Number 62- Live on the Street for 1 Week

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The Challenge:

Typically, we all know where we’re sleeping each night of the week. The concern for food stretches no further than choosing what to pick out of our fridge or what to buy at supermarket. The warmth of a bedroom is a given, as is a hot shower and privacy. In a very literal sense, this is our comfort zone. This is our home. Wanting to test the boundaries of my own comfort zone, the idea that I give-up all of these things for one week just so I could experience the idea of ‘homelessness’ has always appealed to me and where better a place to compromise all that I’d ever known than in my home town of Sydney. Armed with no wallet, I.D, phone or bag, the clothes on my back were all that I had as I walked into the middle of town on a cold Monday morning. My plan was simple; live on the streets for 1 week. The fact that it was the middle of winter made it even more challenging.

Little did I know that this week would not only show me a new way of life, but also introduce me to a hugely misunderstood community.

The Beginning:

“Welcome!” The friendly smile belonging to the girl who welcomed me into the Street Level drop-in centre made me feel comfortable first thing on Monday morning. With no plan on how to best survive the week, it was a tip-off from a friend that dropping into a crisis centre was my best bet.

“I’m hoping you could give me some information on where I might be able to find some food and accommodation?”

Immediately I’m handed a pamphlet outlining all the services and facilities made available to the marginalized people living on the street. Eagerly running my finger through the timetable layout, I couldn’t believe my luck as I was struck with a smorgasbord of choices. Multiple food vans complimented an array of activities ranging from piano lessons to yoga. Various support centres all offered shower and toilet facilities as well as libraries and free internet. Free transport was even offered for those less mobile. Aside to finding accommodation each night, which was then explained as ‘very limited’, there was a lot to look at. By this stage though I had already made the decision to sleep outside and so my mind was settled, for now.

“Thanks so much, this is actually my first night on the streets of Sydney!”

“Well in that case we have this for you too.” With that I was then handed what looked to be a tent. “It’s a swag for the homeless; a backpack bed.” Considering I had nothing but the clothes I was wearing, this was a great option and so I thanked the girl and left with it over my shoulder. With a backpack bed to sleep in on my first night, the day had started well!

Daylight always offers a sense of security to me and so as I began wandering the familiar streets of Sydney on my first day, the biggest challenge as I saw it was to keep myself occupied. My stomach told me that eating should be a priority and so I referenced my all-knowing pamphlet. Fittingly, it told me that there was a free food offering at another support centre on the other side of town at midday. Initially annoyed at the prospect of a long walk, it soon dawned on me that with nothing else on my agenda other than a need to find both food and shelter, walking was little sacrifice.

Wearing a bulky wind-proof jacket over a few layers of clothing designed to keep warm at night, my beanie and back pack made me look quite odd on a sunny day. Walking past well-dressed business people and coffee lovers congregated in cafes, I felt like I needed to explain to the people who looked strangely at my appearance that I had nowhere else to put my belongings- of course though, they wouldn’t have cared. An hour later, I finally stopped near a main bus stop on York Street and gazed across the road at a lengthy line-up of people all waiting to be let into a building I’d never noticed before. Immediately I knew I’d found my place. It seemed strange that the building was positioned on a street that I’d only known to be in a business area, but I joined the end of the line and sat on the ground next to a lady who I presumed must have been living on the streets also. Quietly spoken, she made conversation with a young boy who looked a lot cleaner than someone I’d imagined living on the streets, but who was I too judge? There was clearly a lot I didn’t know.

Walking through a series of small corridors and stairways that met me after eventually being let into the building it was clear that this was a daily routine for many of these people. Like cattle, we all moved along into the dining room where a volunteer handed us plates and a tea bag as we passed her. This was our preparation. Moments later, at exactly 12.30pm the shout from the kitchen that the food was ready came loud and clear, and I braced myself for a hunger-driven stampede. Strangely though there was just silence. Instead, the man in front of me offered me his place in the line.

