Chris was sitting in the shadowy entrance of my favourite Asian “$2” shop. It was 7pm. I didn’t recognise him at first. Hunched over, sitting cross-legged on a few blankets, with his hoodie over his head, a supermarket shopping trolley towering over him half filled with possessions. Winter this year in Melbourne was a doozie. The coldest winter morning in over 100 years was only a couple of nights before.
We’d first met when it was warmer and he looked healthier and happier. We’d chatted and Chris had entertained me with his gifted beat boxing while we walked to Lentil As Anything; our local “pay as you feel” vegetarian restaurant.
“Hi. How are you?” He slowly looked up at me out of the dimness. The huge swelling on the side of his face indicated a painful gum abscess ready to burst.
“Are you sleeping here tonight?”
“Oh it’s OK. The heating from the shop’ll go on in the morning. I’m waiting for my appointment at the doctor’s.”
“Is someone picking you up?”
“No it’s just at Millennium but not for another 3 hours”
“Do you need some money?”
“I wouldn’t say no”. I handed him $5. He thanked me politely. “If I give you the $5 back can you get me some Panadol?”
“Ummm … Chemstop’s a bit far and I’m with this bunch of people …”
Chris responded quickly. “There’s a milk bar ’round the corner”.
No luck there so I went to my daughter’s favourite kebab place. They kindly gave me a couple of tablets. I returned and Chris said this wouldn’t be enough. So true. Finally, I went to the milk bar and got some Panadol. I returned triumphant. Chris looked uncertain and said “this is for back, neck and shoulders.” “It’s the same as Panadol tablets but these liquid capsules work faster. I know this shit ‘cos I used to be a biomedical scientist,” I say, grimacing awkwardly.
Years ago, I’d had the same medical complaint as Chris. I remember having to wake up my daughter, who was still a toddler then, and drive to the dental hospital. It was 15 minutes before closing but they refused to treat me. My abscess burst shortly afterwards and I had to find a 24 hour medical clinic like Chris was now doing.
“Don’t drink anything hot.”
“No I’m only drinking cold water.”
“Have you got any?” I asked.
“It’s OK I’ll get some from next door”. He was exhausted so I offered to get some from the halal grocery next door. They gave me a bottle of water for him.
“Why don’t you get a couple of hours sleep before your appointment? You could set the alarm on your mobile.”
“It’s got no charge.” Of course it had no charge.
“Maybe the shop next door’ll let you charge it?”
“Oh, they’ll be closing soon”. I’d run out of solutions.
A couple of days later I complain to friends about how the gas heater doesn’t warm up my house properly.
My daughter Colette and I had decided to check out the new hipster burger joint in Footscray. Her friend Jaqui was working there that night. The queues were long and so was the wait after ordering, so we went for a walk and ended up in Footscray Mall.
Chris is in his “night spot” along with the shopping trolley. He looks much healthier and happier tonight. His hair is short and brown and his skin is pale and smooth and looks like it’s never seen a razor. Tonight his voice is animated. As he speaks I think, “What a nice, polite young person”. He’s got a keen sense of humour and an adventurous spirit too.
We sit on the ground and join him for a chat. I introduce Chris and Colette to each other. Colette immediately connects with him. I’m not surprised.
After some light heartedness Chris recounts a macabre horror he’s witnessed and reveals some personal issues he struggles with.
Yeah, life’s not all glam when you’re likeable, talented and homeless.
As they chat I notice how resourceful Chris is. He’s got paints, brushes and canvasses on which he produces amazing Animé images some copied from his tablet. Colette gets to hear his deep bass beat boxing. “He’s good hey?” I say, like the talent scout who’s discovered the next big thing. She suggests Chris contact her friend Steve, who works at the local youth centre running their music program. We say goodbye and head off to get our now cold gourmet burgers.
One afternoon, I’m walking through the Mall and there he is, yelling angrily. I’m a bit shocked. He’s now got a small goatee beard and noticeably stained teeth.
“You look upset.”
“I’ve just been robbed of $50 at knife point.” I hand him a few dollars. He relaxes. “The workers never give me any money.” I wonder what support they do give him.
In my early 20s I came close to being homeless. I’d asked the person at reception at the Brotherhood in Fitzroy if I could speak to someone about getting some money. “We don’t hand over money to people who walk in the door and anyway there’s no one available to talk to you right now.” Then, to my surprise, she reached into her handbag and handed me $20, more than enough for me and my roommate to cover our rent for the next two weeks.
I’ve bumped into Chris a few more times. He gave me a beautiful Xmas card and I bought one of his wonderful and slightly scary pieces drawn in biro on paper. Today his picture was on the front page of our local paper. He was featured in the main story about homeless people getting free monthly haircuts. The photo shows him getting a great haircut from a tattooed, Canadian born, skateboarding barber. Chris looked older than his 22 years.
It’s hard to feel hopeful when it comes to eradicating homelessness. Current overseas research and trials indicate that on a long-term basis it is much more expensive to provide homeless people ongoing services than to give them a permanent home. Australian governments don’t seem to be interested in this evidence. When will they see homeless people as valued members of our communities?