Karen* was forced to leave her home due to family violence about seven years ago, leaving her with nowhere to live.
She couch surfed for a long time, before moving in with her sister. For a time she lived in her sister's dining room, but for two years she slept in a swag in the backyard.
With nothing but a fence to shield her from the worst of the weather and no shelter, Karen lived in the exposure of the elements with only the love of her two dogs. It was especially difficult during winters.
"It was pretty hard living out in the swag. It was pretty cold and wet," Karen said.
"Every day I had to pull the mattress out to dry it out because moisture was coming through the sheets and blankets."
Without a fridge or dry space to store her belongings, she lived off canned and packaged food. Sometimes she was given leftovers, but it meant she rarely ate a balanced diet with vegetables and meat.
"It made it really hard for me to control my diabetes at the time," she explained.
While she was receiving a disability pension through Centrelink, her self-reliance means she "doesn't like asking for help".
I was just living on what I couldKaren
"I was just living on what I could," Karen said.
Eventually she approached Cafs in Bacchus Marsh, after hearing about some of their units, though unfortunately she was not able to stay there with her pets.
"I was stubborn and wouldn't get rid of my dogs because they are my life," Karen said.
"They are really important to me. They are my everything - my family and the ones that keep me going.
"I'd rather stay out on the streets than lose my dogs. I wouldn't give them up for the world."
Having a companion animal is common for the homeless community but means options are limited when looking for crisis accommodation.
Referred to Uniting at the beginning of last year, Karen had an assessment before she was linked in with support worker Juelz Sanders through the Street to Home program.
It was difficult for Karen to reach out for help as it meant putting her trust in someone - opening up and telling her story to someone new, without knowing what their response would be.
Initially liaising on the phone, they first met face-to-face in between the two major lockdowns and Karen and Ms Sanders have since built a strong relationship.
While excited about the prospect of securing a home and her freedom, Karen was also frightened of being on her own due to the physical violence she had experienced at the hands of her ex-partner.
The fear that he would find her was one of the reasons she was so afraid to reach out for housing assistance earlier.
It wasn't until she found out her ex had died that she felt confident and safe enough to apply for housing, but it did not mean her trauma had disappeared.
Related coverage: More people experiencing homelessness or housing crisis in Ballarat
After about 12 months of being supported by Uniting, a house was found for Karen. She didn't believe it for days and constantly called Ms Sanders to confirm it was true and that it wouldn't be taken away. On the morning she was to sign the lease, Karen arrived two hours early.
Finding a home has been life-changing for Karen. Now she is no longer living day to day and operating in survival mode, she has been able to address her mental health issues and trauma.
Karen is one of 42 people formerly sleeping rough who are being supported by Uniting in long-term housing.
She is currently seeing a counsellor to work through what she experienced, has been linked in with a general practitioner and is in a better position to control her diabetes, by purchasing and cooking healthy food in her kitchen.
It's really good. It's made my mental health a lot better and I can see a future for myself now instead of feeling down everyday and taking everything day by day.Karen
She will soon complete a cooking course to learn some new recipes and is also learning more about how to best her finances.
This is the first winter she has spent in a warm house in several years.
"It's really good. It's made my mental health a lot better and I can see a future for myself now instead of feeling down everyday and taking everything day by day.
"I can now say I'm finally happy again."
While at the moment she is enjoying setting up her home and adorning her walls with pictures of her animals, in the next few years she hopes to complete a barista and hospitality course.
*Karen is not her real name as she wanted to protect her identity
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