A man walked into my office last week. Dirty, smelly and looking sad. He asked if someone could help him find somewhere to stay. I made a phone call to our main office to see if I could find someone who was available to chat with this man.
(Why didn’t I help him? To be honest I didn’t really know where to start, and I knew that someone else at Urban Seed would know what to do. As my main task is education about homelessness to school kids, I don’t know much about on the ground work).
It was going to be awhile till someone could chat to him. He started to cry and said, that "no one wants to help you when you’re homeless. Look at me, I’m dirty. I can’t even get clean clothes. I’ve tried to kill myself...” he said, showing me his wrist. He continued, “I’ve been in hospital and they don’t wont to help me, they just kick you out. No one will help me.”
I’m not sure I dealt with this man the best I could. I was a bit taken a back. It was confronting and I felt helpless. I also felt a little unsure of the situation, as it was just me and him alone in my office.
I asked if he knew where Credo was? If he went over there someone would be able to help him, and he could get some food. He said he couldn't walk and could hardly breathe. I asked if he wanted to sit down on our couches and have a rest and he said “no, no I can’t. I can’t breathe.”
I made another call back to our main office to see if someone could come over and chat with him. He was clearly distressed and not able to go over there. Stu - one of our residents, would be over soon.
I told him, “Someone will be here soon, with some food and they will be able to help you.”
He continued to get worked up and say no one wanted to help. “I’ve been sleeping in a stair well and in a building site. Look me!...” Eventually he said “I’m going for a walk I’ll come back.” And then he just disappeared out into the cold wet Melbourne spring day.
He left as I was meeting some students who wanted to interview me about the work Urban Seed does. A few mins later Stu showed up, with some food ready to help. But the man was gone. Stu left the food. And we agreed I’d call Stu if he came back.
Half way through the interview I was doing with the students we saw him walk past. I ran out to see if I could get him to stop, but by the time I got to the door he was half way up the street and holing a 4 pack of Jack Daniels and coke. Could you blame him? It was raining. He was covered in mud. He was in pain. Distressed, upset and just wanted someone to help him. Jack seemed to be the only one willing to.
At this point I’d written off ever seeing him again. And was wondering if I and what I could have done to help.
Half an hour later he appeared. I promptly gave him the food - spaghetti carbonara. And took him to our couches and said “you have a rest here, and I’ll call Stu to come and have a chat with you.”
He ate a few mouthfuls of the spaghetti carbonara. And then said he can’t eat, “I can’t breathe properly. I’ve been coughing up blood. I’ve got lung cancer. Do you think I’ve got lung cancer?” He then asked if I could turn the lights out so he could sleep, and then asked me to wake him at 3pm. So I left him in the dark, and went back to work.
Stu showed up. He chatted with the man, made some calls, and generally made the guy feel at ease. I was impressed by his ability to chat with this man face to face and treat him just like a friend.
Stu was unable to find him anywhere to stay that night. He found one place but the man was not willing to stay there. He said it was full of drug users it made him feel unsafe. It’s saying something when a man appears in your office in tears wanting help for somewhere to stay the night, but then turns down the only place available. The rain and building site were a safer bedroom for him than the so called refuge.
I went home that night (it was cold and wet) to my home, to my bed, TV, couch and nice things. And I was thinking of this man and where he would go and what he would do. The last thing he said to me was, “you are lucky you have a home. You don’t know how lucky you are.”