By Shane Scanlan
Martin Mulvihill seems too nice. Where’s the catch? Why is he putting himself in the position of “team captain” to the city’s most needy permanent residents?
But to meet the 72-year-old is to be totally charmed by his smile and laughter and it doesn’t take long to realise he is a one-in-a-million special human who gives of himself for the sheer joy of it.
Mr Mulvihill is the president of the Drill Hall Residents Association (DHRA) and represents and advocates for the needs of his fellow tenants in the Housing Choices Australia establishment in Therry St.
The former school teacher has been there from the beginning. He moved into his top-floor apartment when the 59-unit complex was opened in 2011.
The Drill Hall offers affordable housing for a diverse range of special-needs groups. Without giving away any confidences, it is fair to say that he has some pretty scary stories that would make lesser people immediately look for somewhere else to live.
He modestly describes his contribution as being able to offer “middle class skills” that are in short supply among the residents.
Having taught in the toughest inner-city technical schools in his day, the widower “knows how it works”.
Indeed, his own upbringing was tougher than most of us can imagine – being the progeny of an English girl and a “tall Texan” who didn’t return from a bombing raid over Germany during World War II.
Like many other children of the time, he was “surplus to the requirements” of both his family and his country and found himself shipped out to Australia as a 16-year-old.
He is a big fan of his adopted country though, particularly insofar as people here are not caught up with a rigid class system which defines British society. This egalitarian streak makes him a perfect advocate for his fellow tenants at the Drill Hall.
He says Drill Hall residents have some complex special needs but one unifying trait is that they all “tell it as it is”. As a group, their relationship with their Housing Choices Australia landlord has improved markedly through Mr Mulvihill’s leadership.
And it doesn’t stop there. The DHRA is the leading entity in the rather grandly-named Victoria Square Precinct Committee and has custodianship of the open space at the eastern and of the complex. Mr Mulvihill insisted that the homeless people of the local area were also represented on the precinct committee through a fellow called Spike.
There have been victories with getting better carpets and security cameras. And the DHRA has established a Neighbour Watch Group to help residents feel safe.
The drugs and the violence are still acquaintances of the building, but they’re no longer friends.
“It’s not like sitting around in some meeting talking about people’s competencies and self-esteem,” Mr Mulvihill said. “When you’re living here, you’re in it. You don’t go home and leave it all behind.”
“There have been plenty of times when I’ve had to take a step back. People can be very confrontational.
People appreciate being assisted but they don’t respond to paternalism or a custodial-type approach.”
“You have to get people to understand what they are dealing with here. It is a delicate and sensitive operation.”
Mr Mulvihill keeps fit and swims everyday at the City Baths. It was this habit, when he lived in Northcote, that first introduced him to the Drill Hall complex when it was being built.
Being a committed inner-city dweller (“I lived in Box Hill once, it was like being in Siberia”), he applied for residency and was surprised when he was accepted.
“I think it was because I was a teacher,” he said. “I think they saw me as some sort of emergency worker.”
Whoever approved his application should be congratulated. In this tenant, they have father, advisor, social worker and best mate for the rest of the crew.