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Surviving the cold, small hours


There is nothing quite as Melburnian as sitting cozily next to a brazier outside a cafe, or an alleyway eatery, at Fed Square or down Carlton way, with cooked breakfast and your caffeine of choice at hand. I’m ensconced at Southbank as some poor sod rows down the Yarra, fighting a head wind and horizontal rain. 

Winter is upon us, and the middle-aged men in lycra peddling past have conceded the fact by donning hideously cheerful raincoats. Squads of joggers splash past with several thin layers on, the better to avoid the ‘Rona, or the seasonal bugs laying waste to semi-returned office teams. Even the dogs, promenading with tired humans in tow, waiting to pick up excreta, wear luminous winter coats. Scattered parental units are clad in Inuit-worthy garb, umbrellas to the fore; pity their offspring obscured in moon buggies.

I sit my weekendly vigil watching the parade, listening to trams clang down St Kilda Road, over the Princes Bridge to Flinders Street Station. I scatter croissant crumbs, crinkly bits of bacon and eggy bits to sparrows, Indian mynas, magpies and seagulls. They flock disorderedly. They’re not getting my coffee though.

It looks like a triumphant return to some kind of normal, with inter-staters flying in to catch a show and luxuriate in glammed up hotels. Such is my idle idyll. But a klick across the river, as usual, hundreds of people are rocking up to chase down support from long-suffering churches and services.

Unless you are up high, in the snow lands, winter in Australia is not the extreme bogey it manifests as in colder lands, where people who live on the streets are found dead on the streets. Inadequate or non-existent shelter, clothing and heating, however, produce a host of physical, cognitive and psychological health issues. Misery rises as temperatures fall.

'There’s nothing wrong with us enjoying a quiet breakfast and admiring the beauty of a winter city steeped in recovery. If we can’t also see the people sleeping on cold concrete, or sitting half-dressed, with no hope, peering through unfocused eyes, then we’re not getting the whole picture.'


Kiara (not her real name) has lived rough, after years of being in and out of state care. Her skin is jaundiced, her teeth are rotten, her eyes are a vivid, often unfocused blue. She can be aggressive with social workers and support staff, as well as her fellow homeless Australians.

Things went up a notch a few weeks back when she physically assaulted people sitting at Café Excello, on the corner of Spring Street and Little Collins Street. They were quietly sipping coffees, eating breakfast. The diners’ peaceful contentment was a red flag for a drug-affected Kiara. Staff intervened, police were called for, but Kiara had moved on before they could respond. Kiara’s anger is born from pain and resentment; fueled by drug dependence and abandonment. She is by no means alone.

Take Jake (again, not his real name), who’s had multiple interventions and enforced hospitalisations in the past few years. On a good day he’s charming; I’d call him great company. (Until January this year I worked with the Salvos’ Project 614 at 69 Bourke Street.)

Jake will share a laugh and a joke as he waits for a meal, or some clothing, some help paying for a prescription, or a food parcel. He looks you in the eye, pretends to square up to get a rise out of you.  

On a bad day? Jake has been banned for periods from several services, for aggression and assault. He wrestles with anger. Pain. Resentment. Substance abuse and a burgeoning old age without any partner, family or friends who care for him and offer sanctuary.

People like Kiara and Jake are invisible. We walk past them, averting our gaze, not engaging unless we must. We baulk at carrying their sorrow, bearing the brunt of their anger, or recognising our human kinship.

There are churches and services who care for them, and government social workers who list them as clients. But friends, partners, mates who won’t rip them off? Who will treat them like family? They are rare. And rarer still in the cold, small hours of winter.

One such person is the Salvos’ Major Brendan Nottle, who’s worked with homeless Melburnians since 2003. I mention Kiara’s actions at the cafe to him. ‘When we take the time to listen to people’s stories, it is more difficult to take people’s behaviour and situation at face value,’ he says. ‘We move from judgment to awe — despite their pain and circumstances they are able to survive, in the face of overwhelming challenges. Could I keep going if I was in their situation? The answer may be no.’