“You’re new, so you go first”

I couldn’t believe it. With the thought that this man lived day to day and would most likely be desperate for any food, his gesture struck a chord as I nodded to him and moved into line. I felt terrible that I’d expected so much worse. This man was not chaotic and desperate like I’d imagined, instead he was sensible and generous. He, like me, was just appreciating the fact that food was available. This was all that mattered. The cooks seemed to enjoy filling the plates of the needy with their fish and chips luncheon and with the addition of some food items donated by a near-by bakery; we all ate like kings. It was delicious. In a room full of about fifty people, we all chewed in harmony. A large TV, hung on the wall at the end of room, showed one of the latest Rocky Movies as we ate. It was a crowd favourite and we all cheered and laughed as one as Rocky theatrically bounced around the ring. I wondered whether perhaps the story of the underdog doing his best in the face of adversity resonated with everyone there? Shortly after the movie finished, we all had seconds.

From Day to Night:

Danger, as it was explained to me earlier by a wiry old lady in the drop-in centre, was the biggest concern for the homeless community. ‘There’s people out there getting killed on the streets. A man got murdered last week but no one cared. You’d best try and be safe’. Threat of drug-influenced people from nearby refuge shelters looking for trouble or money as well as rowdy members of the general public leaving pubs with no respect for the homeless were to be avoided, if possible. The issue though was just this; if possible. Homeless people are victims to chance encounters.

As the moon began to rise on what was fast becoming a bitterly cold night, I left the comfort of a library that I’d been sitting in for warmth during the evening period and hit the streets with nerves. The prospect of a night alone played on my mind. Perspective is something that I’ve always found fascinating as a concept and now on the streets I was beginning to see Sydney as I never had before. Coffee shops were no longer providers of exotic coffee blends but instead providers of an oasis’ of warmth. Dark alleyways were no longer places to avoid for danger but instead a potential place of rest and a cardboard box laying in the street was not a sign of a shop keepers cleanliness but instead the perfect item to insulate your body as you rested on it at night.

“You here to sleep?” asked a lonely man sat at a bench in Martin Place.

“Yep. I am.” I replied. That was how Lance and I met.

Lance immediately came across as a highly intelligent man. Having lived on the streets for 18 years through choice, he was passionate about making changes to aid the homeless and marginalised in Sydney and Australia. He was well versed in politics and unloaded a lot of his information on me in a quick 30 minute spell. Of all his views and opinions, the one thing I took in more than anything else was the fact that he and his brother had helped over 500 people get off the streets and find accommodation. His belief that strong individuals lead to strong families which in turn amount to strong communities and then again societies, made perfect sense and with the aim of empowering homeless people through care and education he was clearly committed to making a positive difference.

“And I won’t stop living on the streets until I have everyone else off them first!”  Wow.

After quickly offering me to sleep near his own spot, he suddenly remembered an area he thought would be even safer for me and excitedly grabbed my bag and began walking. My feet were sore. Thankfully the spot Lance had in mind was near-by but when we got there I looked around wondering where exactly he meant. From where I was standing all I saw was a long street in the middle of town, lined with office buildings on both sides but it seemed Lance looked at it differently as he pointed to an area just to the side of a main entrance to a building.

“You see, that’s it there. There you’ve got low verandas to shield you from the rain. The CCTV cameras will scare off anyone looking for trouble. If you sleep behind that pillar you’ll be out of sight from the road and I’ve spoken to the security guards here before on behalf of some other street people and I know they’ll be happy as long as you keep your area clean.”

“I’ll take it” How could I argue with that? My instincts also told me this was OK. Strangely, it actually looked quite inviting for what was ultimately a piece of concrete.

The act of setting up camp on the side of a street is something I handled surprisingly well for someone who had never done it before. Sure I felt that my dignity waver briefly after a few late night pedestrians walked past at the moment that I slipped into my bed but by this stage I’d accepted that this was home and in this lay a huge amount of comfort. It’s different for everyone I guess. Stretching out, still dressed in the clothes that I’d worn all day, I closed my eyes and smiled. Although feeling extremely vulnerable to the unknowns of this lifestyle, I’d committed and I was happy. Soon enough I drifted off to sleep.

