The former homeless woman who found a sanctuary and art during COVID

At the beginning of 2020, Painter was living on the streets, struggling with addiction and the physical and mental scars from an abusive relationship.

Fast forward a year and on Sunday she is holding an art exhibition – From Adversity to Creativity – hosted by the owner of serviced apartments in East Melbourne whom Painter credits with saving her life.

Painter with some of the artworks from her exhibition From Adversity to Creativity.Credit:Wayne Taylor

Painter was one of more than 2000 homeless Victorians put up by the government in hotels during the pandemic to combat the spread of COVID-19.

She was placed in Birches Serviced Apartments in East Melbourne, which usually hosts affluent guests attending sporting events or concerts at the Rod Laver Arena.

“I never intended to take the homeless on or change anyone’s life,” says Birches owner Jennie Kerr. “But without them, I wouldn’t have survived. I was getting paid by the government, so I could still run my business.”

It was a tough year. Many of the homeless people staying at Birches had chaotic lives and grappled with substance abuse, mental health issues and violent relationships.

“There was a point if I didn’t have the police here, the ambulance were here, if the ambulance weren’t here, the fire brigade were here,” Ms Kerr says.

One bright spot was meeting Painter.

Ms Kerr recalls being contacted by homelessness organisation Launch Housing and asked to house a client of theirs who insisted on only being called Painter. “I thought I can’t say ‘Welcome Painter’,” Ms Kerr says. ‘So when she arrived I said ‘Oh hello, welcome Miss Painter’.”

Painter, who reciprocated by calling Ms Kerr’s cavoodle “Mr Hollywood”, quips: “I stepped up a class just by moving in here”.

The pair struck up a friendship during the long months of lockdown. ’I could just see a diamond in the rough here,” Ms Kerr says.

When government funding ended for Painter’s accommodation last November, she was offered a property in the city but told The Age at the time it didn’t feel safe.

“You could smell the ice in the room. I worked long and hard to give that shit up, I don’t want to go backwards.”

Ms Kerr says she was blown away by the response to The Age story, with one woman donating $500 to help pay for Painter’s accommodation.

Ms Kerr let her stay on rent-free. “She’s become part of the Birches family, we all love her dearly.”

Painter says Ms Kerr saved her life. “There’s not enough superlatives in the world to express it. It’s the first time I felt safe since I was 16. I am 46 now. That’s enabled me to get off drugs. She changed my life in every way that I’ve been wishing and wanting to be able to do. I’ve always said I just need one person to treat me with a little bit of respect and watch me flourish.”

When Painter showed Ms Kerr photos of her street art in Hosier Lane, Ms Kerr said “you’ve got some really beautiful abstract designs there’. She bought her canvases and encouraged her to paint in the carpark at the back of the serviced apartments.

Painter says that when she is angry she paints to express her emotion. “Now it’s the easiest way for people to understand what’s going on in my head. It’s the easiest way for me to understand sometimes too.”

The receptionist at Birches bought Painter’s first work. Ms Kerr hung a painting of a green naked lady on her bedroom wall. Most of the apartments at Birches now feature Painter’s art.

Painter says she knows she can’t live at Birches forever. “That’s not fair on anybody, as much as I love living here.”

When the exhibition is over she and Ms Kerr will focus on finding her a permanent home where she feels safe. “I need space of my own. I need somewhere if I want to throw paint and leave paint all over the yard, that’s my choice.”

From Adversity to Creativity is being held at Birches serviced apartments, 160 Simpson St, East Melbourne from 3-5pm on Sunday, April 18.

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