Home-cooked meals can be gestures of love, evoking warmth and comfort. This is exactly what Deborah Henry sets out to achieve when cooking for Melbourne's homeless community, or as she calls them, her 'Street Family'.
"Food can bring back good memories. It brings you back to a place where life wasn't as tough as it is now," she said.
"Often people will come up to me and say 'your custard's just beautiful, it reminds me of my Nan'."
For the past five years, Henry has travelled from her home in Epping in Melbourne's north to Batman Park in the CBD two to three times a week to hand out a buffet of food.
Henry is assisted by eight other volunteers that are part of her organisation, From Us 2 You, which receives no government funding. Rather, Henry relies on donations made by supermarkets and restaurants, as well as the generosity of people on the From Us 2 You Facebook page.
The organisation fully operates from Henry's home, where she has converted one bedroom into a pantry and filled her garage with industrial-sized freezers.
Henry began her organisation in the wake of the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009. After volunteering in Kilmore East, about 60 kilometres north of the city, Henry was determined to continue helping the people she had built a connection with. "As I got to know these guys, I thought, 'they don't need hats and scarves, they need a good old fashioned, home-cooked meal'," she said.
In the face of the COVID-19 crisis, Henry has worked tirelessly to feed the growing throngs of Melbourne's homeless community. Throughout the pandemic, the Victorian government has placed homeless people in motels to prevent the spread of the virus, but stopped short of providing food. So Henry has been delivering donated meals to these motels nearly every day.
"As I got to know these guys, I thought they don't need hats and scarves, they need a good old fashioned, home-cooked meal."
The rising number of people slipping into financial destitution due to the crisis has made Henry's role even more crucial. Ordinarily, Henry expects just over 100 people at the food handouts in Batman Park. But recently, she's been giving out up to 500 donated meals per evening, and has estimated that she's handed out a total of 6,000 meals since the beginning of the pandemic.
"There was one day I picked up 1,100 single meals donated from The Victoria Hotel, and I got rid of them within an hour and a half," she said.
Henry hasn't only succeeded in feeding hundreds, if not thousands, of people; she's been a rock of support to a vulnerable and often marginalised community. Henry, a survivor of domestic abuse and once an alcoholic, believes that her personal experience of homelessness allows her to relate to her Street Family.
"I understand where they're coming from and I think they appreciate that," she said.
"I'm here to listen without judging. I know they don't need the heavy questions. They need a good feed, to have a joke and talk about everyday things."
Fellow volunteer Verna Wooldridge explains that for this reason, people often call Deborah Henry "Street Mum".
"Some of the people that we normally see are pretty rough. But not to Deb, oh no, they line up like gentlemen. If anyone says the wrong word to Deb, they get chucked out by the others," says Wooldridge. "They buy Deb flowers when they can't even afford it."
But Henry, who spends well over 20 hours a week preparing food and hampers, doesn't do it for the thanks.
"I don't take accolades easily and I don't do compliments," she laughs.
Even as she's interviewed for this article over the phone, Henry is delivering a food hamper across town. She abruptly stops the conversation, to say "Sorry hun, could you give me a ring back? I just need to hop out of the car to deliver some food."
Filthy Rich & Homeless premieres over three consecutive nights – June 9, 10 and 11 – on SBS at 8:30pm. The show will be available at SBS On Demand after the broadcast, including in subtitled Simplified Chinese and Arabic.
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