‘I’m a mother, how did this happen to me? How did I do this to my little girl?’
“It was the first time I’d approached someone and said, ‘Please help me’.
“I was at my wit’s ends.”
She started visiting the centre every day, and was treated to the smallest things that made the biggest difference in her life – including hot showers, breakfast, coffee and laundry.
”Every person I spoke to was dealing with their own personal problems and they’d come here for a little extra support,” she says.
“The staff there would greet me every morning, get me breakfast and make me a coffee while I’d have a hot shower.
‘Going through hardship’
“I was able to charge my laptop, do my hair and makeup, and feel refreshed and ready to take on the day.
“They would wash, dry and fold my washing all for free.
“I didn’t eat well throughout that time because I couldn’t afford to eat out all the time and I didn’t really have much of an appetite.”
Before Martelle walked out the door to start her day, Bianca would give her a printed-out listing of rentals for her to check out and a bag of food to go.
“It really is a lovely place to go when you’re going through hardship,” she says.
As she was a single mum with no job, she knew she needed to stand out from the rental crowd.
“I surprised myself at how good of a headspace I stayed in. I was mentally okay, just taking it day by day. I never lost hope,” Martelle says.
“I started offering more money per week or rent upfront to get me ahead of other applicants. It took almost three months and 49 house applications until I was approved for somewhere to call home again.
“I paid three months rent upfront.”
‘Got my mojo back’
After moving into her new $395-a-week rental home with her daughter in May 2020, the mum says she’s in a “totally different situation now”.
“I got my mojo back with my trade, barbering and hairdressing, and decided to open up my own barber shop, The Shave Cave,” she says.
She found a store for rent at a “reasonable price” on the same street as BaptistCare HopeStreet.
“It was a decent sized space and I thought, if I can go through what I had recently gone through, I can do anything I set my mind to,” she says.
“I set the whole shop up myself – laid the floors, put up the wallpaper and got everything, including the barber chairs, on Facebook marketplace and a secondhand pool table.
“It’s a really cool vibe.”
Not only has business been “super busy” for the mum, but she’s been offering free hair services for those in need.
“I give vouchers to HopeStreet and they send people down for free hair services,” she says.
“It’s my way of giving back and to thank them for helping me when I was going through a hard time.
“A haircut or a wash and blow dry can make someone feel a million times better about themselves and that’s what I love about my job.”
By sharing her story, Martelle hopes Aussies can draw hope from her experiences.
“Homelessness is so much easier to slip into than people realise,” she says.
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