Five years of venturing onto Perth’s streets working with homeless people through a Catholic outreach community could not prepare discovery’s Mark Reidy for actually living, for just three days, with what he has called the ‘shadow people’ – because we all know they’re there but we rarely take any notice of them. It was a powerful experience that rammed the reality home for him – and for us.
A shadow is voiceless and insignificant, it is so inconsequential to our daily lives that inevitably, we do not even acknowledge its presence.
For three nights I stayed on the streets of Perth and received just a taste of what is it is like to live in the shoes of one of our homeless citizens. For a brief, yet haunting, moment, I became one of the Shadow People.
During the day we drifted between welfare agencies and drop-in centres in pursuit of food and a place to at least temporarily belong, and at night, we disappeared into the squats, laneways and doorways of the dark and deserted city.
For the last five years I have ventured onto the streets several times a week on a voluntary capacity with a Catholic outreach, known as the Holy Spirit of Freedom Community, and have earned the trust of a number of those who are homeless. “Why don’t you come out and live out with us some time?” Len, 40, had proposed several weeks earlier. “Come and see what it’s really like”, he said. “And do it before the winter’s over”, he added with a wry smile. So I did.
Armed with a sleeping bag, a change of underclothes and a few coins, I bid farewell to my comfortable existence and explained to my children that I was going to see what it was like to live without a home. “Are you being banished?” asked my six year old. At the time I laughed at his misuse of the term, but by the time I returned I recognised that there had been a prophetic ring to his words.
Despite knowing that my time on the streets was temporary and that at any stage I could return to a comfortable bed and readily accessible utilities, a sense of emptiness and abandonment steadily pervaded me over those three nights.
While the biting wind that blew through the dilapidated building each night, the absence of water and electricity and sleeping on hard floors all proved to be gruelling ordeals in themselves, I soon became aware that it was the psychological and emotional trauma that took the biggest toll on those who were trapped in this existence.
With no place to go and nowhere to belong, they lived on the periphery of a society that was often oblivious to their existence.
Accompanied by a friend, Murray, who joined me on the three-night venture, we met up with Len on a dim lit corner where the Red Cross soup van pulled up every evening.
A group of 20 to 30 people, ranging from young teenagers to the elderly, were gathering as a chill began to envelope the darkening streets. Most of them were there because it was the last feed of the day, but others, so they could have some company while the city streets rapidly emptied.
I leave my backpack at Len’s feet while I chat to someone close by. When I return a few minutes later the backpack, containing my sleeping bag and belongings, is missing. Those around me laugh at the expression on my face and Len shakes his head knowingly. “Never let your bag out of your sight”, he announces as he produces it, “Trust no one”. I have only been on the streets for several minutes and I have already learnt a valuable lesson.
Len then leads us to the outskirts of town, pointing out other occupied squats on the way, until we reach the place we would be sleeping for the next three nights. It is an old rundown building and Len slides back a small wooden panel so that we can crawl inside.
We are greeted by Lisa, 34, who laughs at the sight of us. “I can’t believe you’re choosing to live like this”, she says shaking her head. “Welcome to our ‘home’”. Surrounding a pair of flickering candles are Andy, 21, Mick, 16, Shona, 17, Jeff, 22, Alex, 17, Brian, 17, David, 15 and a dog called “Buster”.
They have been here for several weeks, as has Len and about four or five others who are camped in an equally derelict adjacent building. Lisa, who watches over this young brood like a mother hen, says that her group have moved many times in the eight months they have lived on the streets.
She explains how her “ street family” had camped in Kings Park when the weather was hotter, but as the number of people joining them swelled to well over twenty, they were eventually asked to move on.
From there, six of them had moved into a City Car Park for a few months, slipping in after closing hours and moving on before workers arrived each morning. Eventually and it seems, inevitably, they were again discovered and evicted.
After a cycle of living in inner city buildings and being moved on by police or owners, the itinerant group finally arrived where they are today. “We’re not sure how long this one will last,” says Lisa, casting her eyes around the crumbling, damp surroundings.
This is the life of those who have nowhere to call home. There is no permanency, physically or emotionally, nor is there any sense of purpose as they battle to get through each day.
The first night is particularly restless. It is not just the absence of a mattress, the cold wind or the regular coughing and spluttering that is associated with a group of people who have lived a winter with no heating, but there is also the constant psychological stress of hoping that no one will burst in during the night.
I wonder how those on the street who don’t have the company of others even get to sleep at night. I am relieved when light finally peeps through the boarded windows.
We begin the journey into town to line up at the Salvation Army van with many others who emerge from their nocturnal hiding places.
During the sunrise walk, the shadow metaphor takes on a more visual reality.
