For one night I slept on the street. Sort of. The boss took us on a night tour of Melbourne. The tour is only a few weeks into the Salvation Army’s Order 614 program.
I’m completely buggered that night. I have the flu, and some of the others are stuck at home with it. I can hardly keep up to the others during the tour as we pass the cathedrals and the old Salvation Army buildings.
I wheeze while we visit the main train stations and duck into Crown Casino.
It’s an incredible place. There are glass chandeliers and bright lighting and security guards urging you to move along if you stay in one place for too long. I buy a slice of pizza. It’s delicious. When we walked out along the Yarra River the lights of the Crown still shine. Everything else seems shabby and dull.
We return to 69 Burke Street – where the Order 614 base is. The Order members normally sleep at the Salvation Army College in Parkville but tonight is special. We’re being educated. Grandma Maple hands us sleeping bags. She works at the Order 614. Like me she could get cranky and you ran for the hills when she was.
But I love her. I don’t know what she is doing these days and she was never much into technology. I doubt she’d read this and know I care about her.
She gives us sleeping bags and we sleep next to each other in the building car-park. It’s enclosed and safe from outdoor influences but it’s still cold. I’m sick and sniffling and E- suggests I sleep indoors. But I don’t want to be excluded.
We’re all lying together in the dark. A few people deliberately fart. We giggle.
We wake about 5.30am with Grandma Maple sweeping us with a broom and shouting “scoot, kids!” or something like it (I don’t know if she actually did but she joked so many times that this is what she would do to wake us that it became memory). We were sorted into pairs and then ordered to wander the city for a few hours.
Sure, it sounds fun. But first we had to surrender our wallets and phones.
We had to learn what it might be like for a person with no money to live in the city, with no roof or shelter.
I was paired with J-, a guy who ended up becoming one of my best friends. I was still sick and barely alive, it seemed. J- took pity on me and we went in search of a place we could sleep where it was warm. The solution was the Central Train Station shopping centre. We wandered to the different seats near the shot tower and tried to sleep as comfortably as we could while sitting down.
We moved once because I was afraid we’d get into trouble for loitering.
Seeing people around buying stuff was the worst of it. They were buying coffee, donuts, and other food. We were there only three hours. It was long enough to discover boredom would be one of the worst things for homeless people. No wonder people turn to chroming or drugs.
Often charities or corporate donations focus on providing food and to a lesser degree, accommodation. But we all need to be entertained, and this is the main luxury that money buys.
We don’t buy a coffee in the morning because we’re thirsty.
Meanwhile, the other pairs are just as miserable. G- and M- thought “screw this” and they took a train to Cranbourne and back to pass the time. When we shared our stories after, Grandma Maple told them they were cheats and slackers. But it was smart. And after all, many of the streeties stayed as long as they could on public transport until busted by inspectors.
Brendan and Peach somehow were mistaken for beggars (like a comic scene in the movies). The coins they were given were worth McDonalds coffees. They tried to sleep near a pond in Vic gardens and nearly froze. As you would if you’re going to sit near a water source on an Autumn morning in Melbourne.
Melbourne has its extremities. The extravagant waste their money in the casino and meanwhile the haggard are driven mad by cold and boredom. And this was why we were made to do this exercise. We learnt by experience that a concerned voice and a kind conversation in the early hours of the morning could make a difference in a lonely person’s life.