Rebecca McCallion visits Party In The Park for Homelessness.
The sun shone brightly as I walked through the gates of the Croquet Club in South Brisbane. ‘Pull!’ someone shouted and a group of people in front of me stepped backwards, revealing a rising marquee that quickly towered above them. I took a few minutes to take in the scene before I joined in. There were blankets covering the grass, with people already sprawled in the sun and others cramming in to the small amount of shade. Rows of chairs curved neatly around an open stage and stalls were popping up everywhere. So this is what the Party in the Park for Homelessness looks like, I thought. Smaller than I had imagined but certainly inviting.
I was broken from my reverie by a voice that could only belong to Joanne Mahon, Program Manager for Micah Projects. She was directing volunteers in her lovely Northern English accent, which I was familiar with from our phone conversations. Certain it must be her, I walked over to introduce myself. She greeted me warmly and introduced me to Belinda, a Senior Practitioner at Micah Projects, asking me to help with setting up her stall. As I positioned one of the stall banners, the words at the bottom caught me eye:
We believe that every child and adult has the right to a home, an income, health care, education, safety, dignity and connection with their community of choice. Micah Projects provides a range of support and advocacy services to individuals and families.
Earlier that week, I had learnt that, on top of events like the Party in the Park for Homelessness, Micah Projects provides many types of services that enable them to listen, reach out, build relationships, understand, create realistic plans and work together to provide opportunities to those experiencing homelessness or those at risk of experiencing homelessness.
I finished positioning the banner and turned to see what else I could do. As Belinda and I worked, she told me about her stall and what she aimed to do. Having a vintage clothes stall sometime in the past meant that she had all sorts of weird and wonderful costumes at hand, including a vintage suitcase that once belonged to her Aunt. She popped it open and pulled out hats and scarfs in all shapes and colours. She began arranging them artfully, creative as she was, and I helped by hanging costumes on Mabel, her lovingly named vintage clothing rack. The plan was to encourage people to dress up and have their faces painted. They could then use laminated speech bubbles to write a personal message relating to Homeless Person’s Week and have a photo with their sign for Facebook. It was a lovely idea, but I was sceptical about how many people would be brave enough to be silly in public. This seemed justified when the first visitor shook her head and walked away at the first mention of Facebook. But I was proven wrong the next time I glanced over at the stall; it was swarming with people wearing bright green wigs and pink fluffy scarves, all eager to join in the fun.
I left Belinda to it once everything was ready to go and walked around, looking at the stalls and activities. I was impressed to see Joining Hands there with tables set up ready for massages. Oh, how I wanted one, but I continued past, determined not to be distracted. After seeing the sports area with ball games and tug of war on offer, the information stalls and the band, I began to look for people to chat with. After all, the purpose of the event was to raise awareness about homelessness and, not having had any dealings with this social group before, I wanted to find out all about it.
What struck me was the amount of people willing to give their own time to help others. Most people that I spoke to volunteered every week and seemed to thrive on influencing others to improve their lives.
Denise Bolland, a regular Micah Projects volunteer, said, ‘I have always been interested in why some can pick themselves up and others can’t. I like being part of their journey,’ while Zofia, a student at Brisbane State High School, loves brightening up people’s days and believes it’s a way of making people happy.
I went to the event with the preconceived notion that homelessness meant living on the street, but I was met with varying ideas of what homelessness really is, including having no fixed address. But it was Zofia’s answer that really hit a chord with me:
‘A sense of not belonging to anything’, she said.
As well as showing how volunteering seems to have given Zofia a deep understanding of big issues, like homelessness, her statement shows that homelessness is not just a physical state but a mental one too.
Parliamentary Secretary for Housing and Homelessness, Senator Doug Cameron, agrees with the idea that homelessness isn’t just about being physically homeless, saying in a recent Fahcsia media release, that ‘this year’s National Homeless Persons’ Week theme of hidden homelessness was an important reminder that most people who are homeless are not on the streets.’
Interestingly, another Micah Projects volunteer, Daniel Feeney, included those at risk of becoming homeless in his definition of homelessness. It is obvious to see why, as services must also include at risk people to ensure homelessness is prevented wherever possible.
Denise explained, ‘someone is homeless until they have stable accommodation and are not living week to week.’
Surprised, I commented that many of us live week to week in today’s society and she replied:
Yes. They are at high risk; that’s why we shouldn’t judge. It could be our neighbours. It can really happen to anyone now. They could lose their job and then end up homeless.
Throughout my many discussions with volunteers, I explained that I had heard varying opinions about homelessness over the past few weeks. Some people felt that there was no real homelessness in Australia and that, if someone was homeless, it was by choice.
Micah Projects volunteer Cathy McGovern was taken aback by this.
‘People think they [people experiencing homelessness] have options like everyone else. They often don’t because of their lack of skills, lack of confidence and lack of support.’
Daniel had only two words to describe such opinions, ‘sheer ignorance.’
‘Sheer ignorance,’ he repeated, seemingly lost for words. He went on to describe someone he used to know:
She was a principal who worked at a high school. She was diagnosed with cancer. She used up all her sick pay and had to sell her house to afford treatment. She wound up becoming homeless. Very rarely is it a choice.
When asked what she would say to people who thought homelessness was a choice, Zofia laughed and shook her head, her response being simply, ‘you’re wrong.’
