Life

A former NSW Liberal politician has written her thesis about a couple who chose to live in a cave, in order to challenge the negative stereotypes of homeless people. By Michele Tydd.

Making a home in a cave

Judith Hopwood (right) visits Rose and Kevin Davies in their cave north of Sydney.
Credit: Supplied

Rose and Kevin Davies* married in 2013. It was a modest civil ceremony, followed by a one-night honeymoon, donated by a local motel owner. Afterwards, the pair clambered down a sandstone headland overlooking the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney, back to the cave they called home.

It had no electricity, no bathroom, no water supply. They often shared the space with local wildlife, including possums, snakes and a two-metre goanna they named Thomas.

Rose and Kevin were part of Brooklyn’s rough-living community, who for decades made makeshift homes in bushland tents and caves along the shores of the river. For some it was a refuge from the cold cement of city homelessness.

A few months before the Davies’ wedding, Judith Hopwood began her doctoral thesis on the lived experience of homelessness.

“My aim was to throw light on people who society and government had largely failed,” says Hopwood, who was the member for Hornsby for nine years from 2002 and is a trained nurse.

“I wanted to produce a study that gives them a voice to challenge the negative stereotypes.”

Initially her aim was to interview selected members of a whole community, but she decided to focus on one woman and those people she closely interacted with, to better capture the human vulnerability and individuality she believed was missing in most of the reports she reviewed in pre-data research.

The wedding – and Kevin’s funeral soon afterwards – are two of the significant events Hopwood records in minute detail as part of the narrative approach to her thesis. The final document is based on more than a year in the field, following Rose and Kevin’s life, as well as their interactions with the wider community, volunteer workers and health professionals.

Rose, who was then 53, is portrayed in the study as a quietly spoken reflective woman who dabbled in art. Apart from her diabetes, which she managed with several daily insulin injections she kept in a temperature-controlled backpack, she seemed physically healthy.

However, Hopwood soon discovered Rose had suffered severe early trauma.

In one interview, when questioned about her childhood as one of five children growing up in western Victoria, Rose’s hesitancy prompted Kevin to say, “It will give you nightmares. I have to deal with it every night. She has had the worst life of any woman I have known.”

Rose quietly muttered she had memories of being “cold, wet and starving”. The neglect she alluded to resulted in her having all her rotted teeth extracted by her 18th birthday. Reports from other people in the area attested to Rose’s night terrors, which manifested in howling for hours “like a wild animal”. They became especially bad before Kevin moved in to her cave.

Kevin, too, had a troubled past, with an inability to fit into conventional society or family life, exacerbated by his somewhat pugilistic attitude to authority. School bored him and so he buried himself in nonfiction books. He went on to study music at Sydney’s conservatorium and played several instruments. His favourite was the violin, one of which he kept in the cave. He created a library in one section of the cave by stacking hundreds of books on music and natural history in old milk crates.

“He was the dominant of the two, but although he often spoke over Rose or answered for her, he seemed to be a stabilising influence,” says Hopwood. “Rose saw him as her protector, which was clearly seen from one of her paintings of a large man holding a tiny woman like herself in sheltering embrace.”

Hopwood spent much of 2014 in a Brooklyn motel, shadowing the couple. On only one occasion did she visit the cave to document its layout. She was surprised to see how roomy and orderly it was.

“It was no easy feat to work my way down the sandstone rock face,” she recalls, “but if you did fall there was a rock cave base that jutted out for landing.”

Once during her study, Kevin, who was a functioning alcoholic, fell while ascending the wall and cracked his ribs.

Solar LED lights were the only form of lighting. Anything valuable, such as Kevin’s violin, was stored in plastic boxes. Food was plentiful and lined the natural rock shelves. Without a fridge, anything perishable was used on the day it was purchased.

In early 2015, Kevin became seriously ill with an undiagnosed stomach complaint. As his illness worsened, he was unable to reach the cave, so the couple set up a tent in the council park where they had been married, just metres above their cave.

Hopwood says Kevin’s period of ill-health when he was assisted by a voluntary advocate allowed her to record some disturbing insights when he twice presented to hospitals.

A planned endoscopy preceding the first admission was not performed because of Kevin’s inability to adequately prepare for the test. The strict ingestion of a large amount of liquid, and the subsequent need to have a toilet close by, was the main disincentive because Kevin would have had to climb steep rocks to access a toilet (in the dark). The advocate lobbied numerous times (to no avail) to have Kevin admitted into hospital the night before the endoscopy, so that the essential preparation could be undertaken in this environment. The hospital expressed surprise when Kevin did not attend his appointment, much to the immense frustration of the advocate.

Weeks later when his condition deteriorated Hopwood recorded this incident detailing his long wait in an accident and emergency department:

An explanation to the advocate for why [Kevin] had not been seen by staff was that he had the ‘DTs’ [delirium tremens] due to alcohol intake. The advocate was forced to argue with the Accident and Emergency staff about his condition and the urgent need to have him examined as soon as possible. Given the then current rule for New South Wales Accident and Emergency Departments – that each patient should be seen and treated/transferred/discharged within a four-hour period – a more than six-hour stay with no examination was not a policy outcome that was acceptable. Yet, this had happened to Kevin, because of a dislike of how he smelled, and an assumption about his condition.

Kevin died in June 2015, less than two years after his marriage to Rose. She saw to it that his violin was passed on to a son he had not seen for 13 years.

Hopwood says she was left with a strong sense of admiration for the pair. “For all the heartache in their lives, they both displayed amazing survival skills and resilience, qualities society does not normally attribute to those living rough.”

What stood out for Hopwood was the role their volunteer advocate had played in their lives, something she has recommended could be formalised in existing homeless support.

The finding that most surprised her was that homelessness is sometimes a choice, as in Rose and Kevin’s case, who for different reasons both rejected the notion they did not have a home.

Rose acknowledged her homelessness but saw it in a positive light. “It’s amazing,” she said. “When you’re homeless and live out in the forest … The animals just accept you as a part of them.”

But Kevin seemed affronted by the premise of Hopwood’s observation. “Who’s homeless?” he threw back.

Hopwood remains in touch with Rose, who moved to a unit in Sydney’s west soon after Kevin’s death. 

* Names have been changed.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 9, 2021 as "Finding refuge".

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Michele Tydd is an Illawarra-based freelance journalist.