Getting the “sin” out of the room, and other nightmares

SLEEP has always been my escape from stress. But there was a time when I served in the Salvation Army in Melbourne where I dreaded it. Every night for at least a week I would have vivid dreams.

I say ‘vivid dreams’ because they were not nightmares, exactly, but they weren’t pleasant, sweet, or desirable. I think there was one time I felt like I was choking, and when I woke my arm was around my neck.

But I wasn’t the only Order member. I know the others had nightmares and vivid dreams too. One of them was even a sleep walker.

There were more than a few in the group who prayed  believing these vivid dreams were an attack from the Devil. Sometimes they would pray in the hallway which pissed me off because I was watching a movie in the lounge. But you can never ask; “if that’s the Holy Spirit, can you tell it to be a little more quiet? I’m watching Law Abiding Citizen.”

I say this not to mock. I say this to highlight our thoughts and beliefs at the time.

G- and A- were roommates. One night G- woke to see A- standing over the bed with eyes closed, muttering, “got to get the sin out of the room.” And G- screamed.

One night I dreamed I was walking in Fitzroy Park. There was a campfire in the middle, with one of my friends warming himself over a fire. “Look out,” he said to me. “Ronald is coming. You should go!” But it was too late. Ronald was standing on the other side of the fire to me. He pulled out two swords from somewhere in dream-space, and chopped my arms off. I heard ambulance sirens and I still had painful stumps for arms before I woke.

I knew then I was scared of Ronald more than anyone else in my life.


THERE are men I have met who when become angry for whatever reason, react. And they react with spite. These men, and some women, are not limited to the lower classes. They are politicians, they are members of a middle class audience watching stand-up comedy or theatre, and they are the laborers.

They all have something in common. Bad tempers. And charm. They can reason with you but you will find it difficult to persuade them. When threatened their logic skips like a broken CD. You find holes in their argument and they ignore it, only repeating their previous verses again, and again, and when losing over and over, resort to intimidation.

In Melbourne there was one man who scared me more than every other. During our two week induction the Order members were warned about Ronald.

“He has a life long ban from the drop-in centre,” we were told.

There must be a serious reason for being banned for life from a room filled daily with drug addicts, schizophrenic, ex-convicts, homeless, and no doubt the occasional down-on-his-or-her-luck prostitute. An organisation who prides itself on being merciful, forgiving, and the last place a person can go for assistance cannot take a life-long ban lightly.

One morning in the drop-in centre, Ronald stood next to me and grabbed a bowl. I smelt his thick dreadlocks and body odour before I even recognised him.

I let him go but told my supervisor he was inside. She left him alone.

I couldn’t blame her.

He was part of the milk-crate gang, who sat at the beginning of the alleyway from Little Collins Street near the car-park. Ronald held the court, leading forward in bagging clothes drinking cheap piss from a paper bag. We kept our distance but were worried when other attendees spoke and gathered around.

I was in the alleyway once when a bald headed man in his thirties, with a knobbly nose that must have been sun-burnt and broken more times than the fingers on your hands, strode up to Ronald, yelling. Ronald stood from his milk crate and his massive body swelled. The energy surged from his chest and his shoulder as he pummeled his fist into the man’s face. The knobbly nosed man toppled back. His head crunched into the smelly alleyway bitumen. I still remember hearing the crunch from the back of his head.

The bosses and the paid professionals ran to move Ronald on. The drop-in centre manager lured the victim away to sit on the curb. He was not bleeding from what I could see.

And then the man wailed. He was so drunk that it took him more than 10 seconds to feel the pain.


Pictutre from
Picture from


RONALD lived in one of the parks most of the time beside one of the old power stations. It was one of the first places we stopped at when we ran the coffee van at night. Not every person would want to run into Ronald at 9pm at night, but I never had a problem with him. He was usually placid, relaxed, perhaps even high.

He was dangerous because he was unpredictable. You feared his violence and preferred to keep him happy so you did what you could to respect him. It was a base form of manipulation, one I would liken to the abusive stepfather or the dominating partner. We gave him what he asked for like blankets, poppers, sausage rolls, coffee, and with a smile. But he wasn’t pushy. In fact, he didn’t ask for much compared to his friends, who often whined impatiently if we were not fast enough to bring back a coffee.

