Imagine that you have travelled from your home interstate to work in a new job in the building industry. Things are going well, but then you lose your job. You have no money, and you can no longer afford your rent. You get by staying a few nights with friends, but their charity is short lived, and soon you’re sleeping rough under a bridge across Melbourne’s Yarra River. You’ve been on the streets for a month now, and you’re still waiting for your payment from Centrelink to come through. You’re trying to figure out whether you should stay in the city and keep looking for another job or raise enough money and move to Brisbane where you have some friends. This is the story of Alan*, a young man living rough on the streets of Melbourne.
Alan was one of the many individuals I met helping out the Bear Essentials team on a cold, dreary Melbourne weekend. Bear Essentials (BE) is a not for profit initiative that distributes care packs to the homeless. It’s a simple idea; donated essential items such as toiletries and basic clothing are placed into a sturdy backpack and small groups of volunteers go on treks to distribute the packs to the city’s homeless. The initiative was started by two Melbourne women, Katrina Gibbs and Hong Tran. I first met Hong when she took part in a social media workshop I was running. She had come along to learn more about how she could raise awareness of BE’s work through social media.
Our meeting point for the day was Federation Square in the city. Volunteers were sent a brief with details on the areas that we would be covering in the trek as well as the protocol on how to engage and connect with people we would meet. I spotted Hong and Katrina sitting next to a line of blue BE care packs. Our team for the day consisted of seven volunteers who would form teams and trek through different areas of the city. Katrina would be riding with volunteer Karl in his trusty Combi van as a support vehicle team. I was paired with Hong, and with bags on each arm, we set off towards the Southbank area.
It wasn’t long before we encountered Jay*, a young man sitting on the freezing ground with his pet dog. His upturned beanie was starting to collect a small handful of silver coins. At first he was reticent to talk or make eye contact, but he seemed genuinely grateful for the offer of the care pack. Jay had a girlfriend who was asleep under a nearby bridge. She was sick, he told us. He asked us if he could also take another pack for her. We were soon joined by his friend Alan. Alan was new to the streets, “hopefully I won’t be here for long”. Hong asks the men what they are in need of the most. Often items that we take for granted such as toothbrushes, deodorant are most needed. For women, the availability of sanitary pads and tampons is an issue. They tell us that underwear and socks are items they need. Hong asked both men if they would like something to eat and a hot drink. After some more prompting, Jay asked for a cold lemonade, and Alan asked for a small “dollar coffee” and a donut because, “it swells up in my stomach”. Hong had something else in mind,
“How about a hot meal?”
“Only if it’s not too much.”
As we set off to the nearby food court, Hong explained to me that buying food wasn’t officially part of the trek but it was something that she liked to do. She also explained to me that she found that the majority of homeless people she offered food or even care packs would usually ask for very little. “They are used to being treated badly so when someone offers to do something good for them they don’t know how to react.” She also told me that the homeless get approached by various groups trying to help and that some groups expect a trade off in return for their charity, which makes many people wary. BE is different in that there are no expectations. A person can take a care pack if they want to, and if they don’t want it, it’s not forced on them. The aim of the packs is to provide items that the person genuinely needs to make life on the streets more bearable.
We returned to Jay with a burger, burger voucher, cupcakes (in place of the donut), coffee and lemonade. He thanked us and told us that Alan had decided to make an early start and had walked across to Flinders Street. When we found him, he already had the BE pack on his back and his ripped backpack inside. Hong handed him the burger and coffee, and he seemed genuinely surprised and embarrassed, but he started talking about his situation and opened up to us. Alan told us about losing his job and being unable to pay his rent. Of not knowing many people in the city. He had a sister but she was overseas, and he couldn’t live with his friends because he didn’t want to upset their wives or girlfriends. He was a qualified building assessor and hoped that he might be able to get back on his feet soon.
“I didn’t blow away all my money on booze…”
Back on the streets we headed down towards the river area opposite the casino. I ask Hong why she decided to start up the initiative and she tells me that a few years ago she went through a time when she was indifferent to the homeless. She decided to change her attitude and in learning more about why people become homeless she wanted to do something to help and set up Bear Essentials. I found out that there are many reasons why people end up living rough. The common perception is that most homeless people are drug addicts or alcoholics. However, the problem of homelessness in Melbourne is now more complex and the reasons for finding oneself homeless, more diverse. Increasing living costs and scarcity of affordable housing, domestic violence, loss of work, mental health issues and illiteracy are among these reasons. Some people are on the streets for a very short time, and some people struggle to get off the streets. Some people don’t technically live on the streets; they may live in their car or “couch surf” at different people’s homes. Although addiction is one reason for homelessness, there are also many stories of people who have fallen on hard times and haven’t had a support network to fall back on. Most of the shelters available to the homeless fill up quickly. Some places can be as expensive as $60 per night and charge for the use the showers. Given that current statistics indicates that there are around 22,000 homeless in Victoria alone, it’s not surprising that temporary accommodation shortages are common. Many people prefer to take their chances on the street.
Living rough isn’t safe. At Batman Park, we pass by a memorial to Wayne ‘Mousey’ Perry, a homeless man who was stabbed to death after a teenager accused him of stealing his motorbike. There are photos and kind words written on the memorial, a concrete pylon where Perry camped. We pass by two men slumped on the grassy park high on drugs. Opposite them, a group of four men have set up camp. One of the men, Matthew* is animated and eager to talk. His friend was sick and recently taken to a hospital, but he was in good spirits. “We have a million dollar view,” he said referring to the Crown Casino, luxury hotel, and exclusive restaurants across the river. Hong enquired after a woman who used to live in the camp, and Mathew tells us that she’s since found permanent accommodation in Fitzroy. One person off the street and a small victory.
We’re short of packs so Hong calls Katrina and Karl, who meet us with the combi. We hand out packs for all the men at the camp and say our goodbyes. The trek is due to finish soon. After that time, Katrina and Hong will set up in North Melbourne to receive donations of goods from the public. Together they coordinate all of the activities for the organisation in their own time, with the help of friends, family, and volunteers. To save time Karl drives us up to the northern end of Elizabeth Street. It’s here that we met an elderly man sitting outside a church. He’s blown away by our offer of a care pack and tells us that we should save it for someone who needs it. He tells us that he is humbled by the amount of generosity he receives from the public and that soon he will go to live in an apartment. He will miss the streets because the public has provided him with friendship and comfort.
Back at Federation Square we meet up with the rest of the BE team. They have managed to give away most of their packs. After a quick debrief we say our goodbyes and the BE team is off to their next task. In only three short hours, my knowledge of the issues of our city’s homeless and my empathy for them had changed. I have certainly experienced hard times in my life, but throughout that have managed to keep a roof over my head. Not all people are that fortunate. We are living in a society that values the worth of people. As Hong told me if you can contribute to society, it accepts you, but those seen as not contributing are cast out to the fringes. The problem is we no longer see a person.
*Real names have been changed for anonymity.
If you are interested in donating items to Bear Essentials or volunteering your time check out their Facebook page for more information.