WHEN asked how he found the forest, Dr Gregory P. Smith told Richard Fidler on Conversations last week, "the forest found him.”
"I had given up on society and society had given up on me,” he told the ABC RN presenter.
The forest felt more comfortable than another "vulnerable” night in the park as a homeless person, he said.
For 10 years he lived as a hermit in a forest in Northern NSW, catching his own food.
In hindsight, it was a process of de-Catholicisation; a slow purging of the "guilt, shame and fear” instilled in him after years of abuse at a Catholic orphanage followed by years in juvenile detention centres, which left him unable to connect with society.
Despite the healing powers of nature, he became increasingly unkempt and ended up physically and mentally ill - "a pretty scary figure.”
Eventually, he left the forest and had an epiphany in hospital. He was able to make peace with himself and came upon a six-week free computer course at TAFE. He discovered his desire to learn.
As an academic at Southern Cross University, he has just completed a PhD and is a popular teacher within the School of Arts and Social Sciences.
Today, Dr Smith describes himself as "a very wealthy person” who lives in comfort on acreage with a partner.
"It is a privilege to make a valuable contribution and be paid to study.”
Dr Smith's thesis explores how individuals "who lived in institutional out-of- home childcare in Australia struggle with a sense of not belonging to community and others”. The airing of Dr Smith's story coincided with the annual Northern Rivers Homelessness Forum, in Lennox Head, which put the annual cost of youth homelessness in Australia at $626million.
The forum linked chronic homelessness and housing affordability and noted the increasing risk of homelessness for older people, notably older single women.
Next week is Homelessness Prevention Week and on Thursday Homelessness Connect Lismore is holding a community gathering at The Winsome Hotel from 10am-2pm. All are welcome to "give a little love to those doing it tough,” says one of the Homelessness Connect Organisers, Paul Murphy, from The Winsome & Lismore Soup Kitchen.
Homelessness Connect involves a variety of local service providers who will be offering community health services, tenancy advice, housing help, legal aid and counselling. There will be free haircuts, clothing, toiletries and lunch provided, as well as live music and giveaways.
Blankets and towels, warm jackets, non-perishable food, and new socks and underwear would be appreciated if dropped at the Winsome.
"There are multiple barriers obstructing the homeless from mainstream services. Barriers such as lack of basic personal life, access to transport or communication such as the internet; not having a regular address... ...We will have information about housing, the law, Centrelink and other community supports on hand,” Mr Murphy says.
Homelessness Connect partners with Northern Rivers Social Development Council, OTCP, North Coast Community Housing, The Winsome & Lismore Soup Kitchen Salvation Army, Centrelink, Consortium of Neighbourhood Centres (CONC) and Connecting Home.
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