“Treat every one of these people like you’re serving Jesus,” was a popular saying among the Melbourne Salvos.












A model in disguise

A EUROPEAN man cycled his pushbike into 69 Burke Street.

Packages and bags burdened the sides and back of the bike. These were his possessions. I first saw him in 2009. The summer’s heat was over, and the yellow leaves of Melbourne’s trees were falling.

I think the man’s name was ‘Paris.’

Paris was the best piano player I’ve heard live or on television.

69 Burke Street is about three stories. The Salvation Army was proud of it and the history witnessed there. They kept a museum in the back of the building that the Order 614 team had little to do with.  There was also a counselling office on the second floor.

The piano was kept on the first landing of the stairway. It wasn’t a special piano once used by William Booth the S.A founder or anything (at least as far as I know). It  was a decoration that couldn’t fit anywhere else, and some leader thought it might as well be there.

Paris worshipped the piano. He somehow would push the bike up to the landing and lean it on the wall near the piano. He would play savagely, crashing his hands on the piano keys for hours.

This photograph isn't of the man. Copied from the Daily Mail, UK.
This photograph isn’t of the man. Copied from the Daily Mail, UK.


There was a classical energy to his style that demanded not to be ignored. When I had time I would close my eyes and hear the songs I’ve never heard played, cannot name the tunes if you asked me to, but when he stopped he became the unassuming man who peddled his bike out silently.

We liked to think we gave homelessness and the marginalised a voice. But music was his voice.

Somebody didn’t like the sound though. And when they asked Paris to be quiet, he never came back again. Later in the year, when the building was renovated, the piano was removed.

Working in the drop-in centre was probably the hardest job of the year. I won’t lie. I didn’t like it much. There was little ventilation in the room and many of us remained in the same clothes, or smoked or chromed heavily.

You could take your mind off the work with the ping-pong table and chess set.

The trick was to get the ping-pong table in the centre of the room. It was popular. Some players were quite good. The best player had a typical Thai build, and despite having little reach with his arms still beat you with his cunning techniques. He taught me one type of spin but wouldn’t show me all his tricks.

Once he said; “Mum used to tell me you have to learn to lose before you learn to win.”

He might have been king of the ping-pong table, but Jules was the chess master. Jules would sit in the corner of the room every day and play. When I started the Order I thought myself a good player, and I patronised the guys at first, but when I lost badly in the first game I knew I didn’t need to anymore. They were smart, logical, tactical. Practice also makes perfect and iron minds sharpen iron minds.

homeless chess

I liked Jules, but he was a dick sometimes. When he was winning he toyed with me while taunting insults about my intellect. But when somehow you bested him, with one move or one game, he would become angry. He didn’t have the violent, dangerous sort of anger often shown in the centre.

His was a childlike pouting.

After a year I improved but I maybe won every third game against Jules.

This isn't the man, but if you Google "goth male model" this is the closest image to how he looks.
This isn’t the man, but if you Google “goth male model” this is the closest image to how he looks.

The man was about 25, wore dark, cheap leather, and a spike dog collar around his neck. He was the cartoon goth, a skeleton who was always the tallest in the room at  the Tuesday charity lunches. His hair was dark and he always had an enviable three day shadow. Graffiti was scrawled across his jacket in white out, with satanic references like 666.

Yes. The man intimidated me.

There was only one time I spoke to him and it was near the end of the year. We installed computers in the drop-in centre, which were intended for our international student study night program just established. One time I was using the computer in the drop-in centre. He sat next to me and after a few minutes he asked me to take a look at the photo of the male model on the screen.

The man in the photo was snapped in mid stride, his hair neat but waved back. He wore handsome office clothes which transformed the model’s bony body into a tight, well kept figure.

“That’s me,” the man said.

And it was. I had to compare the faces a few minutes while he smiled proudly.

But the man was the model. I don’t know if the photo was taken just the previous weekend, or long before in happier days in the days before he wore 666 on his clothing.


