Grant Richards is a cheerful, blue-eyed man with a warm smile and a friendly demeanour. You would never know from talking to him that he had been to hell and back over the years. Drawing knowledge and strength from his own personal experiences, he now spends as much time as possible trying to help people in a similar situation. Natalie O’Driscoll spoke with him to find out more.
Tell me your personal story and experience with homelessness?
My story starts with me being very successful in life as a Head Cook at many restaurants, married with a beautiful daughter. I even had the dog and picket fence, at the time I believed I had a perfect life. Haha. Then one horrific day I had an accident with a stairwell leaving me in and out of three hospitals over nine months. The impact was enough to break all my teeth and to leave me with spinal and other injuries. I left the hospital with an external back brace and a walking frame. My body was broken. Being in constant pain I couldn’t work, while in hospital I lost the house and soon after the family. I became homeless.
The first piece of food I got was from another homeless person who didn’t have much at all, but offered to share. I was selling the Big Issue when a customer gave me a bag of clothes and asked if I would give them to a homeless person. I agreed, and the next day a homeless girl was wearing the clothes. I thought this was a great idea, so I asked people to give me clothes and food to give out at a BBQ for the homeless. 400 homeless people turned up getting food and clothes and this was the start of my Homeless BBQs.
When did the BBQs start?
July 2011 while I was still homeless myself, 400 homeless people came and got free food, clothes, toiletries and blankets. Now they run every eight weeks, at Musgrave Park South Brisbane, Ipswich, Wynnum, Caboolture and I’m hoping to start in Logan and Gold Coast this year.
How do you recruit volunteers, and get the word out to the homeless community?
We have a Facebook page Signal Flare – Helping the Homeless and Others in Need where people can follow what we’re up to, and we recruit volunteers through our events pages – we create one for every BBQ. Every Homeless BBQ we make thousands of fliers made up and spend hours walking around handing them out to the homeless and people in need. But word of mouth also gets more people there. On average we get between 400 to 1000 homeless or people in need, but even when it’s raining 400 people that need it most will still come out just to get free food, clothes, toiletries and blankets.
Homelessness, addiction and mental health issues tend to be interconnected. What do you see as the greatest contributing factor to homelessness and why?
This is sad but the truth is there’s not enough services or resources to help even half of the people suffering from mental health and addictions. Limited help means people fall through the cracks and then in a lot of cases turn out worst as a result. A lot of people are left with homelessness because there’s nowhere left to turn. It’s a short road there but a long road back. One thing to remember is that homeless, addicts and people suffering from mental health all have one thing in common they are people who hit hard times and found it too hard to bounce back. It would be great if bouncing back could be made more within people’s reach.
What do you find are the greatest misconceptions around homelessness?
I feel the biggest misconception is that all homeless are crazy drug addicted bums that have never worked a day in their life or, as many say to me, that they can get help if they wanted it. So many homeless could never afford drugs and have been to so many services and put on endless waiting lists that they give up even more on getting back on their feet. It makes them give up on themselves even more. It really does lower your self-confidence, self-worth and the courage to ask for help if each time you ask nothing happens.
What would you change about current government policy if you could?
We work with the homeless directly, on a ground level. If they need help we give it to them. Government policy is not my forte, but every day I see people getting really depressed and discouraged when they can no longer afford to stay in crisis accommodation because it’s too expensive for them. They have no choice but go back on the street. There have been huge cutbacks in services, the number of homeless grows and so does the need. They need more services not less. There is a need for more affordable crisis accommodation, and some guidance or case management and the opportunity to go from crisis accommodation into affordable housing and into education or work. Surely there can be policies made around that? Once the homeless see that people think they’re worth it they will start to believe it too, and they will do well. Reducing homelessness will also reduce mental health issues and addiction.
What has the reaction from the homeless community been to the BBQs?
It’s always amazing to see the homeless and people in need come to our homeless BBQ because the first thing you notice is the absence of real greed – we have a truck load of clothes that they can get for free and yet they will only take what they need. You see, homeless don’t want to carry more than they have to. We have our volunteer workers eating the same food as the homeless, sitting on the same bench talking, the homeless feel more part of the community and yes, for many it rubs off, and they start to get back on their feet.
Do you have a story you can share of someone you have helped get back on their feet?
To be honest it’s really hard to pick one story out of thousands, but there was this guy who came to our homeless BBQ to get food and clothes, while eating I was talking to him about maybe getting on his feet, he said the biggest problem he had was getting a job with a huge gap in work history. I mentioned that there were employers at that event that may consider him if he really wanted to. To my surprise he asked if he could get some job interview clothes to wear and we went and talked to a few people. 45 minutes later he had a job starting the next day working for Dalton’s Hospitality. That afternoon we got him all the work gear he needed, money on his Go-card for travel, accommodation, and I have to say I couldn’t get him to stop hugging me and crying while saying thank you.
He turned up for work 30 minutes early and was keen to start his new job. A few days later I got a call from Dalton’s Hospitality, saying he was working out great and never stopped. He re-united with his wife and kids, and they now live together again. He had given up on himself and it only took someone to believe in him for him to believe in himself.
If people want to get involved in assisting with these events, how do they go about it?
We are always saying that these homeless BBQ’s are the community coming together to give a helping hand. So please if people would like to help out they can go to our Facebook page, contact me personally -Grant the Polite Guy 0412 190 011, or email Bernie the Polite Girl.
What are your plans for the future of the BBQs and the Polite Team?
We’ll continue to do our homeless BBQs every eight weeks and helping on a daily basis. But this is just the beginning as we are looking to helping people in Sydney and even starting Homeless BBQs there as well, because as we get more volunteers and support the more we accomplish, really there’s no limit.
Read more about how you can help the Polite team.