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.
JennSeptember 10, 2010 at 8:15 pm
Some of the most loyal friends are people without homes on the streets of my home city. I’ve slept rough (just a little) myself as a teenager and it can be a bleak existence. I remember though, as a 15 year old, (not homeless) sitting with some middle aged homeless men, who shared their joint with me – sounds strange, but it was totally an act of sacrifice and sharing. And the fact that I was a young girl and they were middle aged was not wrong or inappropriate, and the men were not (as far as I could tell as a fairly streetwise teen) motivated by anything other than friendship and sharing. The homeless community often does not have social barriers that other groups might, similar with your experience Shane, all are welcomed. Another man got a disability check and spent it on cider for the group. Now obviously we could look at that and say they could have spent it on better things, but they gave out of what they had to the community – with a better attitude than some Christians. As a young adult I worked as an advisor for young homeless people, and was frustrated with the system and the people who fall between the gaps. Definitely an issue to give to God in prayer, as well as commit our part to seek to be a solution to homelessness and rough sleeping, as well as the often accompanying issues of mental health etc.
Tanya RichesSeptember 10, 2010 at 8:33 pm
This is awesome Shane… definitely as pastors we know how hard it is to get emergency accommodation for someone!!
At some point, it became shocking enough for Hawke to promise to change this situation – yet it seems little was achieved – surely we can put this issue on the radar of the Government again…
Craig BennoSeptember 10, 2010 at 8:52 pm
I found myself homeless early last year (2009). I was a little more fortunate then a lot, for I had my Kia van to sleep rough in which I did so for 6 weeks or so.
I was forced out of my home due to ongoing domestic violence and was suffering from a debilitating physical illness as well which had partially paralysed my right side which had hospitalised me for 2 months late in 2007.
The department of housing was hopeless and I found myself on a 12 year waiting list for housing. During this time I even approached the college for a room asking (begging) for grace to be allowed to pay the bond when the stimulus payment came through…which was denied.. so back into the van I had to go.
You can read more of my story here http://mencanbeabusedtoo.wordpress.com/my-story-part-1/
Now I do voluntary Chaplaincy work with homeless men in a short to medium term shelter with Mission Australia. While there is a level of mental illness and addictive problems with homelessness, a lot of people find themselves homeless for various reasons….
*When I was sleeping rough, I met a man who also was sleeping in his car… His story was that they had lost their rental home… his wife and children were accepted into a woman’s refuge and because of his gender he was refused accommodation.
At the shelter I met a guy who had terminal cancer… his landlord found out and kicked him out, not wanting the hassle of him dying there….
A few guys are victims of domestic abuse from their female partners. 1 jumped from a 2nd story balcony to get away from his girlfriend who had locked him out… and was sharpening a kitchen knife to stab him… he had broken both ankles. Another guy had his hand near cut in 1/2 by his wife with a meat cleaver who had a psychotic episode…. his pastor told him point blank he had to be a real man and go back to his wife…. He said…I am too frightened to do so… next time I will die…
One guy lost work / income through hurting his back at work… lost his rental apartment and had to wait 3 years for his workers comp to come through… had huge hassles getting centerlink benefits.
There is a huge gender discrepancy in the system between provision for men and women. Current research is showing that 40% of dv victims within heterosexual relationships are men… yet there are no shelters where men are able to go to that have provision for them to take their children with them.
Some personal notes… Its been my experience that in general the church is bloody hopeless at ministering to the homeless. Again I do speak from my experience. My previous church leadership black-banned me from receiving any help, having the attitude I shouldn’t have left the family home and therefore wasn’t really homeless … even though at the time I had done so at the advice of the police who had come because I had been bitten to the bone on the wrist and had been threatened to be stabbed by my then wife.
I also at the time suffered from huge depression compounded by slow recovery of the previous mentioned illness. Like Jen said above, I look back at the simple level of friendship and acceptance from those I found who were also homeless.
Recently I remarried and while down at Melbourne on our honeymoon we walked past on 2 occasions a lady who was sitting on the street begging. She looked homeless and at the time I had no money on me to give to her… I found myself praying to the Lord asking Him what he would have me do… and felt him say.. just sit beside and listen to her story.
I never did see her again… however since that time I have always made it a priority to be prepared to stop and talk to someone who appears to be down and out and just listen to their story.
P.S there is a level of homelessness within working class people also… finding affordable rental is at crisis point. I had met a few people who were sleeping rough in their cars who had stable jobs…. they just couldn’t find a place to rent.
JennSeptember 10, 2010 at 9:13 pm
I love that Craig…”just sit beside her and listen to her story”…that’s one of the best things you can do. I remember discussing in training with homelessness experts, who said one of the biggest gifts you can give is acknowledgment. Because it’s better for someone’s self-esteem to be acknowledged, even if it is negatively, by passers by, than to just be ignored, as though you are invisible, and not seen by anyone…which sadly is the most common response to someone selling the Big issue for example. Listening to someone’s story places value on someone that money or food never could – that they are worthy of your time, that you are equals, that you care about them.
Craig BennoSeptember 10, 2010 at 10:33 pm
Jen one of the biggest lessons I have learned from Eastern Orthodox theology is that all of humankind is made in God’s image and therefore we should treat all with the dignity and respect that they deserve because they are made in God’s image.
Its very empowering to be heard.
Shane, I didn’t know the college was doing this as a subject. Kudos to the college for doing so and spending the night roughing it.
KaitySeptember 10, 2010 at 10:59 pm
Shane, your opening paragraph is perfect!!
