There are times in life when you experience something that stops you in your tracks, leaving you to question the important things in life. Today, this happened to me as I ticked off Number 41 from my list- Take a Stranger to Lunch.
In keeping with trying to tick another 10 items from the list before the year is out, I ventured into the city today with the intention of not only finding a complete stranger, but also one who would agree to join me for lunch. As it happened I found not one but two people- a couple in fact named Chris and Emily. Chris and Emily are the loveliest people in the world, but have a story that not many would share. They are homeless.
A casual walk up Sydney’s George Street led me to Martin Place, a busy thoroughfare for office workers in the heart of town. If you’ve walked there in the last few months you might have noticed Chris and Emily- Chris wears a blue NY cap and they usually sit on the corner of George Street and Martin Place, side by side, with a cardboard sign that reads;
If you haven’t noticed them, don’t worry, not many people do. This is something these guys have to accept. Of the people who do take the time to stare down at them and read the sign, Emily tells me that their reaction is mixed. Some generous people offer loose change and sandwiches but sadly it’s not rare either to see someone taunt them by shaking their pockets full of change as they stroll by with a spiteful glare.
“Get a Job!” is the most common call, but this is hard for someone with no house. Literally, their belongings are held in a few torn bags that they rest on as they lean against a huge pillar in front of the Martin Place Post Office.
Chris repeats something that I remember another homeless person told me a while back,
“You can’t get no job with no house, and you can’t get no house with no job”
Within spitting distance of international banks, designer shops and ritzy restaurants, Chris and Emily have nothing. Well, almost nothing, these guys thankfully have eachother.
In 2002, Emily’s uncle with whom she lived with in Queensland pleaded guilty to 6 years of sexually and physically abusing Emily and her brother. He was given 12 years in jail. In what was a complicated family situation, Emily’s Mum then asked her to leave the house. She was immediately homeless.
At the same time, Chris was routinely chancing his arm with the law, and spent much of his time avoiding the police who had a search warrant on him. Again, he was homeless.
One year later in 2003 Chris and Emily met for the first time in Queensland and things changed. Chris, realised that he needed to straighten his life out and turned himself into police to serve a deserved 4 months in prison and Emily stopped her drug use. Sharing a lot in common, including the fact that neither of them know their fathers, they ended up spending a lot of time together and 7 years down the track can proudly say that they are still together. This of course is tricky for a homeless couple as most refuges or shelters don’t allow couples to stay over night and so as a result when the couple do have the luxury of staying a night under cover, it is confined to the only place; Teresa House.
This isn’t to say that homeless people don’t have options. Chris tells me that there is a chance of eating, showering and even dong the laundry every day thanks to food-cars, shelters and generous people, but even so there is a large percentage of mentally ill homeless people who are unable to care for themselves having been kicked out of mental institutions.
Centrelink also gives them $200 each every week meaning that the couple can seek the cheapest accommodation in town on at least 2 nights a week, leaving them with only another 5 nights a week at Central Train Station, a night destination for many homeless people in town.
“It actually generates a sense of community” says Emily who mentions the names of the locals who also sit on the street Cold Biting, or begging as most of us would know it. As she speaks another homeless man walks past us and sits down 10 metres away in the middle of an alleyway. His look is one of emptiness and I wonder whether its alcohol as opposed to his situation that makes him gaze unknowingly into the street. I think in this case, it’s the latter. I feel sorry for him.
“The thing is that some of them actually own a house, but cold-bite just so they can get money for drugs or something like that. It gives us real homeless people a bad name!”
Chris and Emily are a young couple, mid-twenties and if you didn’t know any better you would think that they were like any other twenty-something year old couple walking down the street. Sure, on closer inspection there are the longer finger nails and the worn clothes, but self respect and determination seems to have helped them along the way. You see, these guys have a goal; to get a house. Not just for themselves but for their 4 kids as well!
As they tell me the names (Kayden, Daniella, Nicole and Viola) of their children, I can’t help but wonder where they are. Emily answers this question as she produces a framed photograph of the four of them together back before they had to give them up temporarily,
“They’re with their foster parents now”
Chris adds “We can’t get them back until we have a house”
This, I admit, makes sense on many different levels in regards to bringing up kids, but it also gives Emily and Chris a goal- they need to get a place to live. Unlike their own childhood, Chris and Emily want their kids to grow up knowing their parents.
It’s a sad and often hard story to take on board without shaking my head in disbelief. I feel useless.