Making the closest group of friends I’ve ever had

I REMEMBER getting off the plane and landing at Tullamarine airport for the first time.  When I turned my phone on I already missed three phone calls from my new supervisor.

I took the escalator and on the way down I noticed a girl holding a piece of cardboard with my name on it. My first thought was “hello, she’s pretty.” The second thought was that she must have been one of my supervisors. But S- was actually one of the Order members. I don’t know why I thought she was older. I think it was because she was extroverted. She carried herself like one of those members of Greenpeace asking you to sign some forms in the street.

S- was talking to an elderly couple, asking them if they saw someone that matched my description. They hadn’t. I was off the escalator now and I introduced myself . Then we went to collect my bag, and waited outside for the supervisor, who parked in front of us in the Salvation Army van which was nicknamed Bertha.

We stayed at the Salvation Army training college, in Parkville. The building was opposite the park. The trees were lined across the road, the leaves turned orange and about to fall. I had never noticed autumn before. This place had a dying and ratty beauty in a ways Queensland could never be.

We lived on the eighth floor. I remember being amazed at how large an area we had. I’d expected some shoddy concrete lined refuge. The kitchen was well stocked with jams and breads and fruits. The rooms were spread out with en-suites. And the view! OMG, the view overlooked Melbourne CBD  would have set a room’s value at 50,000 alone just to see the skyscrapers.

Everyone else shared a room, but I was disappointed to learn that I was going to be on my own. It was for the best I think, because I am an introvert. I needed the isolation, it turned out, and without it I might have killed someone (not a far stretch of the imagination if you see the blog post’s last photograph).

The 11 Order members met each other that night at dinner. Back then age counted. I was only 19 at the time, and I felt like everyone else was older. However, we ranged from 18 to about 25 years. Halfway through the year, I learnt age had nothing to with maturity or necessarily guarantee a bond between someone your own age over someone a few years older. Unfortunately, when I left the Order, I discovered that many people still hadn’t learnt that lesson.

That first night we took a group photo in the hallway.

I'm the one in the centre far-back, my head hidden in the hood.

Throughout the year I would look at this picture and think, “wow, we looked so young. We didn’t know what we were in for.”

I ended up loving this group more than any other group of friends. We worked, lived, hung out together, with half of us sharing bedrooms. With the stress and long hours, we saw our worst sides. But after a while, the worst sides didn’t matter so much. We knew our friend’s weakness, and in a stressful situation, we worked around it.

carrying ourselves Order
If one of us fell, two others would carry that person even if we were grudging (which suited me just fine in this particular case).

We were a team.

I have never found a team like this before. I think for years after there was an emptiness, an attempt to chase after a social group that had as much meaning, but none came close.

Sometimes life was a party and we all got along fine.


Sunglasses party!
Sunglasses party!

Even when we worked hard sometimes we had time for a smile and a ridiculous photo.




But then there were times where we just wanted to bury our Order friends alive in a beach somewhere.

G- and I at St Kilda Beach. It's my birthday!
G- and I at St Kilda Beach. It’s my birthday!

And  times we just wanted to kill each other.

Fun and games!


Fighting by writing hopefully igniting

THE pen is mightier than the sword? Yeah, maybe. If the pen is able to write whatever it chooses.


Major Sandra Nottle (the supervisor I reported to in the Order) would likely believe the pen is mightier than the sword, but prayer and the spiritual armour of God is more powerful than the pen.

Yeah, maybe. If the prayer is able to command whatever it chooses.

Sandra often described our struggles every day in the Salvation Army as a battle between light and darkness. We’d have to attend prayer sessions in the morning before we started work, and in these sessions when I tried disguising extracurricular nap-time with prayer, she often used passages of the bible I cannot recall to highlight her point.

You have to admit, it's pretty cool though
You have to admit, it’s pretty cool though

I have enormous respect for Sandra and do not want to analyse this belief too much, but there are times I have been cynical of this view.

Not this week.

I had plans to write this blog about the year and certain key moments after. I want to write about the lady on the train who called me beautiful. I want to write about the aftermath of the Black Saturday fires. I want to write about Red Shield Appeal and about the two gay Christmas elves, and when I reported on the boy who died.

