I am drafting this blog post with a certain degree of reluctance, aware of the danger of presenting myself as a ‘heroic’ Christian, brave enough even to sleep on the streets! Nothing could, in fact, be further from the truth but I write, notwithstanding the risk of an inflated ego, because the gift we received on the streets of Sydney is worth sharing.
As part of their studies at Alphacrucis, students enrolled in a Global Poverty class were invited (required actually!) to spend a night sleeping on the streets, with the purpose of trying to learn something about homelessness in Sydney. We were being hosted by Hopestreet Urban Compassion and the exceptional Tim Kurylowicz. The itinerary involved a guided walk around the city, discussion of urban homelessness, an overview of various Hopestreet programs (Cafe, Arts space, women’s space, terrace housing etc.), dinner at a ‘soup kitchen’ (actually, a food van in a local park) and an evening outside in a sleeping bag on concrete.
The experience began with a discussion of statistics. The ABS estimates that there are approximately 100,000 Australians that are homeless, with around 15000 of these sleeping ‘in the rough’. It has been suggested that these stats are understated (the difficulty of homelessness is that it involves people who are ‘off the radar’) but whether or not that is so, it is startling to discover that so many Australians are living under such conditions. Of course stats are one thing, but the tragedy of the numbers are brought home when, as night falls, men stake their spot on the sidewalk under any cover they can get. It was raining this night, but the community seemed unperturbed. Rolling out sleeping bags and wrapping themselves with scarves and beanies, prime locations were full of sleeping men by as early as 7pm.
I say men because most of the homeless we encountered were middle aged men. In fact, however there as many homeless women as men and the largest number of homeless people are aged under 25. Women and children were less visible in the streets of the cross – not exactly a safe place for women and children. Exactly where they spent the night i have no idea, but we were surrounded by men.
In any event, it was so hard to fathom that this was the city of Sydney. I have experienced poverty in Asia, noting the disparity between the rich and poor in places such as Manila and Kuala Lumpur, but I had presumed that Australia, one of the richest countries in the world, did not have the same problem. But it turns out that, while we can spend billions of dollars on a failed insulation project, promise 40 billion for upgrading internet services, we don’t seem to be able to provide enough public housing to keep people off the streets. What this means is that right next to Australia’s most expensive real estate, surrounded by luxury and excess and less then 2 minutes walk from the Ferari and Mazerati showrooms, people fall asleep on concrete.
At 8.30 we joined the throng at the food van. The people doing the serving are remarkable group. Food was distributed by volunteers from the Exodus Foundation, in this instance people from the Orthodox church although, apparently, various Christian and Muslim groups perform this service. Also present was a mobile coffee van serving Vittoria coffee. The owner had been in business 6 months, but was giving his time and coffee away free – a means of using his business as a way of blessing others.
And so we lined up with the crowd for food. It was certainly a humbling and, if I am honest, embarrassing experience to eat in this way. We were discovering that it is sometimes easier to give than to receive. To be the recipient of charity is to be in a position of powerlessness. Even so, there was a remarkable generosity about the group. People accepted us without question, and conversation flowed freely. There was nothing of the awkwardness that normally accompanies new people invading a community. It was a remarkably friendly environment, a long way from the stereotypical assumptions of ‘dog eat dog’ ‘mean street’ poverty.
This is not to say the conversation was ‘normal’ (whatever that is). These were broken people. No doubt we are all victims to greater or lesser degrees, but many here suffered from some degree of mental illness. The causes of homelessness are many and varied but, whether the result or cause of living it rough, it was certainly clear that managing mental health was a challenge. In saying this, I am wary of the stigma that comes with the description I have given. These were nice people, whatever their challenges. In fact, they were much more open and engaging and generous with conversation then any other community I have met. Many churches could learn a lot from this.
And so we returned home to get ready for bed. At this point I am going to tell a story that makes it clear just how shallow I am. Along the way, I came across a man involved in an activity that would normally be reserved for behind closed doors. I burst into laughter but later realised how appalling my reaction was. Most people enjoy the privacy of a home to conduct all the business that goes with being human. To be homeless, however, is to be subject to ongoing indignity, to be exposed, on a daily basis.
Concrete beds are hard, and I am not used to sleeping under a streetlight. We tossed and turned our way through the night, woken occasionally by the rattle of a train, by crooks in our neck, and by the cold. When morning eventually arrived, we debriefed, prayed and made our way back to our homes in the burbs – stopping along the way for coffee and breakfast that others could not afford. The fact is we knew nothing of what it was to be homeless. To live it rough is not to go home after one night, but to live day after day, month after month, year after year on the concrete in the cold, with little hope for a different future.
Not that things are hopeless. Thank God for the ministry of groups like Hopestreet, Exodus Foundation, Wayside Chapel and others. And thank God also for the countless volunteers who work in and with this unique community. Indeed, many of the volunteers working the op-shops and the cafes are themselves homeless, people who in an through their poverty have learned what it is to be generous.
I would love to hear the comments of the students who joined me on this tour. You are truly beautiful people, and i loved spending the night with you all. Michael, Odette, Emma, Aaron, Elianne, Shane, Anna, Primrose, Melanie, Kaity, Peta, Georgi, Shantal – tell us your stories and your insights.