A friend of my dad has recently moved to New York and recently posted on her private blog some experiences she’s having while volunteering in a women’s shelter over there. Knowing I used to do something similar, he sent me the text to read (with her permission!) and I wrote the below as my reply to her. After writing it, I thought that I might like to post it for y’all to read ... so here it is!
Edit: Angla's friend suggested that she submit the article to hoopla.com.au and it was published. So now you can read the article that the below is in response to here.
I also volunteered at a homeless shelter in a major city. It is called Teresa House and is in Redfern in Sydney, Australia. I’m writing this in the past tense as it’s been nearly a decade since I was there and I’m sure changes have been made since.
There were two shifts: Dinner from 6-9pm and then the Sleep Over shift from 9pm until 8am which is what I used to do once a fortnight when I lived up there. It was organised as an emergency shelter, so guests were only allowed one stay every two weeks at most. But of course there were regulars that I saw over my two year stint.
|I did a google map search, and I think this is where it was ... could be the one two doors down to the left|
The terrace house had three bedrooms upstairs and a lounge room down stairs at the front with a kitchen/dining area leading to the back courtyard that lead onto a service lane. The men slept downstairs in the lounge room, the women in the large room upstairs and the two sleepover volunteers slept in one of the smaller rooms upstairs which doubled as the office for the nun who ran the place. The third bedroom upstairs was designated as something fairly unique, I believe: a couples room; male/female, male/male, female/female – no one cared about any status, if you were a couple on the streets of any kind, spending the night together under a roof, having had a halfway decent meal, was a rarity. I didn’t see too many “traditional couples” while I was there, but then again, I didn’t get to talk too much to these people as they would often retreat to their room long before “lights out”! The Homeless Persons Centre knew that this was a safe place and would allocate this room as best they could.
After my time there the local council made us reduce the number of guests as we could no longer sleep people in the living area; something about it not being safe. I thought this was crazy as the living room was right next to the front door. Surely this would be the safest place to sleep if there happened to be an emergency.
The people who did the dinner shifts were great. There was generally close to expiry date meat pies or similar available from local businesses, however there were a fair number of volunteers who brought in large dishes that they had made throughout the day and others who would bring along ingredients and have some guests involved in cooking for everyone else. I remember a story of one bloke who was an unemployed chef who was staying as a guest and he wouldn’t let the volunteers or other guests help him. He cooked by himself for nearly twenty people and when he was complimented on his meal his response was, “yeah, well it would’ve been better if I had a decent stove to work with and the knives were bloody sharpened sometime this year!” Some of the overnight volunteers who were on-campus uni students by day would sometimes arrive a few hours before their shift started if they knew who was cooking that night so that they could get a decent feed!
By the time the overnight volunteers had come along the previous shift had checked everyone in from the list given by the council, fed everyone, handed out sheets and towels, and gone through the house rules over dinner. This meant that the stay over volunteers had a pretty easy go of it for the evening; all we had to do was have a cuppa or two with the guests and repeatedly remind people that it really is time for bed at “lights out”. The mornings were rushed getting everyone up, knocking on the bathroom door to hurry up and remind them that there is only so much hot water. The guests would strip their beds; make their own breakfast and coffee before heading out the door. The volunteers would bundle the linen together and lock it in the outdoor laundry where other unseen volunteers would come along and take care of it.
Getting everyone out the door of a morning was the most difficult thing for me as they really would prefer to stay “for just 10 minutes more” and other volunteer teams would sometimes let them hang around past eight. But I was different, I had to start work at 8:30 and my work was a 45 minute drive away, so on my shifts the checkout time was half an hour earlier. Boy, did I get told off when I’d tell them this the night before! “But the guys who gave us dinner said it would be 8, not 7:30! What are we supposed to do? Someone’s meeting me here at 8!” This was really only testing me out though as they would be reminded by another guest or the other volunteer (I never had to say this) that I could loose my job if I’m late to work and then I might end up on the streets with them. One charitable lady said on one of these occasions that “shit, we can’t have that – he’s not as tough as us, we’d better get going!”