But I need to share the present feelings before they become the past.

Last week a foster couple came to meet me at my office. They told me of two children suffering severe medical problems who were returned to their indigenous community by the QLD Department of Communities. The medical problems were worsening, the couple said.

There are huge issues connected to this. The children weren’t being looked after. The Department were closed and wouldn’t give any details and cited the Child Protection Act of 1999 in the name of protecting the children but no doubt trying to cover their asses. And then you have to understand their reluctant to remove Indigenous children from their community because of the controversial policies with the Australian Government involving the stolen generation.

And so the protection of children are still being overruled by politics. When they told me their story I asked questions, I wanted to know their agenda, and they were open. They had paperwork to back their claims and after a weekend of worry I decided to write the story.

I thought that when the story was published it would be huge. I thought it would reach the city papers. I thought it might make the Sydney Morning Herald. Naive as I was, I thought it would be international.

I thought the editor wouldn’t believe in the story but to my surprise he did.

And then the Department warned us not to publish the story. We compromised. We published the story but took out all names and any information about the medical conditions.

The article is published here.

Then it was time to write an opinion piece. The editor told me to make the opinion piece powerful, but not to use inflammatory language. I knew what I had to do. I was scared. But I wrote it anyway. And then I handed it to my editor.

He read it quietly. “I can change it if it’s not appropriate,” I said.

“It’s really good. It’s the only way we could have gone about it,” he replied.

The next morning I was shaking, paranoid that everyone in town was watching me, judging me, thinking less of me.

And I was frustrated too. See, the Federal Budget was announced. And Ben Affleck’s first photograph as Batman was published.

You have to admit, it's pretty cool though.
You have to admit, it’s pretty cool though.

Of course, I’ve used this picture as my featured image. I thought it would trick more people into reading this, but I don’t believe the meaning behind Batman contradicts this blog.

Nobody gave a damn about policies regarding the treatment of children. We instead cared about how the Australian Government would reward or damn us.

I felt that somehow that if we won, my own personal cost was too great. Somehow I’d combined my past with my journalist persona, and I have this fear that somehow I’ve demolished a wall, and now I risk the past affecting my present and future.


Brave Move By Foster Parents

IT WAS not easy writing about the Mount Isa based couple who expressed concern for the welfare of two children they once provided care for, and the difficulty they are having with the Department of Communities. I rarely tell people that I spent three years in a foster home. People look at you differently when they learn this and there is a stigma attached. But I want to share this fact even if I am thought less of, because there is nothing wrong with it. I would like foster parents to know that their love and compassion can make a difference, as it did to me. And I would like the children to know they will not be children forever. They become adults too who can lead fulfilling and amazing lives, with the ability to empathise and relate to people who might be suffering for a wide range of reasons. The couple were willing to be named in this article and we wanted them to be as well. However, we cannot do so without identifying the children. We were reminded this several times by the department. It is frustrating we cannot do so because how can the media hold the government accountable if it is blockaded from the facts, even if it is in the name of protecting children? I fear for the couple and the trouble they might be in. They have done a brave thing and I hope other foster couples can relate to their situation. We talk of child abuse in the government system as if it is in the past. Even without the foster couple’s opinion, I know first hand it is not. – Chris Burns

My coffee with Bob Katter, and how I became a journo and failed as a lobbyist

IT’S A Friday night and I’m tipsy. I’ve returned home from a Catholic school fete but all I did was spend time in the cordoned off section of the school yard reserved for the boozers.

I’m feeling kind of lovely at the moment. Nothing exciting has happened but the vagueness brought on from beer has extrapolated to bliss because I’m not feeling pain. I’m feeling vague. Vague is great. I’m floating and not touching the cursed earth.

Floating is wonderful
Floating is wonderful

It’s been a shitty week. Actually, it’s been a shit day.

I’m working on the toughest news article I’ve ever written. And for now I cannot say any more about it. One day soon, perhaps. It does relate to a social justice issue and so touches on the theme of this blog. Let’s just say a certain government department has hinted threats to take my paper to court if we happen to print a certain story.