‘I don’t think you can make an assumption like that. Sometimes it’s a choice, I guess. Sometimes they’re in a critical situation that’s out of their control,’ she explained.
Among the interviewees was Tammy Munro, who was quick to tell me that she wasn’t homeless. She explained that she attended the event to meet and get to know other people. I discovered that she had experienced homelessness at some time in her life when she described what it was like to be on the streets.
‘I was by myself. In the end, I got scared. It’s not a place to be as a woman.’
She told me about her life before, saying, ‘I lived with my kids, I had a partner and all that. But I left my partner, the kids are still there. I needed a fresh start because I lost both my grandparents down there [New South Wales].’
Surprised, I asked her about her kids and whether they were with her ex-partner, wondering how she could have move away without them. She replied:
My kids are in care. No, he doesn’t have them. If he did, they’d be fighting tooth and nail. He doesn’t really care about his other kids anymore. They’re with a good family. I won’t fight for them because they’re happy. The people they are with really love them, so I know they won’t be separated.
After seven months on the street, a friend offered Tammy a room. She is now pregnant and obviously excited about the birth, which is due in just a few months.
Not surprisingly, Tammy attributed homelessness to family breakups. Almost everyone else believed that a lack of financial security was also a cause. Others included physical and sexual abuse, mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse and divorce, but they are almost certainly not the only contributors.
Denise believed four big reasons were the ‘job market, reduction in supporting mother’s benefit, living week to week and experiencing an unexpected event that puts them over the edge’.
However, the financial manager at Rosies Youth Mission, Vicki Keenan, believes that there is no single reason behind homelessness, explaining that the multitude of possible reasons make it too difficult to narrow down.
Along with Micah Projects, Rosies Youth Mission provides a lifeline for many people experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness. Vicki describes how they provide food and coffee to help those in need but also as a way of drawing people in. The main goal is to provide a friendly face when there often isn’t one.
When asked about what Rosies Youth Mission does, a volunteer told me about being recognised by someone whose daughter, Kelly*, had become homeless because of drug abuse and a bad relationship. Kelly’s mother was given custody of her daughter’s son, Jayden, when he was just over one year old. Jayden is now seven and was reunited with his drug-free mother for the first time just last month. Kelly’s mother thanked the volunteer for keeping her ‘daughter alive during the bad times all those years ago’.
It is apparent that services like what Micah Projects and Rosies Youth Mission offer are crucial for the homelessness cause.
A Rosies Youth Mission patron also shared his story of loss, which demonstrates that homelessness can really happen to anyone. He explained how his business went into receivership after twelve years, which led to depression, the break up of his nine-year marriage and subsequent separation from his three young children. On top of that, his parents had lost money in the business so he couldn’t go to them for help.
He said, ‘I found myself standing outside my house in the gutter, carrying my baggage with nowhere to go.’
He describes Rosies Youth Mission’s visits as ‘like a breath of fresh air. They offered non-judgmental friendship, unconditional love and genuine hope in times of total despair. And as my life shows, that can be a life saver.’
With the assistance of people who cared and wanted to help, he was able to find a successful career and get his life back.
He says, ‘I was back on speaking terms with my wife, had access to my children, and was able to pay off my bankruptcy. This year the company is budgeting to turn over $1 million with only 3 staff. The rest, as they say, is history. Life was good again!’
Senator Doug Cameron also stresses that this type of scenario can happen to any of us, attributing homelessness to ‘unforeseen circumstances’ and acknowledging that many causes of homelessness are related to each another.
We only need to think back to the Brisbane floods a few years ago to see that anyone can become homeless or be at risk of homelessness. Many people suddenly had to face a situation that they had never imagined would happen to them. The city experienced a homelessness crisis so dire that websites, like www.qldfloods.org, were created simply to help people find a bed.
Caseworker Carly Bubb says that seeing homelessness regularly makes her feel lucky for what she has. The advice she offers to those of us living week to week is that unexpected events, like the Brisbane floods, can happen at any time, so it is important to have a safety net. Her co-worker, Josephine Power, explains their involvement with the flood recovery effort, describing that many victims never thought it would happen to them. After that, Josephine made sure to get contents insurance as a protective measure in her own life.
Before leaving the Party in the Park for Homelessness, I wanted to get a real sense of the message behind the event. When asked, each person gave a slightly different answer, but the reoccurring themes seemed to be raising awareness of services and encouraging people to see past the stigma associated with homelessness.
Denise had this to say, ‘don’t judge anyone until you have actually talked to someone and heard their story.’
Cathy provided this advice: ‘Don’t pretend it’s not happening. Instead, think about what you can do to help. I believe in encouraging people to help themselves, instead of simply providing a handout.’
Both Micah Projects and Rosies Youth Mission are crucial services for combating homelessness and providing support for those involved. Both organisations also rely heavily on donations from the public. Aside from monetary donations, there are many ways of giving support, including clothing and food donations and volunteering.
Zofia offered these final thoughts, ‘There are people like that [experiencing homeless], but everyone looks past them. They should support Big Issue and even just talk to them. Don’t see them as outsiders but also don’t feel sorry for them.
I left the Party in the Park for Homelessness after joining in with the tug of war (on the winning team!) and sharing the barbecue lunch with some friendly and interesting people. The event had offered a whole new perspective on homelessness, which is a complex issue that needs many areas of support to be effective. Most importantly, it opened my eyes to the seriousness of the issue and what I could do to help. After all, next week, next month or next year, it could be me.