Homelessness. We’ve all heard about it; all read about it. Who has not seen the cardboard boxes in shop fronts which serve as accommodation to some hapless sleeper, or the park bench which constitutes a bed to a destitute person? Many of us have donated to charities that help the homeless. Few of us have experienced it.
Homelessness is not just about the loss of accommodation, it is also – maybe more so – about the loss of belonging and support; the breakdown of structure and security. For many, it is the most distressing experience of their life. And the statistics in this country are shocking. According to ‘Homelessness Australia’ 105,237 people in Australia are homeless. In Sydney alone, some 45,000 young people are classified as homeless, of which 17,000 are under the age of 12.
“I have seen amazing change happen at our place”, says Marcus Ross, from the Wayside Chapel, a community centre which opens its doors in Potts Point seven days a week to the most marginalised members of our community. Inside, they are offered a range of facilities. From the basic essentials such as access to toilets and showers, toothbrushes, low-cost meals and emergency clothing; to longer-term intervention such as health, welfare and social services. “Our service users are not clients”, says Marcus. “They are John, or Peter, or Rose - ordinary people who have found themselves in very difficult circumstances for a whole host of reasons. It could be violence, mental health, poverty or a breakdown of relationships. The Wayside Chapel is a place –the only place for some – where they can find a receptive welcome and a non-judgemental ear. Activities at the Wayside Chapel are geared to help vulnerable or marginalised individuals get back on their feet: they can acquire computer skills, attend cooking sessions, improve their numeracy and literacy or simply partake in a community lunch. “People change by being part of a community” affirms Marcus. “I have great respect for people who get up in the morning with determination, resilience and courage to turn their lives around”.
Have you ever experienced a feeling of safety? Not the physical safety of walking late at night, but the safety in knowing that there are people out there for you. Nathan Williams works with young people who have never known such safety. They come from the streets with complex stories of domestic violence, mental health issues, or a history of drug and alcohol abuse. Nathan is a youth development specialist at Phoenix House in North Sydney, which helps at-risk, marginalized young people. His work is based on relational model and relational patterns. “We provide them with a consistent, stable relationship. We’re there for them - always – however they turn up.” Over time these young men and women change habits and begin to feel safe. Slowly, they learn to sustain their relationships through what he terms ‘self-regulation’, the ability to realise their potential, develop healthy relationships and put in place effective coping strategies. To this end Phoenix House provides supported housing, counselling, education and training employment. It also offers young people programs and activities such as camps, fitness and nutrition programs. “It takes a while, sometime years, for these people to learn to self-regulate”, says Nathan, “but we see many young people’s lives transform from despair to hope for the future.”
Bee Orsini knows a lot about homelessness – much of it from personal experience. She grew up in a home where Christmas meals and celebrations happened on television. Her own Christmas dinners were spent eating chicken nuggets and drinking Sprite in a fast food restaurant near home, in Canberra. Hailing from a dysfunctional home where she suffered abuse, she felt she did not belong. She left school at an early age to take up full time employment in order to support herself and her mother who was struggling with her own demons. During this time Bee got into what she describes as ‘the wrong crowd’. She does not elaborate on who, or what, this crowd was; and when she says “I did many things to belong in that crowd”, she does not expound on that either, but you get a clear picture of a life on a downward trajectory. Bee moved to Sydney where she embarked on a relationship with someone in a similar social situation; they lived together and shared a flat. It was when this relationship broke down that Bee found herself homeless. “I suddenly realised I had nowhere to go” she says. She did what many vulnerable young people do when they have no fixed address: she started to couch surf. It is a step away from living on the streets. “I slept on a friend’s couch for a few months with no clear plan or idea where to go next.”
“Finally, my friend said to me: I cannot let you stay any longer but I can take you to Oasis”. It was a piece of advice which changed the course of Bee’s life. She was referred to the Salvation Army’s Oasis youth support network, which gives shelter to young people experiencing homelessness and helps them get back on track. “Suddenly I found I had a purpose” she says. Now, at 24, poised and articulate, Bee travels the country talking to young people as the Salvation Army’s schools liaison officer, a job that she ‘absolutely loves’.
Ronni Kahn needs no introduction. She is the face behind OzHarvest, the organisation that rescues food across the country and distributes it to the needy. What started as a spontaneous initiative to donate surplus food from her event-management business to a local charity, has turned into a life project. The success of Oz Harvest has been meteoric, with thousands of volunteers giving of their time, and corporate businesses clamoring to offer sponsorships and financial support. Today Oz Harvest rescues tons of food and distributes it daily across three states. Ronni never stops. She has numerous and simultaneous projects on the trot; whether it campaigning for a change in legislation, doing a joint venture with Qantas, running a fun night with MasterChef contestants, or initiating a partnership with United Nations. But all these projects share a common goal: to raise awareness of food wastage, homelessness and youth in crisis. It is a commitment which has earned her a slew of awards and hyperbolic accolades. “It feels extraordinarily good helping people in need" she says. "And let me tell you this,” she adds, pausing for effect, “giving is a thousand times better than getting.” While her work has achieved national and international acclaim, Ronni believes that each individual can be an instigator of change – no matter how local or how small. “What matters is that each and every one of us can do something.”
It was not just talk at ThinkActChange. OzHarvest’s young volunteers from the LemonAid bank held a stall on the night selling freshly made lemon juice. By the end of the evening they raised $349.00. The remaining lemon juice was donated to the Wayside Chapel.
Question time at ThinkActChange is often just as interesting and moving as the talks by guest speakers.
One member of the audience shared his story of on-going homelessness and raised the issue of destitution affecting older people and the lack of options available to them due to the policies of many organisations to focus on and reach out to the younger members of society. When another member of the audience offered her hairdressing services for free to the charities, Nathan Williams recalled the impact a hair-cut had on one of the young service users at Phoenix House and how it raised his self-esteem. Ronni Kahn remembered a woman who had had a free hair cut as part of an OzHarvest pamper campaign. “It was just before she was going for a job interview. She felt so good about herself and….she got the job!”
As the audience got up and the crowds dispersed, I was filled with optimism. It was a reassuring reminder of the overwhelming generosity and the many acts of kindness of which we are all capable. Each and every one of us.