My seasons among the homeless

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The grand old man of Greek philosophy, Aristotle, is said to have declared, 'To appreciate the beauty of a snowflake it is necessary to stand out in the cold.' Odds are, after he'd made the pronouncement, Ari toddled off home from the agora to tuck himself in comfortably.

People walk past not noticing a man sleeping in an alley. He has a sign that reads 116,000. Cartoon by Chris JohnstonThis year for the second year running, I have been doing fortnightly graveyard shifts with homeless blokes in Melbourne's outer-eastern suburbs. A handful of local churches have opened their doors, feeding and accommodating up to 12 men each night during the winter months. The men are processed through Wesley Mission. They get bussed to a different church each day, where they can doss on a camp stretcher, watch TV, grab a shower, eat and talk in a warm, safe environment.

The rules and regulations these guys have to abide by — the behavioural hoops they need to navigate — are designed to protect them, the volunteers and the property of the host churches. They include sensible agreements such as abstaining from threatening or using violence or illicit drugs on the premises, as well as more challenging rules, such as not smoking outside of agreed areas and times; and even agreeing to stay inside the shelter's bounds during proscribed hours. 

It is an ethical dilemma — the ceding of some normally inviolate personal freedoms for the use of the facilities. But the homeless men are seemingly in no position to argue the toss. I don't know how I would feel about it if I was in their shoes.

When you can't or don't sleep soundly because of the climate or the real fear of getting bashed or robbed, there can be no peace of mind or sense of wellbeing. This is the reality for more than 116,000 Australians each night, according to ABS research released last year. That equates with 50 homeless people for every 10,000 of us. Or 40 people over the capacity of my local winter shelter program.

*****

It's three in the morning, and my cup of pretend coffee is cold. I'd had an hour's kip (the volunteer staff try to get some sleep during the shift) and come back into an active role at 4am, on the tail-end of a yarn with one bloke who was quite shaken up. Earlier that day, he'd performed CPR on his overdosed mate, keeping him breathing until the ambos arrived. His mate had recovered well, but he — the first aid provider — was still rattled to his core about what had happened and what could have happened.

Death is a subject that comes up frequently. Discovered bodies. Lost loved ones. Funerals.

 

"There were blokes you'd meet once or twice. You'd hear later they'd scored some temporary or permanent housing. That good news provided ballast against the hard luck yarns."

 

Some blokes present during the shift as if they are already dead. Eyes downcast, no words, no engagement. Some are gun-shy, having been burnt by church types before. One man has extensive experience in south-east Asia and a sizeable Australian prison record. He could speak knowledgeably and entertainingly about both the architecture of ancient temples and life inside maximum security jails.

Some, for various reasons, are not in possession of their faculties. One time, a guy wandered out from the dorm accommodation to use the facilities. He strolled past me and my colleague, a female volunteer, warmly clad — from the waist up. My colleague rolled her eyes, averted her gaze, and commented 'at least he could put some socks on'. Life is not the same for people who have no home. They do not choose that state. Mental health issues feed into their homelessness. 

I met a bloke who used to be a fellow employee. He'd gone through some rehab, ended up as a manager with considerable responsibility and started up his own business. Things soured. Health, relationships and finances worsened, and his life fell apart. Decades after his first stint of homelessness, he'd rejoined the ranks of those without a roof over their heads.

One man speaks rudimentary English, as his fourth or fifth language. Google translator and sign language augmented our conversations. With another volunteer, I explained we could not give him legal advice, and referred him to a free legal service. There were linguistic and cultural divides that hindered us being of real help. We heard later, thankfully, that he'd received some real assistance.

There were blokes you'd meet once or twice. You'd hear later they'd scored some temporary or permanent housing. That good news provided ballast against the hard luck yarns.  

Anton Chekhov memorably wrote that 'People don't notice whether it's winter or summer when they're happy.' I can tell you, from firsthand conversations, that homeless people are mindful of the season they are enduring. They are none too pleased about it.

 

 

Barry GittinsBarry Gittins is a Melbourne writer. 

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, homelessness

 

 

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Existing comments

Why do the mentally ill or the addicted have to rely on the generosity of others, who in the main do not have the necessary psychiatric and nursing training, to care for them? Perhaps it is because the politicians replaced human compassion with economists and accountants and backed up their money pinching inhumanity with the Richmond Report. Perhaps it is because our society has chosen to destroy and replace the concept of the caring, sharing family/community with the "every man for himself" mentality. What a mess the obsession with money/cost has created for civil society.
john frawley | 19 July 2019


I have been a financial supporter of two charities looking after homeless people for a number of years. And I know nothing much of what the homeless endure. I have my creature comforts, lucky me.
Pam | 19 July 2019


Bless you for providing a warm, safe place for them to sleep on cold nights.
Pauline Edwards | 22 July 2019


Resounding yes to John Frawley's comment. While neglect of homeless people is always apparent, current press reports of unreliable building inspection outsourced to private providers is the latest example of government withdrawal from government responsibility. Which Australian political party stands for the mixed economy which includes government provision of essential services?
Ian Fraser | 22 July 2019


"To be able to grab a shower, eat and talk", are welcoming , hospitable acts to provide to people in need. On the tram recently a homeless person was sheltering from the cold. Pope Francis reminded us to get close to the impoverished , to be with them. But the smell of the unshaven man with dirty clothes actually made me gag and I sat as far away as my stomach could allow. And I felt ashamed of my inability to connect. The work of the Wesley Mission in providing the service you describe Barry ,and with the conditions applied seem to be an example of what local councils could implement. Where are our communal hearts going? .A play at the Malthouse , called Solaris among other things reflected on the needs of humans to connect to others with love. Providing basic requirements and needs, as the Mission does , seems a good start..
Celia | 22 July 2019


Thanks, Barry for this item. I worked in the shelters for some years and your words show how you have engaged with clients and also with the complexity of the issues. I think Celia's words were so true: some people are hard to show love to. Long there may these gentle words of inclusion written by both Barry and those who responded.
Ross Bell | 22 July 2019


Sadly this sort of service is not as widespread as it needs to be. I am aware of a wealthy Anglican church in Carlton that is currently undergoing a multi million dollar renovation that continues to ignore the homeless that sleep on it doorstep in Lygon St. As a Christian I find that as confronting as the fact that the homeless are there in the first place. Thanks Barry for your contribution to their lives and for talking about it
geoff | 07 August 2019


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