Anyone meeting Nicholas (Nick) Villiers today would agree the 25-year-old is thriving.
With two degrees under his belt, a Masters in Business Infomatics from UC on the way and a job as a business architect for the Federal Government, he is a highly educated and well-spoken young man.
You would not guess by looking at or speaking to him that eight years ago, he was homeless. But this highlights a point he is passionate to drive home.
“Every single person could be one bad event away from homelessness, and people often don’t realise that until it’s happening to them,” he says.
“Nobody ever expects to become homeless. Quite often, it’s through no fault of their own.
“As far as you know, someone you know might have faced it at some stage in their lives, or could be facing it right now.”
Nick grew up in an impoverished family. As one of eight children raised by a single mother with a disability, he experienced family conflict and breakdown and eventually, sadly, became a statistic.
In a study by the Australian Institute of Families Studies 62 per cent of respondents cite family breakdown or conflict as the main reason for becoming homeless for the first time.
Now a well-documented housing affordability crisis is pushing more people over the poverty line, and into homelessness.
In Nick’s case, he was homeless for about a year from age 16, spending about eight months living in a youth refuge before a friend gave him a critical leg up.
“I’ve always been goal driven and for me, finishing school was my ticket out. They recognised that drive and offered me a place to stay until I finished school,” he says.
“Without that help, I honestly don’t know what I would’ve done.”
In 2019, Nick came across an opportunity to “pay it forward”, taking on a volunteering role at the Early Morning Centre in the city.
“When I was homeless I told myself if I ever get out of this, I would search for a way to give back,” he says.
“I had a lot of people who helped me when I was in that situation, and now I have the pleasure of doing that for other people, which is so fulfilling.”
The centre is best known for its daily breakfast offering for the homeless, but Nick says it is so much more.
“A lot of people look at what we do and think it’s a soup kitchen. We see ourselves as a community centre, with big emphasis on the community part,” he says.
“For a lot of the people who come through our doors, we might be the only person they speak to that day. That human interaction and sense of community and belonging is a big thing for a lot of people. In some cases, more important than a hot meal in the morning.”
The centre doesn’t only operate in the mornings. During the day it’s a “community hub” and a “one stop shop” to help people doing it tough get back on their feet.
It’s a place where people can grab a hot shower, direct and collect mail and launder clothes.
Here, they can access a phone or the internet when needed, or a range of services including medical and financial.
People who meet with staff to discuss their individual cases can speak to experts that come in to donate their time and expertise, or be referred on to services they need.
Staff from a range of organisations such as Centrelink, ACT Health and Orange Sky drop in on particular days to offer guidance.
The centre also hosts social activities such as bingo, discussion groups and a very popular annual footy tipping competition featuring former Canberra Raiders player Sia Soliola.
Nick is mainly part of the breakfast team.
“We try to make it a really nice eating experience,” he says.
“We set the tables, put napkins and cutlery out, sometimes nice music and we cook the food. People come in and we give them table service or they can take away. When that’s done we pack up and head to our day jobs.
“Every day we offer a different menu … the pancakes are always very popular.”
The Early Morning Centre will be one of the beneficiaries of Hands Across Canberra’s Canberra Day Appeal.
On 8 March the 48-hour “Canberra Giving Day” event will see many local charities and organisations access much-needed funds for the essential work they do for Canberrans.
Many charities hold events in the lead-up under the Canberra Day Appeal banner, and donations are also collected online.
“Dig deep if you can,” Nick urges.
“If my experience taught me anything it’s that you can’t know if someone around you is struggling, or when you might need help yourself.”
To learn more about Hands Across Canberra’s Canberra Day Appeal or to donate, visit the website.