As the vehicle and pedestrian traffic steadily builds and rushes by, we seem to be lost in its wake. These are people with a purpose, heading towards a day of activity and productivity.
Our day ahead, of moving from one drop in centre to the next in search of our next meal, seems one-dimensional and meaningless by comparison. There will be no sense of fulfilment by the time the sun sets on this long day, only a sense of déjà vu as we crawl through the hole to our darkened premises.
After a meat pie, soup and piece of fruit for breakfast we make our way to Northbridge to the Ruah Centre, which provides, among other services; coffee, showers, a medical doctor and most importantly, a place to belong.
We then move on to the Salvation Army centre known as “Genesis” which offers a pool table, computers, TV, more coffee and a lunch. Once this closes at 2pm there are a few hours to kill, idling around and watching the world go by, before the 5 o’clock feed provided by, “Manna”, a group of dedicated volunteers, who serve dinner in a park. If you miss this you can grab a cup of hot soup from the Red Cross van at 7pm.
The day is then finished for many as they slink into the darkness to find a new place to sleep or to check whether their previous one has been raided, robbed or occupied in their absence.
Others cannot bear the thought of spending the hours before sleep on their own and they hang out on the streets. Some even stay awake for the night, wandering aimlessly, avoiding the police, especially if they are under 18, and waiting until daylight when it becomes safer to catch a few hours sleep on a bench or in a park.
During the day I was able to speak to a number of people who shared with me the circumstances that led to their homelessness. Each story was unique, but uniformly tragic.
As they opened their hearts to share the pieces of their shattered past, I was privileged to encounter the true people behind the “shadows”, to discover the beauty and vulnerability that is sometimes hidden behind veils of anger, violence, crime, drug and alcohol use, prostitution and other forms of self-harm.
I came to better understand that these façades are not reflections of the true person, but rather, are behaviours adopted to help cope with, or separate one, from past pain.
Unfortunately, the momentum of such choices, usually borne from desperation, can thrust one further into darkness. They become more deeply entrenched in the rut of homelessness, both financially and emotionally, and are unable to bridge the widening chasm that separates them from those who are prospering in the current climate.
It is a cycle that, according to many I spoke to, is exacerbated by those in positions of power and authority, who see and respond to preconceived perceptions of those living on the streets and do not take time to get to know or understand them as individuals.
Steve, a man in his mid thirties, said that his dignity and very identity had been crushed by three years of living on Perth’s streets. “Once my identity lay in my role as a husband, father and a worker, but now all that is all gone”, he lamented. “People make their judgements by what they see and that’s how they treat me. All I am now is an empty shell.”
It is a cycle that is difficult to break free from. Ironically many become imprisoned in their homelessness. Without housing there is little prospect of work, without work there is no way to financially step out of the mire in which they are stuck. And as rents continue to increase, both their opportunity and their hopes are further crushed.
With government housing unable to promise anything for years, and hostels and boarding houses overflowing, most have no choice but to cope with their current dilemma.
Teresa is 19 and says that she has lived on and off the streets for the past nine years. She was taken from her family at the age of ten because of sexual abuse from her father and has since drifted between foster families, hostels and the streets. She said that her behaviours made it difficult to be able to conform to the rules and regulations that are required for shared housing, which, she says, is why she often found herself on the streets.
It is a story familiar to many I met who were under the age of 18. Teresa says that she tends to stick to herself as she has little trust of others. Unfortunately this makes life on the street, especially for a female, particularly dangerous.
She described a recent encounter when all her possessions were stolen as she slept in the doorway of a city building. She was left with only the clothes she was wearing and a few belongings that she had been using as a pillow. She was devastated by her loss, but relieved that she wasn’t physically or sexually assaulted as she had been in the past. She showed me her scarred arms, a common sight of many of the young women on the street, and said that she often cut or burned herself to relieve the pain she carried inside.
Brian is 17 and has regularly been on the streets for the past four years. At 13 his mother left him in a government hostel and without telling him, disappeared from his life.
He has since existed in a rotation of hostels, juvenile detention centres, foster families and the streets. “This is my family now”, he says, pointing to the other teenagers around him. It is a life of violence, crime and drug use, he says, “But it is the only place I belong”.
This sense of belonging is a common theme; with many I met sharing a feeling of alienation from the wider community. Gary, 21, who began hearing voices when he was 17, said that he had once spent 12 months living on his own in a block of units occupied by what he described as “normal” people.
For that entire year, he said, his existence consisted of drinking every day and talking to the television. Not once did any of his neighbours communicate with him. He eventually opted to live on the streets where he was, at least, surrounded by other people who knew what it was like not to fit in.
