Wednesday, 8 October 2014

A Journey to the Fringes

Every city has a side that many of us do not want to think about, and Melbourne is no exception. While many of us travel to the city to work:
Flinders Street Station Friday Morning
spend some time in the air-conditioned comfort of one of the many shopping malls:
Melbourne Central Shopping Centre
or trying to work out how they got that scarf up there:
Matthew Flinders with a Hawthorn Scarf
there is another side of Melbourne inhabited by people whose daily life is a struggle to survive. Over the last week, with a group of friends from my church, I went on a journey to learn about and understand this world that is hidden behind many of the bright and shiny buildings of Australia's cultural capital.
QV Building

Monday Night - Urban Seed
After having a rather, different, dinner at the Flavourtown Hot Pot, we made our way to the Collins Street Baptist Church (though for some reason I keep on wanting to write Flinders Street, until I realise that the Flinders Street Baptist Church is in Adelaide) to learn about Urban Seed, an organisation that works with the homeless people of Melbourne.
When many of us think about homeless people we usually think about people who are sleeping rough (that is on the streets), however, as of last count, out of the 20 000 people who are known to be homeless, only 220 of them do not have a roof over their head. While it is believed that drugs are a major cause of homelessness, this is actually a fiction - drug use is more a symptom than a cause of homelessness. In fact the major cause of homelessness is domestic violence.
The story of Urban Seed came about from the 1980s when the parishioners of Collins Street Baptist would have to step over the numerous homeless people who would sleep on their verandah. The question soon arose as to how to deal with the situation. While the easy solution would be to move them along (especially since there were safety issues relating to the parishioners of the church, especially the elderly and the children) they also understood that it was not really how Christians should respond.
We spent the time discussing the issues of homelessness and extreme poverty in Australia. As it turns out food is not really a huge issue. Many of the homeless are on government benefits, and food can be quite easy to come by (such as raiding bins outside the supermarkets, which is colloquially referred to as dumpster dumping). However, the biggest challenge that many of the homeless face is the isolation that they experience in the city. To be able to survive in the city one needs money, and without money there is very little to do (and one certainly cannot sit in a coffee shop). The State Library of Victoria is one of the last remaining places where one can go without having to pay a fee, and since there is free internet inside, it gives many of the homeless a place to while away their time (in fact there is one person who purportedly spends all of his time on Facebook and has over 2000 friends).
While the beggars who hold up their signs pleading for small change may be the face of homelessness, the reality extends much deeper. People who have reached that point have effectively hit rock bottom. Many of the homeless (especially teenagers) will go to extraordinary lengths to hide their homelessness, especially since it tends to bring about feelings of isolation (and how many of us have sat down with one of the homeless to really get to know them?).
Anyway, after discussing these issues (or I should say during this time), we left the church and went for a walk around the city to try to picture it from the point of view of those who have very little. Our journey ended in an alleyway much like this one:
Melbourne alleyway
where many of the dispossessed end up, usually because it is a quiet place to take drugs (and not just marijuana), out of sight of prying eyes. This is why Urban Seed has set itself up in an alley like this one, not just to be able connect with the homeless, but also as a safe place where they can inject so that if anything bad were to happen, help would not be too far away.

Tuesday Night - Indigenous Hospitality House
When many of us think about the fringes of society many of us simply think of the homeless and leave it at that, however the people on the fringe extend a lot further than the beggar that sits on Swanston Street with a sign asking for money, and this is what came out in the second night of our journey.
We were to go to the Indigenous Hospitality House, pictured below:
Indigenous Hospitality House
however a series of unfortunate events meant that we had to move the session to the church hall. So, while eating a lot of pizza, we met with one of the organisers of the house which provides hospitality to the indigenous people of Australia. The role of the Indigenous Hospitality House is to provide short-term accommodation for Aboriginals who come to Melbourne to visit family who are in hospital. As well as providing a bed and a roof over their head, they also provide food, and dinner is served every night at 7:00 pm.
While the role of the house is as simple as this, the issue of our relationship with the Aboriginals goes a lot deeper. The truth is that we originally invaded the land and as Australia developed we pushed the indigenous people ever further to the fringes. However, the problems are much more complicated as now, in 2014, people like me can trace our ancestry back generations (some of us to the early convicts). To many of us 'white' Australians (and in using that term I refer to those of us who are not indigenous), Australia is our home and if we were kicked out there would be nowhere else for us to go.
One of the suggestions that came out of the evening was that we 'White' Australians have a deep sense of guilt over what we have done to the Aboriginal people, and in many cases we either try to ignore the problem or offer band-aid solutions. However, what really struck me (not that I did not know it before) was that the solutions that we tend to offer involves integrating them into our society as opposed to understanding and respecting their way of life.
For instance, us westerners have a strong sense of ownership and individuality whereas the Aboriginal population are more communal in their practices. We might own a hammer and to us that hammer belongs to us and if anybody wants to use it then they must ask us if they can use the hammer. Aboriginals do not see ownership in the same way in that if they need the hammer they just take it, use it, and then leave it for the next person.
Also, there is this sense that we are exploiting their culture for our own purposes, as can be seen by this video:
Whenever I watched these aboriginals playing their instruments I could not help but think that this was not traditional aboriginal music (despite it being very good) but rather an attraction for international tourists to see a unique aspect of Australian society that covers up a history of invasion and dispossession.

