Life’s too comfortable – let’s live in a rooming house

What would lead a young married couple to leave their comfortable home to become live-in house managers at a community rooming house in one of Melbourne’s leafy suburbs? The answer is both simple and life-changing. Life was too comfortable!

Many of us might acknowledge that but how many actually react against ‘comfort’ and opt not for ‘discomfort’ perhaps, but more ‘challenge’?

Let me introduce you to Jayden and Mikyla Battey, who in June 2020 became live-in managers at a community rooming house in Melbourne. The word ‘community’ as the descriptor is key for the Batteys, as that is what has helped make this particular rooming house, managed by Servants Community Housing, home for this young couple – the community.

Jayden and Mikyla are living alongside 28 adult men, many of whom Jayden says have experienced some of the worst in life.

“Because of their mental illnesses, disability or trauma, they have endured lifetimes of neglect, exclusion and instability,” Battey explained.

The men, along with support people such as the Batteys, form the community, which provides safe, stable and affordable housing to its residents.

“Before moving in, we had felt unsatisfied with life as ‘normal’. Our normal was a great church community, renting a nice house in Melbourne’s leafy eastern suburbs, stable jobs and good friends,” Jayden said.

“With so much going well on the surface, there was a deeper need not being met. As we entered COVID’s first set of lockdowns, we realised if our relationship with people who were facing homelessness didn’t change – that we could too easily sit at home and pretend to ignore needs beyond our four walls.”

‘Normal’ led to lifestyle change

So the Batteys packed up their apartment, not for a seachange or a treechange, although without doubt a lifestyle change, and moved. And yes, they did have some pretty heavy conversations before they took the leap. Unsurprisingly, Mikyla was reluctant, maybe even dogmatically opposed.

She felt alarmed about living alongside so many men with complex needs. But after a week as relief house managers in early 2020, Mikyla’s perspective changed and she was ready to embrace a new normal … so much so that Mikyla now works full time at Servants!

Jayden is a young man with restless energy and a huge capacity for work. He loves people, ideas, creativity, writing and new challenges. The ABC was recruiting young people and invited interested parties to write a piece for them. Jayden wrote Servants manager Jayden Battey writes for ABC News. about his and Mikyla’s new life working as live-in managers. He wrote about the people, the impact on the two of them, the wonder, the delight of shared living, the heartbeat of their little community.

An ABC mentor helped him craft the story, to remove the excess and bring it down to the bare bones. Then to add colour, as a master painter adds small touches here and there; Jayden added little details back, enabling readers to feel a part of this special community of traumatised men.

The story was published Servants manager Jayden Battey writes for ABC News. More than half a million views later, Channel Ten’s The Project made contact with this young couple to ask if The Project team could come and spend a day filming with them in their small community.

Perhaps you have just seen The Project story which aired tonight. What makes it special? Probably not as much as you think. The Batteys and the residents of this community rooming house are just going about living as most of us do. There are many other people like the Batteys who are quietly serving others. Some because of their faith and calling. Others because of a desire to care for their “neighbour”.

What is special is Jayden Battey’s willingness to not just reflect on what he and Mikyla have learned through this extraordinary, wonderful and challenging experience (which is still ongoing) but then to write about it.

Let’s start with what Servants Community Housing offers. Hospitality is central. The rooming house provides a daily breakfast and six dinners per week, as well as regular community BBQs with neighbours and local churches. The Batteys already knew of Servants, and were particularly attracted to its mission statement which says nothing about housing: “creating communities where respect, dignity, hope and opportunity are nurtured”.

18 months on …

18 months into the job, what reflections do the two bring?

“Actually, the way we approach issues like homelessness and mental illness has completely changed,” Jayden says.

“In seeing our residents model a healthy tension between having agency and relying on their neighbours (and being relied upon), we’ve come to realise how damaging it is to pretend we can do life alone.

“People are not solo creatures – we are designed for relationship. We have experienced community modelled better by our 28 residents than by almost any other group we’ve been part of. Life together is a gift.”

“…it comes down to a simple but easily overlooked truth – that we all need connection.”

Asked why he thought half a million people were interested in his ABC piece, Jayden says, “I think it comes down to a simple but easily overlooked truth – that we all need connection. Especially in this COVID moment, we are all painfully aware of how loneliness can impact us in the worst ways.

“The article explained some of what I’m learning from our residents and posed the gentle invitation to reconsider all our relationships. I wanted people to question the messy, difficult relationships around them, and to consider leaning in instead of running away.”

Perhaps we have not fully answered why the Batteys elected to make such a significant lifestyle change. Yes, they didn’t want to be too ‘normal’. But why? And why community housing?

“The answer is in the name,” Jayden said.

“We moved into Servants Community Housing to follow Jesus’ invitation to ‘love thy neighbour’ and to serve those around us. The gospels specifically ask Christians to give their lives in service, especially to those who experience hurt.

“Living here is a small way we can do that – although I have to admit we learn and receive more than we give.”

“Living here allows us to experience life together in a beautiful picture of diversity and grace.”

What have the Batteys learned? Surely they are doing the giving?

Not according to this couple.

“More than anything, living here allows us to experience life together in a beautiful picture of diversity and grace.

“We get the opportunity to afford residents dignity and respect, modelled through patience, forgiveness, and compassion. We also see that modelled by the residents,” Jayden said.

He is also quick to add that it is not always easy.

“Living with so many diverse people with complex needs is challenging. People test your patience!” he admits.

“But as we walk together, and find ourselves lacking, we are forced to face our own brokenness. We are confronted by situations where we are able to choose to lead with the qualities Jesus calls us to live by. We have to draw on our faith for perspective, and we ask God to provide where we feel we are falling short.”

No doubt you are asking the same question as I did. Has your time with Servants changed your understanding of God and/or your understanding of yourself and your relationship with God?

Not surprisingly, this young couple, just 25 years of age, have an answer for that as well.

“More than I can say! I mentioned earlier the confronting nature of being in trying circumstances – facing your own brokenness and being forced to deal with your sin,” Jayden said.

“I find our idols of consumerism, achievement and busyness are easier to lay aside when we see people with little living content with what they have.”

This is a commitment involving two people to a community. It could not work if either party in the partnership had doubts. While Jayden Battey has been the voice in this article, he is speaking for two.

“We’re not here to fix people, or to solve their problems,” Jayden says.

“We’re here to simply be in relationship; it’s our consistent, steadfast and faithful presence that makes a difference to the residents. At times, being matters more than doing.”

Check out Life & Faith’s latest podcast to hear from the Batteys: Full House – Centre for Public Christianity