This experience was just amazing! I started writing last night, and came home this morning and just couldn’t stop writing, mostly because I don’t want to forget what I personally experienced from last night and this morning, and because we have an assignment. I’ve typed out 5 pages, and written about 5 more. I don’t want this time to ever be a missing memory in my mind, because I think I can learn from it, and gain so much from each little thing that happened. I would love for some of my friends and family members to be able to do something like this, and get to talk to them about what they experienced, and I’m grateful we went as a group and could talk about what it was like for each of us….
I can’t, however, get this thought out of my mind yet – I came home this morning, well I could stop there really “I came HOME” hmm…. but I came home, took a shower, and took a nap, then hung-out with some friends, and made a nice dinner for myself, and will go to sleep tonight in my nice bed, with my warm blankets and a nice house to live in, and continue this cycle night after night… I don’t know if I feel bad about this, I don’t think I do… but I do realise that there is so much more that I can do as someone whose heart is for people, and whose life should reflect that of Christs. May I never ever get comfortable in my nice house, with nice food, and good clothes, and completely forget about anyone who might not have these things.
With that said I have A LOT to think about and reflect on this weekend from the past day and night. I am truly grateful that I was able to share this experience with amazing people, and one hell of a good lecturer (that’d be YOU Shane)!!
Props to HopeStreet and Tim, what a fabulous ministry and team!
Shane CliftonSeptember 10, 2010 at 11:16 pm
Thanks for the reflections Kaity. I did not come home feeling bad or guilty, just grateful, not only for my own blessings, but for the goodness of people like Tim and the Old man dave. And, as you say, a lot to think about.
Michael WongSeptember 11, 2010 at 1:28 am
On the outset of our excursion, I thought I would try to blend in. It was going to be cold, so they said. I picked the thickest, biggest ‘hoodie’ I could find, threw it over layers of flannelette. It made no sense to secure a sleeping bag within a backpack worth the same value; I secured my belongings in a Woolies ‘Green Bag’. I had already recognized my own comfortable means. Adopting ‘functionality’ for a lack of fashion already defining a diaspora at the edges of a consumeristic, ‘glittarati’ society. It was here that I realized that our (loosely) ethnographic excursion was not only an opportunity to empathize with the daily experience of Sydney’s Inner-City Homelessness; but also an invitation to become aware of the ‘perceptions of the non-homeless’; and more contritely, of our own.
I wondered how many would have envisioned life on the street. As I had a conversation with a lovely middle-aged homeless man at this food van, looking into his eyes I wondered if in his first crawling steps whether such tender skin could possibly endure the unyieldingly rock-like surface of open-street beddings. I wondered what kind of life his parents imagined for him or whether he remembered his parents at all I wondered if this man grew up as a young boy without doubting a home as a variable; without fearing to be to a sheeted bed and the warmth of washed linen. This polite and courteous man was not obscure is detailing that his friend was minding his lot underneath a concrete alcove whilst he visited this ‘food van’., Surely no human being deserves to live plainly exposed to what most middle-class income earners would find unintelligibly difficult to imagine in our sleep ; yet this is the reality that they bring with to rest each night.
Homelessness not only has a definition; but a face. The homeless each have a name whom they have been called by; a harrowing story which holds a special place in the heart of God. It is confronting to recognize the humanity in the those sleeping in the frosty streets of Sydney are not merely ‘opportunities’ for us to satiate our guilty egos with blue-ribboned works; but fellow human beings who, in every remark share the need for basic needs, community and grace. Why is it that we seem to have drawn a longer straw? Certainly being human spans beyond our ‘lot’ in life (and all the economic security this surrounds us with). I was blessed to be able to be have been surrounded with a wonderful group of people who were openly challenged with empathizing with the poor. Your candor was encouraging; and tenderness towards the people we met; uplifting. Perhaps our humanity distances further than how we ‘compare’ ourselves with the poor; far into a glorious future in which creation is renewed; and redemption is evident in our present workings.
This too, being a rough draft, is one I am unlikely to complete, having slept only a few hours during my experience in Woolloomooloo. Yet I know my bed tonight will feel gratuitously warm; whilst for many homeless, tonight will be another cold and lonely night. May God warm our hearts with His love, guide us in the power of His Spirit and open our eyes to grace He offers humanity.
Thankyou to Tim for all your hospitality, insight and kind spirit. I was touched by the kindness with which the HopeSt volunteers treated me with before we all arrived!
Another thankyou to Shane, Anna, Georgi, Elianne, Melanie, Kaity, Peta, Georgi, Shantal, Odette, Emma & Shane Watson…. it was great to get to know you guys all a bit better; and be warmed to the heartfelt passion that you have for others…
Michael WongSeptember 11, 2010 at 1:58 am
1st Blog Apologies: Sorry Georgi for cloning you; Primrose and Aaron for missing you out. My mind is a bit slow today…I hope I did’nt inhale too much of those fumes the girls said they smelt being smoked whilst we slept… 😉
Andrew Dawkins-HopeStreet DirectorSeptember 15, 2010 at 8:49 pm
Dear Shane and all other post-ers,
Thanks for your excellent story mate and your affirmation of our work at HopeStreet. We are blessed & enriched by your involvement and trust that the experience will “infect” you, that you may pass on to others the message that God’s heart is for the poor and homeless and loves them and seeks after them with a passion. We all love Tim and are hugely privileged to have this man anchor our Urban Ed. program.
Blessings to you all,