Government can be a bastard when the particular one feels threatened by the chains of institution it claims to represent. I came home angry this afternoon and wrote on Facebook; “What good is it being a journalist when you’re being intimidated not to write the stories that count?” then I added “ARGH!”

But let’s not read about my frustration. Let’s instead read about having my first coffee with Bob Katter on Wednesday.

I’m to meet Bob Katter at the Coffee Club at 11.15am. It’s just a meet and greet. He’s in Mount Isa and I’m a new journalist in his area. Our conversation has nothing to do with the toughest story I’ve ever written.

Now, some of you are Americans or Kiwis, so perhaps you’ve never heard of Bob Katter, leader of the Katter’s Australian Party. Every democratic nation surely has an extreme right wing minority party where the leader has celebrity status, enough so that you can identify the fellow through any media cartoon even it looks nothing like the guy.


I first heard of Katter in 2010 (after the Order) when Liberal and Labor parties had a tie of the number of seats in the Federal Parliament House, meaning of course the seats owned by minority parties (such as Katter) gained influence from the main parties desperately needing their votes. But he was one of the first pollies I knew the name of.

I tell him this when we meet. He’s ten minutes late and walks to my table, not wearing his trademark Stetson or Akubra (or whatever hell the brand of hat it is). He’s talking on his phone, doesn’t look at me. But he puts his equipment down at the table so I know he recognises me. After fifteen minutes or so he finishes the phone call (by then his media aide has phoned). So begins our interview, interrupted several times because he has to make phone calls with a reporter from South Australia.

Then, the waitress who fails to serve me the right coffee smiles at Bob and asks him to sign a napkin for her miner husband. He talks to her a while before returning his concentration to me.

“If you were made boss of Australia today, what would you do?” Bob eventually asked.

These are long after the days of the Order. My friend M- from the Order might have lobbied social justice issues and inequality and homelessness, but I was struck dumb.

“Holy beep beep!” I thought. But out loud I said something like “you’ve put me on the spot there, Bob. Maybe consult with people in various communities and learn firsthand what needs to be fixed.”

And after a pause in which to have a mouthful of eggs benedict, Bob said “no, that’s a process. What do you believe?” he taps on the table.

“I want to know what Chris Burns believes in.”

But I didn’t know truly what I believed in. There was my chance to say something that could make a party leader at least consider his own policies. But instead I said nothing of real meaning. Sure, he didn’t let the topic go, but he seemed disappointed in my “education” related answer.

The fireworks of the school fete are going off. The dog is barking. Dumb dog.

I like dogs though cause dogs are smart.

I need another beer cause the lubrication from the last one is running out. I know it’s running out because its more strain to write each additional word and the piss is in my bladder is waiting for a wee!

And I’m starting to feel sad again from the uselessness of the story, the one I mentioned earlier.  Of how useless I feel and how I’m failing to make a difference.

You know, I only became a journalist because of something an elderly lady told me during a Thai themed lunch in the carpark beside St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne, 2009.

The carpark is on the right
The carpark is on the right

I was there as an Order member and she asked me what I wanted to be. At the time I was one year in an art’s degree and wasn’t considering returning to university. I said I didn’t know, that I used to want to be a journalist but that I was afraid of working in an industry with so many selfish and absorbed people who cared only for a story.

And she said rather sternly, something roughly like, “don’t let the bad people in a career stop you from joining it, because maybe as a good person you can make a difference.”



Sleeping on the street


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.

crown casino2


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.

Melbourne central

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.


I was fostered

I CRIED when I wrote the last part of this post. Good. It proves to me these words aren’t bullshit.

I don’t tell many people I spent three years in a foster home. I used to when I was younger, but those I told were too sympathetic.

They were sympathetic because they didn’t know how to act. I made them uncomfortable, and so I stopped.

I converted to Christianity in my mid-teens and in time my behaviour stabilised. I resented my peers and former teachers who would say “you’ve come so far” when I visited them. It seemed patronising.

I wanted to move on.

