First published on 19 Jul 2012. Updated on 16 Aug 2012.
“Hey Bec,” yells Bronson as he flags down one of Sydney’s well-known red and white Missionbeat vans on Mary Street in Surry Hills. He’s tall and skinny and on this frosty Sydney day he’s wrapped in a baggy rain jacket and sporting thick black socks on his thonged feet. As the van comes to a halt, he leans against the driver’s window and spreads his scruffy-bearded face into a smile. “Did you miss me?”
‘Bec’ is Rebecca Parr, the Missionbeat driver Time Out’s tagging along with for a shift on Sydney’s streets; 37-year-old Bronson is one of her regulars. He is staying at the nearby Foster House, a men’s-only crisis accommodation centre, but has just finished a 12-day stint at Gorman House, St Vincent’s detox clinic. It’s 2pm and he’s after a lift to Central Station where he’s visiting his caseworker.
“I come from an alcoholic and abusive family,” he tells Time Out as we drive down to Central. He was kicked out of home for smoking bongs at 12 and slept on mates’ couches through his teens. “Then I started committing more and more crimes just to get put in jail – I was institutionalised.” Heroin followed pot – he started smoking at 13 and injecting at 15 – and his drug addiction keeps him from his 12-year-old daughter Tisha. “I haven’t seen Tisha since she was six. Her mum doesn’t let me because I used to take her to the pool halls where there are a lot of drugs. But I don’t want joint custody. I just want compassion leave.”
Speaking with Time Out is a bright spot in an otherwise bleak day shuffling between institutions. At Central we ask Bronson if it’s okay for us to take his picture before he heads for off his appointment. “Sure,” he says, assuming a pose. “I’ve never been this famous before. Except on the streets – I’m famous on the streets.”
Bronson is just one of the 30-40 people Rebecca Parr will pick up today and one of over 5,000 people currently homeless in inner city Sydney, according to the most recently released Census data. Not all are sleeping under bridges and in parks:16 per cent of the city’s homeless “sleep rough” on the streets, while others stay in overnight emergency accommodation shelters, mid- to long-term boarding houses or just couch surf. And while those stats are sobering, there has actually been a slight but steady decline in the number of rough sleepers and emergency bed occupants in Sydney over the last three years. This is not because there are more beds – public housing stocks have been stagnant for the past decade despite the population increase. It’s because of the hard work of services like Missionbeat.
“Step into my office,” says Parr, sliding open the door of her van at about 10am. She is a tanned and bubbly 25-year-old Kiwi and wears skinny jeans and Cons with her Missionbeat shirt. She looks like she’s going for a coffee in Darlo, not about to do a nun-like shift with Sydney’s homeless, but that’s typical of Missionbeat. Bec’s ‘office’ is one of three vans that the Mission Australia-backed programme has on the road, and though Mission Australia is a Christian organisation that has been helping Australia’s down-and-out since 1859, you won’t find any Missionbeat staff preaching. Its on-road homeless outreach, which has been around since 1979, is a secular thing.
Parr, who graduated from the University of Otago in Dunedin with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 2011, has been working at Missionbeat for a year, and no two days, or even hours, behind the wheel have been the same so far. An average shift for Parr is between 7am-3pm and her days are mostly made of up of ‘transports’ – helping people access the inner city’s various homeless services – but she also spends her shifts checking on rough sleepers, talking to the community and identifying unknown people bouncing around the city’s medical system. Later in the evening Missionbeat’s night shift drivers will work with more intoxicated people and the push to find a bed for the night will become more pressing.
“When I first started this job I was punched in the face with my own naïvety,” says Parr, as we drive away from Missionbeat headquarters in Marrickville towards the inner city where Parr spends the majority of her shifts. “But I really wanted to do a job that practically helped people in our community. This job definitely lets me do that, and I have learnt a lot from the people living on the streets. I have so much respect for their resilience. It’s a real honour to serve them and love them and get to know them.” As the day goes on, Time Out sees that Parr is damn good at this job, too. She is quick to put passengers at ease and keeps calm when told stories that would knock others right off their seats.
Inside the van there is a radio, through which the assistance requests are relayed, enough seats to transport a family of seven if needed and a boot full of practical supplies donated by the public: blankets, socks, bottles of water and the like. And as popular as these essentials are, it’s Parr’s reassuring smile that is valued most. “Homelessness can be very lonely,” she tells me. “A big part of my job is just listening.”
One of Parr’s first transports for the day is for Jen, 33, who’s with Wayne, 52; she sees the two friends every shift. Theyhave been at the Wayside Chapel drop-in centre in Kings Cross, hanging out at the Nomad Café, where the meals are very cheap and there’s always someone to have a yarn with. Parr is driving them back to their temporary home at the Haymarket Centre, on Regent Street in Chippendale, which provides accommodation for homeless men and women with addiction and mental health and violence issues.
Jen has been on and off the streets since her early twenties, when she battled with a two-year heroin addiction. In the back of the van she tells Time Out that she had a doctor’s appointment that morning. Later in the day, Parr tells us that ‘doctor’s appointment’ is a street euphemism for picking up methadone. We meet a lot of people who’ve just come from doctor’s appointments that day.
