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It was only months ago that Uncle Cecil, or ‘Ces’ as he is affectionately known, was sleeping rough and in desperate need of a safe and stable place to call home.

After working all his life, in 2012 Ces suffered a heart attack, had quintuple bypass surgery and as a result was forced to retire.

He began experiencing depression, which can often develop as a result of a heart attack. Years later, he found himself homeless — couch surfing and sleeping in his car.

“I was staying a couple of weeks here and there. Some mates said to me ‘you can stay here for a couple of nights’, but I didn’t want to intrude because they had families,” he said.

“So, I’d park up at the beach because they’ve got showers down there – the ones outside. It was freezing cold but at least they’re showers.

“The only thing with living out of your car is you can’t cook and you’re constantly buying takeaway, so your money just goes like that.

“Even when I was sleeping in the car you’ve got to be careful. You don’t know what people might do to you – that’s what’s really sad.”

Ces is a Ngarrindjeri Elder, born at the Point McLeay Mission Station on the banks of Lake Alexandrina. The Mission was handed back to the Ngarrindjeri people in 1974 and was renamed Raukkan in 1982.

As a young boy his family packed up and moved to the big smoke – settling into Salisbury in Adelaide’s north.

For eight-year-old Ces, life in Salisbury was a stark contrast to life in the heartland of Ngarrindjeri country.

From his first day at school he experienced racism and was regularly beaten up by fellow students on his walks home from school.

But Ces remains ever grateful to his parents for their courage to uproot the family and their yearning to establish a stronger future for their children.

“We were the first Indigenous family to move into the Salisbury/Elizabeth area,” he said.

“My mum and dad were heroes – growing up I didn’t realise the sacrifice they made to move away from family. They didn’t know where they were going.

“For us kids, our future was limited where we were.”

Through all his experiences, Uncle Cecil has cultivated an incredibly well-rounded perspective on life.

As time went on, Ces noticed a shift in the attitudes towards him and his family. His Dad encouraged him to get into footy and the children that used to pick fights became friends.

“We became teammates, growing up in Colts all the way to A-Grade and our bond now is so great,” he said.

“That’s the way it was. They all had my back and we ended up extended family through sport.”

Ces grew up and continued on to work on the roads – travelling everywhere from Alice Springs to Port Lincoln – spending months at a time in a single location.

But after injuring his back in his 40s, he was offered a job as a tour guide on the Murray River.

“I was a mess at the time, and I thought I’ve got to do something. So, it started with the Murray Princess cruises, pointing out the Aboriginal engravings and explaining my culture,” he said.

“I’d have my photo taken and see it all over the world. I was talking to a hundred people on the Murray Princess from America, England – I’d make them laugh and educate them.”

Ces then dedicated decades working across the Riverland community – from educating school students about Indigenous culture and coaching A-Grade footy, to working with young people with disability and mental health issues at various not-for-profits and running a program at TAFE supporting children dropping out of school.

“I started helping running camps up at Morgan for all the colleges in town. I’d go up there, cook traditionally, tell them stories, get them to cook and talk about our culture, and at the end of the day, they’d have to make their own dreamtime story.

“They loved it – it was great. I always asked them [school students] if they had any questions and you couldn’t get away from them.

“Then I became the Storyteller of the mid-Murray. I was nominated for Elder of the Year when I was up the River which was very humbling – it was nice to know that people must have appreciated me.”

The historic Murray Princess, from which Uncle Cecil told many stories about his culture to thousands of overseas tourists.

Ces was working with Aboriginal Health transporting people back and forth to appointments when he had his heart attack.

While he made a brief return to the Riverland after his surgery, Ces said he “hit the wall and had enough”. His battle with depression had well and truly begun.

“I loved working, but my mind was somewhere else. I moved back to Adelaide with family and friends and started spiralling into depression,” he said.

“I’ve always been strong, but this was different.”

In 2020, AnglicareSA’s Assistance with Care and Housing program, which supports older South Australians who are homeless or at risk of homelessness to find affordable housing, learned of Ces’s struggles of couch surfing and sleeping rough.

With a list of health and mobility issues exacerbated due to his experience of homelessness, the program advocated for Ces to find a property that could support his needs.

Before long, or as Ces describes, the “next minute”, he was offered a brand-new property through AnglicareSA Housing.

“Jamie [AnglicareSA tenancy officer] said ‘we’ve got a place – a brand new two-bedroom unit, would you like to meet us there and see if it suits your needs?’” he said.

“She gave me the address and of course I couldn’t wait to meet up with them, so I went for a cruise past the house and thought ‘wow’.

‘’After years of working with people down and out, it’s hard when you get to that stage yourself… so when they showed me through the house I just couldn’t believe it – I nearly cried.”

AnglicareSA tenancy officer Jamie handing the keys over to Uncle Cecil.

All properties as part of AnglicareSA’s 10-year social and affordable housing development program have been built to the NDIS ‘improved liveability’ design standard. This means Ces’s new home is equipped with wider doorways and stepless entry to support him age-in-place and to live his best life.

Through the generosity of Muna Paiendi Primary Health Care Services and the Aged Persons Welfare Foundation grant, Ces received a bed, fridge and other white goods to help set up his new home. He was further supported by AnglicareSA’s Quickest Warmth Project – which provided bed linen and kitchen utensils.

“Three months before I moved in here, I had no money and bugger all – just the gear in my car,” he said.

“I’ve still got to pinch myself – bloody hell you lucky bugger, what did you do to deserve this?

“At least it’ll make the days I’ve got left heaps better.”

Uncle Cecil in his new kitchen.

Safe, secure and sustainable social housing has provided Ces the opportunity to manage his health issues, give back to the community that he loves, and most importantly spend quality time with family.

His spare bedroom is set up for his grandchildren, so they can visit as often as they want.

“My daughter married a Scottish man and my grandson is now 18. He said to me ‘gee Gramps I’ve got the best of both worlds – I do Welcome to Country for school and play in the Elizabeth City Pipe Band.’

“When he played at the pageant a few years ago, I was choking up. I’m so proud of him.”

Ces is now exploring volunteering opportunities so he can continue passing on his wealth of knowledge and experiences to younger generations.

“I couldn’t thank AnglicareSA enough for everything they’ve done and how good they’ve been.

‘’It’s so great for places like this to be available to people.”