And for a while I almost forgot I had a childhood. The phrase “born again” bandied about when I became a Christian probably didn’t help.

If there was one internal struggle I overcame during the year volunteering for the Salvation Army, it was working with the Melbourne Children’s Court. In fact, working with the children there probably played a big part in my healing process.

Children's Court

There was an arrangement with the Salvation Army to send two Order members on court days to entertain the children while their parents and guardians faced court for various reasons.

We were given a tour when the flashbacks happened. They came without warning. It came as a shock to the 19-year-old who thought he had mastered his memories and resolved his past.

It was the smells and the sense of despair in the building. The cigarettes being lighted by lawyers and social workers in the court yard. The swearing and despair of the guardians lined by the courtroom doors. The police and their uniforms. The young children not comprehending the significance of what was happening waiting impatiently in the playroom. I saw these children as miniature versions of myself.

I could see from their eyes. I saw a grown up in a Salvation Army uniform staring down at me. He had pimples. A light moustache. And when I blinked I recognised this man as myself – 10 years after DOCS workers arranged with magistrates what was to be done with my own life. I was a child again, the barrier I created and the years I took to mentally build it vanishing.

This was me in 2009.
This was me in 2009.

As a child I hardly ever attended court. Once I wanted to. But a smartarse DOCS worker lied to me and said it wasn’t like the movies and that I would find it boring. In hindsight, he didn’t want to me go because I was unpredictable and could interfere with the structure. But I wanted control of my life. And I should have been given permission to go.

But the feel of the court building was the same out-of-control feelings I felt as a child. I wanted to save these children. And I knew I couldn’t.


One of my favourite daydreams is how I get to time travel to when I was 10-years-old. I would entertain Past-Chris, talk him out of starving himself, defend against the irritating adults who just wanted to control my behaviour to make their own lives easier.

I first had this daydream when I was fostered. But now Future-Chris doesn’t seem a mysterious and Godlike figure. I am the Future-Chris.

Too bad Future-Chris is an idiot! Pictured at the Melbourne Zoo with J-, 2009.
Too bad Future-Chris is an idiot! Pictured at the Melbourne Zoo with J-, 2009.


I refused for weeks to visit the children’s court. I made excuses when it was my turn to attend. It made me sick even thinking of doing it. The other Order members would return from the sessions and talk about it, no problem at all. I preferred labouring in the drop-in centre or the kitchen preparing food for 100s of meals.

And at last, my course supervisor made me attend children’s court. I was given no choice. In the months that followed I was made to complete duties I did not want to do, due to psychological problems or because of sickness or exhaustion. I resent most of the times the supervisor made me do these things. But it was the best thing for me to attend children’s court.

Soon I learnt to love it. I loved children and could engage with them easily. We played games like “dead fish” or hide-and-seek or build cars or robots from blocks. I saw myself as an older brother for these children, these little girls and boys, regardless of if I had them for two minutes, or for thirty. And for a moment I could imagine I myself in my lonely years had an older brother just like the young man in the Salvation Army uniform.



The i Game

I JUST remembered why it has taken five years to write this book about my year working with the homeless in Melbourne.

I am not an expert about homelessness and the horrible emotions and events people out there are dealing with. Or at least I was made to feel this way and so I knew the best way to write a book was to write what I observed and what I felt in my time in Melbourne.

There’s an inner voice in my head when I consider writing about the Order. It sounds like one of the well meaning Salvation Army officers I worked with. It tells me I’m being self-absorbed writing about myself.

See, there was a game this officer made us play sometimes where we had to avoid using the word “I” in our conversation.

I suppose “the I game” was to remind us not to be selfish while volunteering a year of our life. That we had no right to complain about volunteering six and sometimes seven days a week, or of coming home at midnight or 1am, or having to work even when we had the flu.

I understand the well-meaning attitude. But it was a shitty, manipulative game. We wanted to give voice to the oppressed individual. Our pain too should count for something.

And so when I write about my experiences I imagine less-selfish readers indignant at my use of “I saw” and “I did”. We were encouraged to believe the work we did was for others and not for ourselves. We forgot that we ourselves were troubled and had problems and were as broken as the marginalised we worked for. We weren’t superheroes.