The department of housing can offer accommodation for 28 days of the year to the homeless as well as give them $500 for further accommodation but yet again life has complicated the deal for the couple. Months ago, a shady character offering lodging at his place in Dulwich Hill seems to have taken their money with no actual room to give them. This has left the couple on the outer with the department of housing and they are now seeking legal representation to reclaim what is rightfully theirs.
I can’t help but notice that bad luck seems to follow these guys around, which given their situation, makes me sad. Thankfully however, they reassure me that this situation is being resolved.
“On top of that, we save all our Centrelink payments and are saving up for a deposit on a rental property.”
The money that generous soles drop in their tin can is considered spending money but with only $12.50 in total for the day, there isn’t a lot to go around.
“On our best day, we get over $200!” grins Chris. Not much for starting a day at 6am and sitting in one place until 9pm.
By this stage of the conversation we have moved from the end of Martin Place to a near-by restaurant bar called Bar 333. Chris and Emily have accepted my offer of lunch on the proviso that we sit outside as she feels embarrassed walking inside carrying her life’s possessions in a couple of bags. This is not a problem and together we find an outside table. Once we place all the bags and the large cardboard sign on the floor beside us, we order some food. Armed with a credit card, I make it clear that we can eat anything from the menu but even with this knowledge, Chris and Emily simply ask for a bowl of hit chips. It’s a very humble order and one that I wish they expanded on but these guys are genuine and I think have too much self respect to take advantage of the offer. I, in turn, respect them.
Chris then orders a glass of coke but I insist he joins me in having a beer. A large smile on his face tells me that he’d prefer that. Emily however prefers a soft drink.
I order a serve of Calamari in the hope that we can share and soon enough the food is on the table. Emily winces as she eats and after asking why, she tells me that one of her teeth had split in half earlier that morning and without the aid of a dentist, she simply has to let it dangle until gravity takes it toll. I feel like offering a hand but realize that having absolutely no handy-man skills, Emily is better off playing the waiting game. I tell her this and we laugh.
Over food we talk more about Emily’s past which continues to play out like a horror movie; kidnapping, prostitution (not Emily, but others around her), death threats, mental institutions, exorcisms, suicide and drug use, but still she talks with a positive voice, inspired I think by her kids.
Chris on the other hand has been in pursuit of his mother for years now and only recently, after creating a Facebook account, has he reconnected with her. She may hold the key to a more secure future but only time will tell.
“But no matter how bad it gets, we all help eachother on the streets.” She tells me.
This I see first hand as after a brief pause in conversation, she asks if I’m done with my calamari. I answer yes which triggers her to tip the remaining 5 or 6 pieces of calamari onto a piece of paper before then leaving the restaurant. I have no idea what she’s doing until she B-lines it for the lonely homeless man now lying down in the middle of the alley. As he looks up, she hands him the package, a much needed dinner from a girl that has done nothing but impress me.
When she returns I see a note-book pokes out the top of her bag and after admitting that she has a love of writing, Emily shares a poem that she wrote titled Think of My Loved Ones.
I told her that I would put it on the site not because I felt sorry for her but because I thought it was brilliant.
If there is someone you really love,
And in days to come they die,
Your love and feelings are strong for them,
And then you begin to cry,
Knowing that they’re gone but thinking they’re near by,
Watching from above,
In heavens only sky
So the teardrop runs down my face,
Ad the crying won’t stop,
You are the one I love,
And that love for you will never stop.
I know now you’re gone,
And you’re not coming back,
But I’m always thinking of you loved ones,
As time goes past, so does life,
And I’m missing you more than ever,
Waiting for the day,
That we’ll be joined together
Right now I’m sad that we’re apart,
Right now I have to mend my broken heart,
But I can’t wait till we meet again,
But I hope you have fun in heaven till then
She writes the final word and signs and dates the page.
Emily wants to write a book about her life and I have no doubt this is achievable. My mind starts ticking over. I’d love to help.
As we finish dinner, the heavens open up and rains hits George Street with anger. I pay no attention at first but have noticed how Chris and Emily have turned their heads to look at the sky with intent.
“I hate the rain” says Emily.
Unlike myself who has a roof over my head when I return home, Chris and Emily have nothing. In fact with this realization they turn back at me and tell me that should go. They need to go and raise more money.
I top up their tin of coins with a paper donation that that I wish would go further, but I know that a nights accommodation will help in this weather.
Chris shakes my hand firmly and I give Emily a big hug as we say good bye, but this is not the last time we’ll meet. In fact I’m looking forward to get back into town to say hello.
For those of you who do frequent Martin Place, do me a favour; if you ever see a young man wearing a blue NY cap, sitting on the ground next to his partner asking for money, stop and say hello. You won’t meet nicer people all day.
100Things… What’s on your list?