Another young man, Colin, who had drifted across from the eastern states spoke of the same sense of isolation. “People go out of their way not to make eye contact”, he said. “And those that do look, do so with either fear or disgust”.
He had arrived in Perth six months ago in a bid to escape a past of family breakdown and self-abuse. He had lived a life of drug use, imprisonment and violence on the streets of Sydney since his mother threw him out as a 15-year-old and he had wanted a fresh start.
However he soon found that he could only find acceptance and understanding from others who had also been broken by the depths of such pain. His drug use continues. “It is the only thing I have to look forward to”, he shares. When we arrive back at our squat we sit around the candlelit room sharing our day. Brian is sitting next to me with blackened eyes and a plaster across his face. He has just had two pins inserted in his nose that day, the result of a beating he received a few nights ago when he was attacked by a group of eight men who weren’t pleased with the fact that he had no money to give them.
The hospital had sent him “home” to recover. I could think of plenty of other places that I would rather be recuperating after a serious operation.
The sleep comes a little easier this night as Murray and I have been given a few blankets from a couple in a squat down the road who suggested we roll them up and use them as a mattress.
I won’t say that we slept well, but it was certainly an improvement.
We begin the next day at “Tranbys”, a centre that provides toast, coffee, cereal and a place to hang out until 11am. The worker says that they usually serve over 60 people each morning. The Soup Van caters for 100. The rest of the day is more or less the same as yesterday. I speak to Darren who is 15. He was beaten up by his stepfather and thrown out by his mother at 13. He tells me a sad, but familiar story of meeting other young people in a hostel and following them onto the streets.
He was using heroin by the time he was 14 and was stealing to support his habit. A cycle of incarceration, hostels and homelessness followed and he is currently awaiting charges for armed robbery and motor vehicle theft.
That evening an angry, drunken and muscular young man who wants to fight confronts Murray. Fortunately he recognises me and calms down. We find out that John was released from jail that day after spending 18 months inside. Physically he is barely recognisable from the skinny paint sniffer that I knew several years ago. He is bigger and stronger and, it seems, angrier. We later hear that he was locked up soon after we left him after robbing a passer-by. I wonder how he will ever break out of the spiral he is in.
We later meet up with Alex who has heard about what we are doing. “You’ve got it too easy staying in squats”, he tells us. He shows us the alcove in the office block where he sleeps each night with his girlfriend and challenges us to find out just how dangerous and cold it gets.
Michael, another young man, overhears and advises us against it. He says that on the previous night a Security Officer had moved on his group of nine, aged between 19-30 in the middle of the night.
When they asked the Officer where he expected them to go, he told them, “anywhere but here”. A City Ranger who found them huddled in a park a few hours later, told them the same thing. It seems that no one has an answer.
Michael is particularly concerned for his 19yo girlfriend who is five months pregnant and is grateful that the Pastor of an inner city church has allowed them to camp under the overhang on his premises.
By my third night I am literally counting down the hours until I will be returning to the comfort of my own house, bed and particularly, my family. Even the thought of staying longer weighed heavily upon me and I felt ashamed by such feelings.
My time on the streets has been as pampered as one could get. Unlike those who have no idea of when they would next know a place they could call home, I knew my time was limited. I had been looked after, watched over and shown where to eat and sleep. Most are not afforded such luxuries. In increasing numbers people are entering this homeless scene with little or no knowledge of how to survive.
I can’t even imagine the fear that must permeate them when they first step into this world. It would be even worse for those who are not accepted by others on the street, who must confront each day on their own. Or for those with mental illness who must wrestle with their own demons as they attempt to survive the daily grind.
I left the streets with a feeling of emptiness. How does one address the plethora of issues that contribute to homelessness? One thing that I am sure of is that it is not simply a matter of just providing a roof over one’s head, although this is an essential foundation. Equally important is the need to have one’s dignity restored. But this process can only begin when both governments and individual members of our community firstly, acknowledge their plight and secondly, recognise their worth as fellow human beings.
Many use illegal drugs, medication and alcohol to escape past pain and/or to cope with their present circumstance and this pushes them further away from finding a place to call home, both physically and emotionally.
Processes need to be put in place that will draw them back. If people aren’t using these substances when they arrive on the streets, then many soon will be, simply to help them get through.
Most have lost their sense of hope and this leads them to becoming more deeply entrenched and lost in these shadowlands.
A young man known as Jungle best summed up my new understanding of life on the streets. He is 35 and says he has been homeless or in jail for most of the past 25 years. He is currently sleeping under a bridge. On my last few hours on the street, someone yelled at him, “Why don’t you go to hell?”
He didn’t even look up from the ground, “No need to mate”; he said with a slow shake of his head, “I’m there everyday”.
Names have been changed for the protection of those in this story.