“I went from an unhappy situation – and you’d think sleeping on the streets would be unhappy – to a situation I was more happy about,” said James, trying to make me understand. “It was relief … Relief.”
As an uncomfortable euphemism, ‘sleeping rough’ does very little to describe the ever-present threat of violence from desperate comrades or passers-by, the immovable sense of guilt that haunts the addict, or the ache of just one daily meal.
But for some, it’s the preferred option.
James Sheehan once had a spot at the Australian zenith of horse racing, as a trainer for Gai Waterhouse and later, Tommy Hughes. Tonight, he’s sleeping rough under the verandah of a doctor’s surgery in the inner-southern suburbs of Adelaide, and happy about it.
James’ yearning for this very particular kind of ‘freedom’ had its beginnings in a childhood spent studying at the Perth missionary Catholic school, Mazenod College.
A sportsman by nature, James was derided by teachers in the shadow of his academically gifted brother Michael.
Living within eyesight of Ascot Racecourse, James began to develop a love of horses, and an addiction to the outdoorsy freedom associated with caring for them.
The regimen and dictates of a Catholic education in the 1980’s provided powerful antithesis to this new-found liberation.
“Any afternoon I’d go to do a couple of hours work at the stables. It was like a relief to me.”
After leaving school in year 10 and completing a course at an agricultural college, James moved quickly up ranks in the world of horse trainers, moving to Sydney before landing his dream job working for Gai Waterhouse.
“It was the best job I ever had in my life,” he says.
“We had the best horses in the country and [Waterhouse] built up a really good team … so your work colleagues were actually your mates too.”
His girlfriend at the time was a source of strength, but when James finally learned – after, it seems, everyone else at the stables – that she’d cheated on him with a wealthy client, James began a terrible descent.
He quit the job he loved and turned to alcohol, beginning a life-long battle with the substance.
By 2005, after several years moving around working for various stables around New South Wales, he had a career coup, securing a job working for second-generation horse-whisperer Tommy Hughes.
He’d also started a new relationship with a woman named Karen.
“We were both in our thirties, and you know what it’s like when you get to that point in your life, and you sort-of halfway get scared thinking you’re going to be on your own for the rest of your life,” he said.
“I wasn’t desperate to get a girlfriend, but I wanted to get a girlfriend, and I think she felt the same way. So it was a relationship that shouldn’t have been.”
At the same time, James was becoming increasingly unhappy with the way he was treated at work. He wasn’t happy at work, but when he was at work, he didn’t want to go home.
“I tell you what I did. I got on the piss one night, I got home drunk, packed all me gear and see ya’s all later. Didn’t even bother about going to pick up me wages. And that’s when I first came to Adelaide.”
With an impressive resumé in hand, James expected find work as a horse trainer in Adelaide, but it wasn’t to be.
The money dried up, his alcoholism took over, and for the first time, James was sleeping on the streets.
“There was no light at the end of the tunnel,” he says.
“That’s when I was drinking at my most. I was drowning my sorrows.”
James spent three years sleeping rough, struggling to beat his addiction to alcohol and learning how to survive the cold and the concrete.
“It was very daunting at first because I’d never done it before, but I got quite used to it quite quickly. I adapted quite quickly.”
He started collecting bottles and cans, and saved enough money through South Australia’s container deposit scheme to secure and furnish a house from the Public Trustee.
James had eight neighbours, five of whom “were trouble”. They began to ask him for money, or cigarettes, or anything else they needed. James’ fatal flaw was his over-generosity. Over two years he gave away most of what he had, simply because it was asked of him.
“I initially gave them a few things, like smokes and dollars and that,” he says.
“But then it became constant, and then the family would come around, you know: ‘James have you got five dollars’ and all that. Now, that’s fine, but it actually got to a point where it really started to annoy me. I felt like being intruded.
“I’m not the type of person that likes to be indoors anyway … so I’m thinking – I’ve got this place that I don’t want to live in.”
That’s when James made a decision, a choice, to become homeless.
“It was relief,” he says.
“What I found was, to have housing – SA Housing, and that’s the nature of the beast – it was actually more stressful on me than my current situation. See, I don’t have any stress. I can just go home when I like and no-one’s there (the verandah under which he sleeps). So I can actually sleep peacefully.
“I don’t deal well with stress. Some people don’t and some people do, and I’m the one who doesn’t. So the less stress I have in my life, the more happiness I have. Most of life is about choices, so I choose to live this lifestyle.”
Today, James is a content and – it appears – healthy homeless man. The 30 kilometres or so he walks every day picking up bottles and cans keep him fit, and the belief that he is performing a public and environmental service is a source of pride.
He considers the container recycling to be his job, and the income from this work over the past year has been enough to fulfil a lifelong dream.
James has bought broodmare, which he will train himself and stable at Morphettville racecourse.
This is Bension Siebert’s first article as a member of InDaily’s reporting staff. Email Bension here.
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