I remember that I’d get there and meet my guests for the night, and sometimes meet my volunteer partner for the first time. Some guests I’d meet previously and others were first (and hopefully only) timers.
So many of these people were drug users. You were not allowed to be there if you were under the influence of any substance so that meant that there were a fair number of people who were dealing with withdrawal symptoms on top of everything else. As you had to be there for dinner if you were staying the night, it was the dinner shift’s responsibility to turn anyone away who was affected. What struck me was that for many their drug problems led to their homelessness, but for many more their homelessness led to their drug problems.
The main thing I remember was the cups of tea – very rarely coffee, I don’t know why – I’d share with them sitting around the dinner table. Lights out were at 10, I think, but I was always flexible with this, so long as it wasn’t too late and there was no one in the living room that had a big day tomorrow. At that time smoking was allowed in the kitchen if no one was eating. I would see them pull out the bags of cigarette butts that they would find on the streets and then tease the remaining tobacco out of so that they could roll these in “tally-ho” papers. Being a smoker myself at the time, I learnt that I wasn’t at ease smoking my fancy “tailors” (tailored cigarettes: you know, the types you by in packets with a filter on the end) in front of them. So, in the spirit of the place, I’d buy a large packet of a cheap brand of cigarettes, Horizons, I think they were called, that I’d share with “my guests” when we were having our late night cuppas. They were horrible to smoke, so I’d always accidently leave them on the table after lights out and they were gone by morning.
But it was over these cuppas that I’d talk with them and the number one topic was always family. Regardless if their families’ had thrown them out, nearly all admitted to being worried that they’d brought shame to their families. I tried (probably in vain) to get some to try to reconnect, but their feeling of having disappointed their family was so overwhelming that it is this thought that sticks with me.
I don’t remember any of their names, but I do remember some of them clearly:
- The nineteen year old Muslim girl who had been repeatedly raped by an uncle. Her mother believed her when she was told, but felt that she could do nothing to make it stop for fear of her husband’s reaction. The day she ran away, with her mother’s support (!) she stayed there.
- The fifty year old lady who had been sleeping rough for 5 years who lost her business because her best friend from school and business partner ripped her off and she never recovered
These two left the house together the next day, the elder assuring the younger that she’d see her right.
- The twenty-something bloke who’d been mugged and beaten having just come to town on the train for a job interview and couldn’t check into his hotel without any identification
- The forty-something woman who stayed in the couple’s room with her twenty-something boyfriend. I hear that they got married at the Wayside Chapel in Kings Cross a year or so later
- The married couple who stayed in the couples room another night because he lost his house when his business failed. They’d had to sell their caravan that they were living in because they couldn’t afford to pay for the site fees anymore. They’d spent only one night on a park bench and had no idea what to do next. Their kids were being reluctantly being looked after by a relative that simply couldn’t fit them in as well.
- The six ½ month pregnant woman who was still on the waiting list for government assisted housing. I don’t know how true it is, but she said she was told that she’d be allocated a place around two weeks before the due date.
- The 60+ year old guest who secretly cleaned the toilet three or four times in the night after another guest “did something in there that would make Lucifer vomit – and I don’t think he got any of it in the bowl”. The offender had disappeared throughout the night (the front door was self locking as you exited) and he said he didn’t bother me about it because he was up anyway. I left a note saying that my saviour should be allowed to stay a second night in a row – damn the rules! I also think that some of the other guests “convinced” him to leave through the night.
What I remember most though is that they were in it together. And while I was a good enough bloke to help out, I was told by some regular stayers not to forget that this place is there for them, and they’ll make sure that everyone plays by the rules. How they cope, I hope I’ll never know.
* All the pictures in this entry were found using google image search
** If you live in Sydney and wish to get involved in some capacity they need people to help with all sorts of things, including "behind the sceces" click here to find out more, or you can contact them by going here.