The invisibility issue: Homelessness |MAKING A DIFFERENCE – a volunteer’s perspective

Homelessness really gets me talking. My involvement started over three years ago when a mutual friend introduced me to Grant Richards, one of the Big Issue vendors in Brisbane city at the time. I bought a magazine from him, and we talked. Many times. Having been homeless himself, he talked about homelessness, helping the homeless and the BBQs he organised for homeless people and others in need. I decided to help. Many affectionately called him Grant the Polite Guy and, after helping others together for some time and developing a close friendship, he nicknamed me Bernie the Polite Girl, and us together as The Polite Team. A big honour!

I never thought about the homeless before because I didn’t know any people in that situation. Grant changed this for me. He talked about the lived experience of being homeless, of walking through the city looking different, in clothes that aren’t clean, aren’t the right size or don’t fit the season, and with all of one’s possessions in a bag. He talked about not having a door to close and be safe behind at the end of the day, about “being moved on” when trying to sleep in an alley or on a park bench, about people uttering nasty slurs while walking past. Homelessness was about survival, isolation, humiliation and cold. I was inspired to help him help the homeless, and from then on life had added depth; when you help people, you get to know them. Out of the undefined shapes that dissolved in the masses who lived, worked and breathed in the city, faces emerged. Hearts. Stories. Human beings.

The first BBQ I helped Grant organise was a real eye opener. Initially a bit nervous about the unfamiliar, I felt very comfortable very quickly. I was deeply touched by the big, genuine need out there, and especially by the thoughtfulness people showed. Many said to me “I don’t want to take too much, because others may need it more”. These people had nothing, and in all their poverty, with this abundance of food and clothes in front of them, they still thought about others first. Everyone shared a meal and a chat; those needing basic necessities left with things they badly needed but couldn’t afford to buy. They had smiles on their faces, walked a little straighter, were the proud new owners of toiletries, clothes, blankets. The volunteers were smiling too.

One encounter stood out for me. One man was probably in his forties, keeping to himself. I said hello, and he started to tell me about his life. He had been homeless since he was nine, he’d had some “bad” friends along the way and learned to drink. He managed to clean up his life and quit alcohol. Two major feats, accomplished while on the street, with no one to notice or to encourage him; cleaning up his life meant that he had no friends, and he had no family contact. He cried through most of our conversation, because for the first time someone listened to his story. He didn’t know my name, I didn’t know his, and it didn’t matter. We connected as human beings. Later that afternoon he said he felt better, and he had made his first decision in a long time: he’d go to Melbourne. He left with a spring in his step. I watched him go, and hoped he’d do well. For me, this encounter proved that what Grant and I did was awesome, and that we should keep doing it.

The homeless and others in need all have their own histories of why they became homeless or needy. When you ask children what they want to be when they grow up, “homeless” or “in need” is never the answer. Sometimes something goes wrong along the way, and life takes a painful turn.

We all want the same: acceptance, belonging, respect, validation, shelter. Homeless people get so little of it. Passers-by often avoid them, look through them rather than see them. The homeless are often targets of violence because they are unlikely to press charges. They are often asked to leave but everyone needs some space somewhere.

For the homeless to feel they are part of humanity and worthy of respect is a major thing, and it is so simple to achieve. It is incredibly rewarding to have a chat to someone one day, and then hear them say a few weeks later, “I thought about our conversation, and I started a TAFE course”. It is also great to see people come for help at one BBQ, get on their feet, and a couple of BBQs later come back to help others.

We can all make that difference. We can all make people feel accepted, respected, validated. Smile, say g’day, listen, and see the change! When you show people you respect and accept them, they will respect and accept themselves, and that is often just what they need to turn their lives around. If that isn’t awesome, nothing is!

Bernie the Polite Girl 


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