A few hours later, the temperature had dropped and I was awoken by someone standing and coughing loudly directly next to my head. Instantly opening my eyes, I feared the worst and ripped the canopy from over my head, ready to face what I’d already labelled as trouble. My heart was racing.

“Just thought I’d check on you Sebastian?” It was Lance. I laughed with relief. “I’m off to check on all guys near the library. There’s a lot up there who cant fend for themselves so I like to do a head count and help where I can.”

The concept of family and belonging seemed so refreshing in a place where I’d only ever thought people were lonely. This sense of community was something I was slowly beginning to see and Lance had a fatherly manor about him. I felt safer already. In fact as I lay down again and closed my eyes, I reflected on my first day and began to feel as though my challenge had changed direction; it was less about my own adventure and more about finding out the very people who I’d planned to live amongst. It had struck me that I knew nothing and I wanted to learn more.

Homeless- the most misunderstood community in Australia?

“Get a job you bum!” Wanting to try and earn a few dollars by begging, or ‘cold biting’ as the homeless refer to, I found myself sitting on the cold concrete of Martin Place with a cardboard sign asking for money positioned at my feet. The man who berated me as he walked by in his suit didn’t know me. Even though my sign read ‘Fortune Read: $1. Accuracy NOT guaranteed’, it seemed my humour was not appreciated. From my appearance alone, he felt a need to attack me. His insinuation was that I was worthless, lazy and as such not worthy of his respect.  Wanting to ask at what point in our society did absolute contempt become a tolerated reaction towards someone with no money, the bigger issue here was that society’s perception of a homeless person is hugely misguided. Ask someone to describe a homeless person to you and you’d most likely end up with some kind of elderly bearded man with no ambition to achieve. This is our perception. Each night in Australia, a staggering 12,000 kids under the age of 12 are homeless. Did you know that?

The Faces of Homelessness:

“My Dad used to be rich but when he lost his job, everything just fell apart.”

Sat now in a refuge centre offering free breakfast to the homeless, Bec, a hardened teenager with a gaunt face reflected on her past with sad eyes.

“It put pressure on the family who after our house was taken away fell apart. Mum and Dad argued until Dad left and then I detached from everyone in my life. My Mum couldn’t handle it and so she kicked me out when I was 13. I spent some time at friends places at first but that didn’t work out well and my last option was to go a refuge. I didn’t have anyone else. We were a dysfunctional family affected my money and divorce. It’s been like that for the past 8 years.”

Feeling sorry for a girl who played no part in the deterioration of her family, it dawned on me that not everyone has a support network to help them through tough times. Typically it’s our parents and friends that we can rely on for support from a young age but I felt stupid for assuming that everyone had access to this. Bec, like many on the streets, is not lazy or adverse to work, she is victim to circumstance. As such, in her efforts to simply survive as a young girl growing up, education and securing a future were not primary objectives, instead seeking food and shelter were. Things in this hand-to-mouth way of living don’t quickly change.

Another lady a day later sat crying at a table in the corner of a drop-in centre in Kings Cross. Having struck up general chit-chat and even joking with her moments earlier I didn’t understand what could have happened.

“That’s Ailsa, she’s got manic bi-polar disorder. There’s nothing you can do, but she’ll be fine in a minute.” explained Carrie, a fabulous volunteer at the center.

With that she walked over and comforted an inconsolable Ailsa. I joined her and tried to bring back some humour to the conversation. Soon enough we all ended up laughing, until that is the previously quiet man sitting near by suddenly screamed out the word ‘F$&k’ at the top of his voice. Tourettes Syndrome is also common as a mental illness. Ailsa began to cry again. Ailsa and the nameless man are two of many mentally ill homeless people left on the streets. Helpless to their conditions, the closing down of many mental institutions years ago has forced a large proportion of the 105,000 homeless people in Australia to fend for themselves on the streets, explained Carrie. The cry of ‘Get a job you bum!’ rings in my ears as I stared at Ailsa who through no choice of her own has trouble finding a moment of composure, let alone the skills to secure or maintain a job. She is not fit to work and I felt for her.