A picture one of the Order peeps drew of the men in the team. It was stuck on our lounge room wall for months.
A picture one of the Order peeps drew of the men in the team. It was stuck on our lounge room wall for months.


All the volunteers around me were battling some form of identity crisis – otherwise they would not have been drawn to servitude.

We labelled the clients as “they” and we forgot they were “us” and that “I” is a part of us.

A man once told me we should love each other as ourselves. Well, we forced ourselves to love the clients more than ourselves in some bizarre attempt to balance the scales of social fairness.

Anyway, I locked the notepad away. The book was forgotten. I worked on other projects. I completed a degree. I wrote stories about romance, loneliness and killer robots. I became a newspaper journalist. I entered the world of stand-up comedy.

Performing at the Loft, Gold Coast, in 2011.
Performing at the Loft, Gold Coast, in 2011.


Of course. It was all I-I-I.

The current daily newspaper I work at has a daily circulation between 2000 to 3000. This may not be a lot compared to city newspapers but then again you have to remember this is substantially more than the 10 to 20 people I imagine will ever read this blog post.

I used to feel self-doubt about what I write but not as much anymore. I treat mayors and State ministers and chief-executives as my peers and I have to because the media is the fourth estate and is separate from our authority figures. And when they sense doubt they stomp over me.

My point is that when I started writing this post I began to get the inner-voice snickering again. It is a voice reminding me that for years I have not been a part of the hard work that volunteers and Salvationists are still doing in Melbourne

“Shut the hell up,” were the last things I told this voice.

Doubt just gets in your way.




The first cut

ONCE I thought I would write a book about what it is like to be homeless. I wanted this book to inspire readers, to make them go “wow, people live like this in Australia? This can’t be right.”

This blog is my compromise.

I have met too many people who spend their nights in the Hungry Jacks of the CBD  who believe they cannot complain because their life is better than those in foreign countries. They’ve been told to believe this by those who’ve been told by others told by others who have seen what it is like in Africa.

But just because most of us in Australia are wealthy and stable and not forced to slavery doesn’t mean we should neglect those closest to us and assume everything is okay.

Elizabeth Street:  You can see Flinders Street Station
Elizabeth Street: You can see Flinders Street Station

I signed up to work for the Order 614 Project in Melbourne CBD. I passed men shooting up in alleyways and met people living under bridges when I worked the food van at midnight. I volunteered close to 70 hours a week attending workshops by local rappers and supervising kids in the children’s court while their guardians debated their future to the magistrate and solicitors.  Performing karaoke and Wii bowling alongside those who were abusing volatile chemicals (chroming). Visiting Wittlesea in the aftermath of Victorian bushfires.

It was 2009. It was a year’s internship. How old was I? 19, I think. I felt obligated in a gap year between years of uni  to join the Salvation Army program. Why?

It was to serve Jesus. I told myself this. In hindsight it was probably part true – part bullshit.

Jesus chillin’ in front of a Melbourne CBD nightclub.

It was to save people. From something. I don’t know what.

It was in the name of adventure. Yeah.

It was to delay life for a while until I made up my mind because I sure as hell didn’t know why I was studying journalism anymore.

All these reasons I think.

I gave up, you know. Not just writing the book. I gave up on The Cause (promoting social justice issues,). I gave up on Jesus and the daily prayer and bible and speaking in tongues. When I finished the year I was lonely and exhausted and confused about my life and where it was going and what the point of fitting into society was, when it only praised superficiality as success.

it was a series of events the years after that led to my bland cynicism, my years as an objective newspaper journalist numbing the pain of power games in my day-to-day life, and the rough domestic situation dealing with an alcoholic stepfather.  In these years I forgot about my Order year. My life felt like it has been leading to something – each year except 2009. This year is the wildcard and exception and I don’t yet have use for it.

But I think I’ll blog this “book” in installments. And this is the first cut, the first chop of the process, an attempt to capture the enormity of feelings I have felt in recent years.

Not so much of working with the homeless but of what exposure to it taught me when I was left to live my life as normal.