Jen has been off heroin for 12 years, but her teeth – chipped and yellow – indicate a lengthy dependence on methadone in its stead. She has shoulder-length, brown hair and a freckly, round face, which wrinkles as she speaks, giving her a look beyond her years. “I saw my son’s father shoot himself in the throat when I was three months pregnant,” she says without a blink, unwrapping a bandaid and tenderly placing it over a cut on Wayne’s hand. They have only known each other for around a month, but it is clear that Jen thrives on his companionship. She had been living with her mother in Adelaide for the past eight years, and only recently came to Sydney to pursue a relationship with a man she met online. “He turned out to be an old creep. And then I had nowhere to go.”
At 11.20am we arrive at the Haymarket Centre and just before Jen and Wayne get out of the van, Time Out
asks what they will do for the rest of the day. “Just smoke,” says Jen. Parr laughs at this and waves the pair goodbye. “It’s great that they were at the Wayside this morning,” she says. “Its services are really good for getting people in the habit of having a productive day.”
One of the most heartening things about the organisations working to assist Sydney’s homeless is that they have a symbiotic relationship – the Wayside, that famous institution overseen by community legend Graham Long, provides showers, clothing, housing, legal and financial services, as well as more unusual services: a rooftop gardening club and the ‘Food For Thought’ dinner group that teaches under-25s to plan, shop for and cook a meal and encourages them to talk about their situations around the table as they eat. Missionbeat ensures that rough sleepers and people in emergency housing have quick access to the services and drop-in centres like the Wayside provide. Both get a lot of their funding from individual donors and corporate partners – more than 50 per cent in Wayside’s case.
While outside another great city service, the Haymarket Centre, we meet 30-year-old Maria. She has long, dark hair parted down the middle, wears a grey hoodie, black tracksuit pants and Crocs, and carries just two small bags with her. Her story is a familiar one on the streets: a long family dispute that involves a history of violence and a lost court battle led her uncle to evict her from the family home yesterday. The sheriff escorted her out of the home and dropped her at the Marrickville Health Centre.
“I found the social workers very insulting,” says Maria, who’s ping-ponged between the city’s legal and social services in the past few years. “They treated me like I couldn’t do anything for myself. There are two kinds of social workers. There are the compassionate and skilled ones, and then there are people that attack you for your situation. And a lot just assume you have a mental illness, which is unfair.”
Frustrated with the situation, Maria left the Marrickville Health Centre and, for the first time in her life, spent the night on the street. “I walked around a lot and didn’t get much sleep,” she says. “My uncle didn’t maintain the home, so being on the street wasn’t much of a step down.” This morning, cold and scared, Maria returned to Marrickville Health Centre to ask for help. She got some. A social worker secured Maria a bed for the night at the Haymarket Centre.
Drop-in centres like Haymarket and Marrickville Health, and organisations like Missionbeat are often the first point of contact for people confronted with homelessness, whether they be families evicted from foreclosed properties, teens kicked out of home by their parents, or people arriving from the country because the inner city has better homeless services. “We think of ourselves as a bridge to the services,” says Parr. “And between each of them.” Some will land back on their feet, others will remain ‘chronically homeless’; people who, for whatever reason – mental health problems, addiction, a history ofdomestic violence or a trauma – believe themselves to be alone and unable to move forward.
The key to helping these people, says Wayside’s Graham Long, is to show them that they’re not alone. “If you give a homeless person a house, there is a good chance that they will be homeless again,” says Long. “Because the factors that led to their homelessness will still be there. You have to make a social connection in order to make a connection to housing.” This is Missionbeat’s philosophy too. “It’s really amazing how important just having someone to talk to is,” says Parr. And watching her transport and talk with Sydney’s homeless, it’s obvious she is doing some very important work.
‘Charity’ is not a word you hear often in the Missionbeat vans or at the Wayside Chapel; it implies a hierarchy of ‘helper’ and ‘helped’. Though they are both charities, neither carries the burden of the term. Staff and homeless, in most cases, approach one another on even footing. It’s not surprising then to find that some of those helped by these two organisations go on to work for them. One of Missionbeat’s drivers was previously homeless and struggled with alcoholism; many of the people that visit the Wayside Chapel go on to become volunteers and, in some cases, staff.
Bronson, whom we farewell at Central Station late into Parr’s shift, is interested in youth social work, and his fame on the streets would be an asset.“I just want to be around people,” he says as we near the station. “I used to spend a lot of time hanging out down at the Mathew Talbot in Woolloomooloo, but the guys down there are quite druggy and it’s not good for me. I’ve been clean for two weeks now.”
“Bronson is very good at connecting with people,” Parr adds. “He is really well-known and well regarded in the community.” It’s true. Bronson is
charismatic, and easy to talk to and will no doubt make a great youth worker if he can stay clean. “I could be a counsellor that kids can talk to,” he says, stepping out of the van. “A lot of social workers don’t have the experience that I do.”
Raise funds for Mission Australia’s homeless services by sleeping ‘rough’ for the night at their annual Winter Sleepout
. Lock Avenue South, Centennial Park 2021. Sat 4pm-Sun 10am. Aug 4-5.