As the days and nights progressed I became more comfortable with the notion of finding a place to rest under darkness. Confident in my own ability to sense a safe spot, I ended up sleeping behind bins and on the side of streets as I roamed around the city. In a position of adversity, albeit self imposed and momentary, I felt as though I was adapting quickly. There is no other choice and even though my bones ached and shivered each night as I drifted in and out of broken sleep, these things seemed quite trivial in comparison.

John, a rugged veteran on the streets in Sydney, told me about his methadone treatment one afternoon whilst sitting around at another shelter. Shaking a heroine addiction that has developed from a young age, both John and his partner clearly showed anxiousness as they detailed their daily medication.

“And mate, we’re the lucky ones! There’s not many druggies out there who have the mental strength to maintain their rehab. And that’s it you see; if you’re not mentally strong, there’s no-one out there to help and support you. It’s all very limited, mate.”

As John continued to talk about a shabby health care system that had only recently been improving in regards to rehab support, a man stumbled towards us quite clearly under the influence of some kind of substance. By looks alone, my first guess that he’d been shot with some kind of tropical strength tranquilizer-gun was possibly a little farcical but in all seriousness he was a mess.  Leaning on my chair as a way to balance, he then began telling me that he’d had no luck cold biting at a busy spot on the nearby main road. This was not surprising taking into account that aside to his mental state he had yoghurt all over his face and what looked to be blood around his lips. Sadly it’s this type of homeless person who is most visible to the public and as such are the ones representing the face of homelessness. Is there a wonder that the public’s perception is so negative? The truth is that even though homelessness is in fact incredibly diverse with many subsets of people within, we paint them with the same brush, even the ones who are helpless to their situation.

The Game:

Spending my early days dividing breakfast, lunch and dinner with classes of art work, meditation and whatever else was made available for free, it’s clear to see that the homeless have many resources to make their lives easier. On my information-filled pamphlet I counted around 20 places alone where I could find a free breakfast. The fact that the marginalized have access to great support is fantastic of course but only a few days into my week I’d already began to feel like I was drifting too easily through the days and wondered where my incentive was to stop this lifestyle. The fact is that without any personal motivation to get out of the poverty cycle, you could comfortably tread water here and simply exist by utilizing the system’s offer of help. Ironically, in the same way that the general public inaccurately put all homeless people under the one umbrella, it feels as though the very system that’s been put in place to help them is guilty of doing the same thing- one support system for all. Of course this is just my limited opinion but at a glance it seems that where the offerings of free services may be perfectly suited for someone in desperate need in a time of darkness, the flip-side is that the same services could be seen as an easy way of life by someone who may have chosen to stop work due to a simple lack of desire.

“There are people who in here who I serve food to that earn near enough the same money as I do” explains one of the friendliest workers I met in all of the community centres that I visited. “Some use their government allowance to buy alcohol, bet, or worse but know that at the end of the day that they can come in here and get a cheap or free meal. Evidently there was a problem here but not having enough of an insight into the world of homelessness to accurately pin-point the best solution, all I can say is that this seems unfair. With every day of my week-long experience revealing another intertwining layer of this misunderstood term; ‘homelessness’, it does seem like the system itself could better acknowledge the different types of homeless people on our streets and then provide a variety of tailored programs and services that reflect these differences. Quickly it’s clear that whatever the solution, it’s complex, especially for me

The Big Issue:

Again the catch-cry of “Get a job you bum” echoes in my head as I slept once again in the same spot that Lance suggested to me days earlier. Now hating this term, I decided to confront it by doing just that on my last day on the street; getting a job. Taking myself into Redfern I walked into the offices of the ‘Big Issue’, a magazine who employ homeless people to sell copies of the publication on street corners. Donning the famous red jacket, hat and satchel, I found a busy street near to the train station and stand with a copy of the latest issue in my hand as a way of showcasing my product. It costs me $2.50 for a vendor to buy one copy and so with money I made from cold-biting in Martin Place, I bought three. The vendor can then sell the magazine for $5, hence making $2.50 profit per copy. It’s a simple numbers game that allows opportunity to make at least some money.