Wednesday - Engaging People on the Street
Wednesday night was probably the hardest night of the week, for me at least, because it involved walking up to strangers and talking to them. The sad fact of our society is that people live in their own personal world, in their own personal space, and simply do not want to speak to strangers. I ought to know because I am quite guilty of this attitude, burying my face in a book and ignoring the world around me (even while I might be reading about our world).
It was interesting listening to what others said of their experiences that night, especially the discovery about headphones. I have always seen the personal music devices as creating a soundtrack for our lives, but it is also a soundtrack in which strangers are not allowed to pierce. This is moreso with our mobile internet devices, as people walk around the streets staring into them, reading things that I probably could not even fathom (maybe somebody is reading this post on one of these devices).
There were many places we could have set ourselves up in the city, but it had been decided that we would work outside the State Library of Victoria, opposite the Melbourne Central Shopping Centre. The thing that stood out for me were the people sitting on the steps of the library joining in the protests that had erupted in Hong Kong this week. Okay, there may not have been as many people as this:

but there certainly was a faithful gathering of people who would randomly scream out 'Democracy, Democracy' and then wave their mobile phones in the air.
That struck me because the reason we were engaging with people was because we wanted to talk about what we were passionate about, and it was clear that these people were passionate about their desire to be able to choose their own leaders. I believe that a couple of people even had a conversation with them.

Thursday - The Party for Asylum Seekers
After a very intense Wednesday night, Thursday was much more relaxed as we went to a party with some asylum seekers who are attempting to make a new life in Australia. We were graced not only with their hospitality (and despite our intention to serve them, it was in their nature to serve us, so many of us, despite our desire to do all of the work, ended up being the guests invited to their home).
Not only where we graced with their hospitality, but were were also graced with their own style of barbeque, as the spread below can attest to:
Barbeque Feast
(Okay, the Coca-Cola was not one of their traditional drinks, but then again I suspect that there is hardly any place these days where you cannot buy a bottle of Coke).
What struck me the most was the graciousness of our hosts. In what is becoming an increasingly hostile community towards refugees, it was evident that they were delighted at our willingness to spend time with them, to share our stories with them, and to have dinner with them. We even managed to sing a song in their native language, which brought such joy to their faces despite the fact that none of us knew how to speak their native tongue.
However, what we also learned was how the process of seeking asylum from war and persecution is treated in this country. Our legal system demands facts and evidence, as well as money. If you don't have money (and asylum seekers rarely do) then justice in many cases is denied. What these people have are stories of persecution, of injustice, and of war, however our system is not interested in stories, our system is interested in provable facts, and if we cannot present those facts, and moreso, if we cannot communicate those facts, then once again justice is denied.
Thus we were introduced to another group of people who exist on the fringes of our society - the refugees. They come here, fleeing the horrors of their homeland to discover that they are treated like criminals. So, having us come to them, with friendship and grace, gave them comfort in what is turning out to be quite a hostile world.

Friday Night - Street Pastors
Street Pastors
All I can say is that these guys are awesome, and I know that I am not the only person to think that. When we were out on the streets a couple of guys came out of a nightclub to have a cigarette and one of the Street Pastors have him a bottle of water and he was literally lost for words. This guy, simply by being given a bottle of water, could not stop talking about how wonderful he thought the whole idea was (and I even mentioned it to my housemate who said 'it is about time somebody did something like that').
So. what exactly is a Street Pastor? Well, even though have their own wikipedia entry, I probably should give you an idea of what they are all about. The organisation was initially set up in London around 2007 to attempt to curb the rise in violence that came out of, well, drunken revelries that generally occurred on Friday and Saturday nights. They are not the police, nor do they have any connection with any government agency, however the police love them because they free them up to be able to attend more serious matters. The whole goal of the Street Pastors is to make sure that people have a fun and enjoyable night out, and if they do land up in trouble, they can provide assistance to help them get home and into their bed safe and sound.
The initiative here in Melbourne is relatively new, however when the idea was first floated the police and government could not wait to get them out onto the streets. In fact they have received charitable status with the Australian Tax Office (which means that donations are tax deductible) in almost record time. They operate in 8 countries and over 300 cities around the world, and the places where they operate have seen a remarkable reduction in problems arising from the Friday and Saturday night revelries.
The operation consists of Christians (who have undergone training and background checks) who wonder around the streets in groups of three or four, not so much looking for trouble, but rather looking for people who need help, and if they need help, then giving it. There is also a group that remains at the base, and Street Pastors communicate with the base by mobile phone. The people are at the base are known as the 'Prayer Pastors' and they will regularly pray for the pastors and the people in general. If they do encounter a problem the Street Pastors immediately report the matter back to the base, and the people there will offer up the situation in prayer.
As I wondered around the streets of Fitzroy with them (and here we are out on the street):
Us and the Street Pastors
it was amazing the warm receptions that people would give them (especially the guy who got the free bottle of water). In fact one of the Street Pastors stumbled onto a conversation with a couple of bouncers who had been talking about spiritual issues, and had seen the Street Pastor's approach as a sign from God (the Street Pastors make an effort to form relationships with the bouncers because such relationships are an essential part of their work).

Even though that last night was a late night, when my alarm went off at 8:00 am on Saturday morning I found that I was all pepped up and ready to have one of my ordinary Saturdays, as well as having an opportunity to share my experiences with you while it is still fresh in my mind.

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