Homelessness has many faces



The first thing I noticed was his Mercedes. It was only when he got closer that I realised he was also wearing a pretty expensive-looking suit.

Soup van queueWe don't see the likes of — well, let's call him 'John' — coming to our soup vans every day. When you've been visiting the streets of Melbourne serving food to many of the city's hungry, lonely and dispossessed for a couple of decades you do get used to seeing the same old faces.

But John reminded me of a very important lesson. That homelessness hasn't got a 'look' — and the word 'homeless' never describes the person, only their circumstance.

It's a big idea. Perhaps that's why some people struggle to grasp it. But as a soup van operations manager I see it every night. The people we see are experiencing homelessness in one way or another and it's clear that with homelessness there's no one size that fits all. It could be an older person, a couple in a car, a woman in a domestic violence situation or someone with mental health, trauma or substance abuse issues.

Of course, the main thing we serve is soup, because it gives people a great deal of comfort, and every night we have a wonderful team of volunteers chopping up vegetables to make 70 litres of soup. We also create thousands of sandwiches a night.

If that sounds like a great deal of food that's because it needs to be. There are people right now in all our capital cities who are experiencing food shortage. We have some people who come to us and say that once they've paid their utilities and rent there's very little left over to provide meals for the whole week. So we might see them two nights a week. Others we see every night of the week, because they come for friendship and social connection.

On any given night across Victoria our volunteers, or Vannies as we are affectionately called, see up to 1000 people, and the Vannies go out seven nights a week, rain, hail or shine. Sometimes we have one person front up and request quite a lot of food. In our experience this often means that the person will take those meals to their friends back at their boarding house, or squat, or to a family in need.

Most people come to us to talk, or for assistance. Usually they're very hungry and it might be their only meal for the day. These people may not attend other services during the day. They have told me they feel ashamed, because they don't feel like they're adequately dressed, or haven't had a shower for over a week, so they come to us and know that they will be accepted as they are and won't be judged.


"Providing a warm and comforting meal for those in need is so much more than just providing food. So many who come to our soup vans come because they're experiencing a great loneliness and emptiness inside."


People have asked me about 'backpackers coming for free food'. I can honestly say that I haven't come across many, and those I have, are genuinely down on their luck and in need. We serve communities of people who know each other, and we know them, so when we see a new face among those we're serving we'll get alongside them and most of the time we'll discover a genuine need in that person.

The latest Australian Council of Social Service statistics support this. According to results released in 2016, there were close to three million people living below the 50 per cent of median income poverty line. Of these, 731,300 were children.

Unfortunately, this isn't news to us. We often have mum and dad with kids in the back of their car, who turn up for an evening meal. People ask me 'Why are they coming to the soup van? They've got a car.' Well, that family is probably going to drive around the corner and eat their food in their car and sleep in the car because that's actually their home.

Providing a warm and comforting meal for those in need is so much more than just providing food. So many who come to our soup vans come because they're experiencing a great loneliness and emptiness inside. When someone says to you, 'If it wasn't for the Vannies, I wouldn't be here, but you gave me hope to keep going,' it's pretty powerful.

You might want to know what happened to John. We gave him food and a sleeping bag. It turned out he'd lost his job, and the suit and car were the last things he owned. He talked and we listened, and I'd like to think that when he finally packed up for the night, he went away with something else, too. His dignity.


Danusia KaskaDanusia Kaska is Vinnies Soup Van Operations Manager for Melbourne. Main image by Stella Chrysovergi.

This Thursday 22 June* more than 1530 CEOs across Australia will take part in Vinnies CEO Sleepout, which raises more than $6.5m every year and supports vital services for people experiencing homelessness, including crisis accommodation, food vouchers, soup vans, rent assistance, referral services and more. (*In Adelaide, the event is held on 29 June.)

Topic tags: Danusia Kaska, homelessness



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Existing comments

Thank you Danusia and to all the Vannies with you. So proud of your capacity to stay with reality and remind us to get here as well Go girl!

Anne Ryan | 20 June 2017  

A very touching article and I embrace what you have shared with us. Thank you for all that you do-you have a strong message.

Anne G | 22 June 2017  

The organisation I belong to, The Seaford Housing Action Coalition {SHAC} provides homeless people in the Seaford, Frankston area with a meal each Wednesday evening. The people come along and have formed a very friendly happy group amongst themselves. Last night one started to sing to the group. The meals supplied by the government and local council will cease after next week. The people are very disappointed. Like Danusia said the group are made up of a variety of people, last night a woman and her son turned up for the first time and was very appreciative of the meal and environment. What the future holds we do not as yet know.

Kevin Vaughan | 22 June 2017  

Thank you to the Vannies for all you do and for the respectful way you do it.

Frank Golding | 22 June 2017  

I feel compelled to pass on to all volunteers out there how inspirational your work is! Well done. You restore our faith in humankind!

Gundars | 22 June 2017  

Great service ! Dismayed that Catholic Religious Australia held a "Living prophetically " conference at Pullman Albert Park with a $90 dinner. Something more simple perhaps needed !

Marcia | 22 June 2017  

Thank you, Danusia, for what I have found so encouraging. The generosity shown in what you and your team are doing gives a splendid example. I especially like your acceptance of everyone with no judgements made.

Br Geoff Seaman | 22 June 2017  

Good work, may God Bless you richly.

Nancy | 22 June 2017  

I am a member of the Order of Malta; our winter work is to meet the Vannies at their various stops and to offer people a warm coat. These coats were designed in collaboration with a homeless person and are long, padded and have large internal pockets, to accommodate personal belongings. I am often humbled by responses to the offer of a coat, when people say:'Oh no, others are in more need', or 'I got one last winter'. Conversations with people who come to Vannies are often a graphic reminder that it could easily be me in their situation.

Margaret | 23 June 2017  

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