The 77-year-old social worker has been helping Sydney’s downtrodden for decades. What her many clients don’t know is that, while she’s been helping them cope with everything from food shortages to housing and health crises, she has been homeless herself for much of that time.
During one three-year period, when she was president of a large inner-city Sydney conference of the Society of St Vincent de Paul she lived in her car, visiting a friend to shower. She was rubbing shoulders regularly with some of the city’s wealthiest, most powerful people, and constantly afraid her personal circumstances would be exposed.
Maria Taylor* could be your grandmother. Small, white-haired, chatty and endlessly caring. She calls everyone “darling” or “my dear”. She spends her days visiting and chatting with elderly people around Sydney, helping out as an overnight home carer, or just keeping them company for a few hours.
Maria has been both an employee and volunteer for “St Vinnies” for more than 45 years. She spent much of that time in senior positions overseeing welfare operations for large numbers of Sydney residents living in hardship. She views her service as an affirmation of her faith which, in turn, provides her with her ongoing strength and hope.
She is 10 years past the current official retirement age, but cannot afford to retire. Some uncaring extended family members who stripped away her inheritance, a compulsive-gambling, alcoholic, now-estranged, husband, and a “friend” who conned her out of her entire superannuation savings have left Maria surviving in Australia’s most expensive city on a pension of just $500 a fortnight, plus the small wage she earns as a part-time carer.
I don’t think I’ve had a bad life, or a sad life or a good life, you know?
Maria, whose parents separated when she was very young, was born into a wealthy extended family, but grew up in poverty, living in boarding houses with her mother, who was in her late 40s or early 50s when she gave birth to her fifth and only surviving child. They relied on charity for food.
Her mother died when she was 12 and Maria entered a series of convent-run shelters, where she received some schooling but mostly worked in domestic service for wealthy families. Eventually, an aunt took her in, this time in public housing. She was still expected to work, but realised education was key to her future so she began to attend courses at night. The family money she was supposed to inherit was long gone.
They drank, smoked, cheated, schemed, lied and thieved. And when they died they died with nothing.
In her late teens, Maria met Ross and fell in love. They soon married and settled into a happy life.
Then the Vietnam War began and Ross was conscripted. He returned a very changed man. But he did well at work and quickly rose through the ranks to become a senior manager in his company. They bought a house and had two children, a son and daughter. Both were born with disabilities, as were all of the next generation. Maria blames Agent Orange for this.
There were other devastating after-effects of the war. Not just the nightmares, when he’d shout and thrash about in bed, trying to stab Maria with imaginary knives. Ross began drinking during his Vietnam days and his new habit escalated back in Sydney.
During the next 15 years, through Ross’ job they travelled extensively and bought a home, but their seemingly good life was a facade. Ross began going out for drinks with colleagues and quickly developed a taste for not just alcohol, but poker machines. He lost their house and two more because of his addictions. Maria was working five part-time jobs, and Ross held his own position but they couldn’t keep up with his gambling losses. It destroyed their marriage and the stability Maria had dreamed of.
Maria and Ross have never divorced. As devout Catholics, it just isn’t an option. Despite their separation, she continued to visit him, cook meals, and clean his flat for decades.
It was during this time she was responsible for some of St Vinnies’ largest welfare centres. For three of those years, she lived in her car.
Being the president [of a large welfare centre], you can’t live like that. Because I had to live up to that, I couldn’t let anyone know I’d got to that stage.
Maria moved into public housing in Redfern, but after numerous personal assaults, including one where she was duct-taped into her car and another when her car was completely overturned, the police helped her to secure other emergency housing. Her new building was soon sold by the NSW government to developers and all of the public housing residents evicted.
About six years ago, Maria was invited to Europe by a colleague. She had a wonderful time working her way from country to country, staying with relatives of her friend. On the last day of her trip, she was assaulted and robbed and a nightmarish journey home began. She spent five nights sleeping on the concrete floor of a Milan police station before finally getting embassy assistance to make her way to London. She gathered the fare for her trip to Heathrow airport by begging for money at the bus terminal.
Back in Sydney and recovered, Maria visited Ross for the first time in months. He was furious she’d “neglected” him for so long and the two haven’t spoken since.
She’s no longer a paid employee at St Vinnies but continues to volunteer, managing a store on the northern beaches each weekend.
She has a public housing flat at Artarmon, but only spends one or two nights a week there. It floods and it’s been broken into five times since she moved in. Still, she thinks she’s lucky. On our drive to Crows Nest for brunch, she pointed out another public housing block further along the street. “That’s the one the drug addicts live in,” she told me. “I’m glad they didn’t put me in there.”
Three nights a week, Maria stays at the home of an extremely wealthy 97-year-old on the north shore, as one of six carers. She says the old woman is “very smart, but mean”, and Maria has to bring her own tea bags and milk to work. She spends another two nights at the home of another client, who has dementia. On her days off, she visits people in nursing homes just to give them, and probably herself, some company.
Her doctor has told her she has early dementia. She’s not sure whether to believe him and spends some of her limited internet time researching the disease. She doesn’t know what she’ll do if it progresses severely.
It’s been an extraordinary journey for this descendent of Australian explorer William Lawson, one of the trio which found the first viable route over the Blue Mountains in 1813.
Over a long brunch in the winter sun outside a Crows Nest café, Maria shared her story with me. She denies it’s a sad story or even my suggestion as we parted after hours of chat that it’s been a “wild ride”.
“Do you think so? No…”
*Note: Maria’s name has not been changed. She was happy to use it. It’s her life and she sees nothing much wrong with it and no reason to hide any more.