AT 81 years old, this remarkable former deli worker and “tea lady” is finally putting down roots in a rented unit after three decades of living in a converted passenger bus.
Lee Blake, who has outlived two husbands and a daughter, never really felt comfortable in private accommodation, moving 28 times in the eight years she was with her first husband.
Since retirement, she’s been constantly on the move, finding a sanctuary in an old Toyota Coaster bus that once seated 30 people, upgraded with its own kitchen, shower and bed.
“I’ve lived on the road like a gypsy since 1987, but periodically I’d go into a house for a break,” she told news.com.au. “Then I’d hit the road again. I liked eating and I couldn’t do both, I couldn’t find rent cheap enough.”
While some might think living on the road is brave, Lee says she felts far safer on the bus than in many of the rentals and neighbourhoods she could afford. “You don’t wake up in the night and think, ‘What’s that strange noise?’” she said. “If that happened, I’d just drive off.
“It’d be easier to break into this unit than a bus. You’d have to smash the windscreen and that would wake me up.”
The pensioner, who has driven around Australia twice but favours cruising up and down the southeast coast between the Gold Coast and Sydney, says life on the bus was not without its challenges.
While it had its own toilet and shower, the tank needed to be filled with water at regular intervals. If it wasn’t, she would face sometimes desperate searches for amenities that were open past 7pm — in the worst-case scenario, resorting to a bucket.
The 81-year-old also faced a battle to dispose of her rubbish, since dumping can carry a $550 fine. “If I’m at a picnic table having a coffee and a pie, I can walk over to a bin, but if I step out of a motorhome, they’ll say, ‘no, you can’t do that here.’”
Lee was told by one rubbish collector to always empty out the bag, so the authorities could never prove she disposed of more than the one bank statement with her name on it.
The Sydney-born widow — who has also slept rough in parks and on beaches and classifies herself as homeless — says these problems are universal when you’re on the streets.
Despite her pension, money has long been a struggle. After her second marriage, when her daughter was young, Lee picked up lemonade bottles from the beach for money to buy food. If she didn’t find enough, they would miss a meal that day.
When her daughter died from cancer six years ago, Lee was left with no family and no savings. She has just $6 in her purse and $7 in her bank account, but credits her “Pollyanna approach” for helping her survive adversity.
The bereaved mother had given up on joining the years-long waiting list for public housing, and ran into problems when they wanted a home address. “I thought I’d be dead in 15 years,” she said. But last year, Lee realised she did want to apply, and the wait would be shorter for someone of her age and location — so she rented a space in a caravan park to have a fixed address.
The agoraphobic pensioner is generally not a fan of these “beehives”, preferring to park her bus illegally at picturesque rest stops as she zips around Australia. “I’ve never been fined,” she said. “Sometimes they’ll ask, what’s this bus doing here? Are you living here? Why has it been here for two days? I’ll say no, I’m staying down the road with friends.”
She says she enjoyed not having constant visitors and always being able to move on to somewhere new, but was ready to settle.
She’s now found a “beautiful unit” in northern Sydney with the assistance of Mission Australia, but says it’s taken eight months for it to start to feel normal. “You have to do it slowly like a drug, you have to acclimatise,” she explained, adding that she had taken six weeks out in that time for a final bus trip to Airlie Beach. “By the time I came back, it was right out of my system,” she said.
Mission Australia CEO Catherine Yeomans says the number of over 55s reaching out for assistance from homelessness services continues to grow. “The high cost of housing is placing great financial strain on many older people, particularly those who are renting,” she said, as the organisation releases a report into the problem. “For people who are surviving on social security payments like the age pension, there’s not much left over after paying the rent each week.”
While Lee still has to be careful with her electricity bills, she is building a stable life in her eighties. Her worst nightmare is going into a nursing home. “I’m like a 61-year-old, I’m full of energy, I run up and down the stairs — but I’m lazy. It took me two weeks to unpack the bus, I don’t things in a hurry.”
When she was finally hanging up the last curtain, she had a heart attack and had to call an ambulance. “It was like bad indigestion,” she said. “They put in a stent. I think it was the stress and relief of having a place and thinking, ‘Do I really want it?’”
Now, Lee spends her time going for walks, shopping, having a coffee and some food, and occasionally playing bingo. “I’m a loner but I hate being alone,” she said. “I would love someone to come and live with me.”
She says she is good at finding ways to amuse herself, but admits she sometimes feels a little “fidgety and bored” surrounded by four solid walls. “I’m here in one place looking at one window — well, there’s more than one window,” she said.
“All I can do is walk down to the beach, I can’t drive to the next beach in the next town — I’ve got to sleep on the same block of land every night.
“But I’m quite settled now, I’m all right about it.”