Sometimes, people walking past beggars and people sleeping rough think that getting homeless people off the streets will do the trick. They say that, loudly, to their mates, either kindly or angrily. I’ve heard them.

But Brendan says ‘the community needs to realise the truth of that old saying, “It takes a village”. Simple things can make a profound difference in someone's life, like taking the time to have a conversation, sharing a smile or a cup of coffee. It sends a powerful message that we are all people.’ 

Brendan recently had two markedly different experiences with homeless people. These both involved men living in profound crises, whose lives were precariously poised. The first man, thankfully, was seen. Regarded and valued as a fellow human being. Helped. That help included conversations and interventions from two of Melbourne's most influential leaders, who were encouraging and engaged with the plight of their unfortunate constituent. That homeless person also received a freshly cooked meal from a leading restaurateur. In Brendan's words, ‘the village showed up.’ 

The second instance? A man was ‘living’ on a railway bench. He, too, smelled. His health was also compromised. But to those living their lives around him, he didn’t exist. Brendan recalls walking through a throng of 30 or so Melburnians, happily drinking champers and nibbling on canapes while laughing with friends. Brendan passed through the bonhomie, the joy, and then, some 30 metres past that warmth and laughter, he met this man.  

A conversation ensured, quietly. Calmly. Dignity was noted and paid due heed. Brendan didn’t talk down to him, or stand over him, or tell him what to do. Thankfully, the man chose to accompany Brendan to a nearby hospital’s ICU, where he remains at this stage as several health issues are addressed. Brendan says his response was more than a spiritual response as a minister. He says ‘it wasn’t just a Christian response — it was an act of humanity.’

‘We are all our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.’

There’s nothing wrong with us enjoying a quiet breakfast and admiring the beauty of a winter city steeped in recovery. If we can’t also see the people sleeping on cold concrete, or sitting half-dressed, with no hope, peering through unfocused eyes, then we’re not getting the whole picture. We have to keep up.




Barry Gittins is a Melbourne writer.

Main image: Chris Johnston illustration. 

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Winter, Melbourne, Homeless, Recovery



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Existing comments

It takes a lot of strength or respond in humility to people who confront us in their poverty. We are uneasy about our own lack of poverty and it is easier to ignore. Yesterday I shared a walk with my husband and daughter along a seaside esplanade and stopped to have a nourishing lunch of chicken and vegetable soup. We are three of the lucky ones. We didn’t know the life stories of the other people in the cafe, just the knowledge that they had enough money for a good coffee or meal or both and they had warm clothing. Those good, comforting things should remind us to be more attentive to those who need nourishment from us.

Pam | 07 June 2022  

Thank you, Barry. I was in town the other day with my students. I hope they will learn to see beyond their own coffee and hot chocolate and to look up from their phones to see the plight of those on Melbourne's streets in winter. Beautifully written. Brendan Nottle is a Salvo saint.

Ann Rennie | 09 June 2022  

Its good to see the plight and be attentive to the needs of all the homeless , those on the streets , those sleeping in cars , those couch surfing, those trying to keep warm in cold warehouses. Write to politicians, volunteer in welfare groups , start a go fund me account on facebook to donate to appropriate support groups, maybe even donate your year's coffee allowance so that you don't have to sit in a seaside cafe and see those unsightly humans sleeping rough nearby.
Homelessness is the tip of the iceberg in the underlying breakdown of relationships , the lack of mental health services, the absence of a humane leadership that espouses equality and fairness for all. in our society.

Celia | 12 June 2022  

Thank you for your comments; I agree that comprehension and action are prerequisites to change on any level. Pam's reference to people who 'confront us in their poverty' is pertinent... we have to learn to share our toys if we want a better world.


Barry Gittins | 13 June 2022