By Major Brendan Nottle
It only happens to the lazy. It only happens to the drug addled. It only happens to those that can only be described as a burden on society.
For many years, these views were held by many that I know, ashamedly, I admit, by myself.
It wasn’t until I stopped passing judgement on people that were rough sleeping that my attitudes started to change.
It wasn’t until I ceased attempting to do things for rough sleepers and I started to do life with them that I moved from being a person who judged those that were homeless and I started to become filled with awe.
Yes, you read that correctly. It was when I started to spend time with people that were homeless and genuinely listened to their stories that I became repeatedly staggered by their amazing resilience.
There was the elderly woman, hardened by the streets, but who retained an exquisitely well-developed upper-class English accent.
As my wife, Sandra, and I sat with her and listened to her recount her story we both realised that this woman had experienced horrific abuse as a child. Remarkably, she had not only survived this unspeakable pain, but she had retained a rather tender and deeply compassionate heart for the most vulnerable. As Sandra and I sat with this woman in a fast food outlet, enjoying some lunch, what could only be described as a “bag lady” strolled into the store with her shopping trolley overladen with her life’s belongings.
As people in the store, including myself, lowered our eyes and protected our meals, our friend not only invited the “bag lady” to join us, but she had the audacity to pluck food from each of our plates and created a lovely little feast for the woman who was clearly famished. To my deep shame, it was this woman who I was meant to be helping and demonstrating a so-called better way of life that taught me a life lesson about not simply doing occasional nice things for people, but to genuinely do life with them. It’s that ongoing interface where significant transformation occurs – not just for the receiver of a kind action but for all involved.
During COVID-19, our team has worked incredibly hard with people sleeping on the streets to encourage than to take up the generous offer provided by the Victorian Government to stay in free hotel accommodation and be provided with meals that are delivered to their rooms.
216 people have taken up the offer but, amazingly, 25 to 30 have refused the offer and have remained on the streets. This is a shocking story to me, particularly as COVID-19 and a very cold Melbourne winter have been descending on the city.
But again, as I sit and listen to this group’s stories, I am reminded that they do not deserve my judgement but rather my compassion and care.
You see, they articulated to me, in varying ways, a very similar story.
Their primary issue is not homelessness but rather very complex mental health issues often triggered by horrific events that occurred many years ago when they were children. But the trauma has not been diagnosed or treated. They have attempted to ease their emotional pain by accessing illicit or prescription drugs. From there, they have encountered a very slippery slope that has led to life on the streets.
As we stood before this group and offered them hotel accommodation, many of them responded with “Thank you, but I can’t stay inside. If I do, I may well harm myself or others.”
A few years ago, a man in his 40s was sleeping behind Parliament House. We were heading into winter, so I worked hard to get him accommodated. Surprisingly, the man insisted that he was fine, but I thought I knew what was best for him.
I was quite proud of myself for getting the man housed.
After about 10 days, I saw the man walking along Bourke St near Spring St. He had a cord tied around his neck. On seeing me he lifted his shirt and revealed a gaping wound on his stomach. He said, “You did this to me. You did this to me.” I was shocked and responded with, “But I have never, ever harmed you.” The man shouted back with tears in his eyes, “But I told you I didn’t want to go indoors and you didn’t listen.”
As you read this article, I implore you to remember two things. Firstly, homelessness can happen to anyone and secondly, those that are homeless deserve our compassion and care, not our judgement •