After ten minutes with no luck, I decided to start calling out ‘Big Issue’ a few times as people walked past, just in case it wasn’t obvious enough. Instantly people began to avoid eye contact altogether, even crossing the road at times simply to avoid me. Again it seemed I’ve been pre-judged. The fact is that people selling the Big Issue have made a conscious effort to better their position in life by taking a position of responsibility. By making money, they hope to get off the streets or out of crisis accommodation and move into cheap rentals or longer term housing option. I, like them, am putting myself out there and need support.

“I’ll take one!” said an excited girl who’d come to love the magazine. I breathed with relief at the idea that it’s not all in vein. Five minutes later came my second sell. Even though the magazine costs $5, I was given $6 by the second girl and when a middle-aged lady ran across the road, opening her wallet as she looked at me, I smiled in the realization that some people truly understand and appreciate the plight of the homeless. As with most things, the bad is always balanced with good.

“Here’s $20 for you love.”

“Oh thanks, but the magazine’s just $5”

“I know. Take twenty” Wow.

Later on that day I gave the money back to workers of the big issue who were raising funds for the young daughter of one of the homeless workers who had passed away recently. A sense of community is always positive and it’s great to see its presence here again.

A day of selling magazines for the homeless makes me think that with shelters, crisis centers shelters and charities all creating what is almost an industry of homelessness, perhaps the answer is to create a system that trains up the marginalized so that they can gain jobs of responsibility within this industry, therefore giving back and helping their peers. I’ve never been a great business mind so please reserve judgement but of all the vendors I met that day, each one seemed to have a sense of purpose that empowered them and gave them hope. This surely is a positive.

Moving in the Right Direction:

On my last night of my week-long journey I find that by coincidence, an event called the ‘CEO Sleepout’ is taking place. With the aim of reducing homelessness by educating the marginalized and also exposing the plight of the homeless to the public, the St Vincent de Pauls movement attracts CEO’s from many of Australia’s top-end companies to spend a night sleeping on the streets. Of course by doing so, the CEOs, like me, can only gauge a tiny part of what being homeless is like but the idea of informing them on what ‘homelessness is, is a step in the right direction.

Feeling almost guilty that the outdoor event area was being overlooked by security, I smiled as I looked around to see a homeless man by the name of Wade standing on stage in front all 300 plus CEO’s, explaining his story. Having nothing to his name, Wade is trying to create a first aid course for the homeless where by they can get trained and qualified for potential nursing jobs. Having saved 7 lives through resuscitation himself, Wade is a man who also trains the street kids with an mixture of boxing skills and advice. His caring and selfless soul surprised the crowd, breaking down the first of many misconceptions of the term ‘homelessness’ that night.

I truly believe that community is key to large social change. Little did I know that when I over-turned the small rock that was Number 62 on my list; Live on the Streets for 1 Week, I would also be uncovering my own naivity to a problem that is as real as it is overlooked. The good thing though is that now that I have, I’ve realized a true desire to help in what way I can to the plight of the homeless.

Strangely at the end of the CEO Sleepout, I was told that the figure raised was near to $6,000,000 but I’d like to think that the most valuable outcome was the changed mindset and desire to help that each and every person present would go home with.

At the end of the day we could very easily maintain the mentality that it’s someone else’s responsibility to identify and solves this issue, but after my week on the streets it seems clear to me that the first step starts with you and I. After all we’re all people, no matter if we have a roof over our heads or not. We can all do something; people helping people.

In Lances words; ‘strong individuals lead to strong families which in turn amount to strong communities and then again societies’

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