• Murri Watch was established 25 years ago to divert Indigenous people away from prisons. (NITV)Source: NITV
NITV spent a night at the Murri Watch diversionary centre, a place for Brisbane's most vulnerable people to stay, sober up or just have a chat over a cup of tea.
Ella Archibald-Binge

The Point
29 Nov 2016 - 6:24 PM  UPDATED 29 Nov 2016 - 6:24 PM

It's 9pm on a muggy Friday night in Brisbane. 

I've just arrived at the Murri Watch diversionary centre in Woolloongabba, a few kilometres south-east of the CBD. A couple of blocks away, the pubs are bustling with punters celebrating the end of another working week. 

Meanwhile, workers at the centre are gearing up for their busiest period. 

"Expecting a busy one tonight?" I ask Shane Burr, a former footy player with an impressive grey beard, who's been a support worker at the centre for five years. 

"Oh yeah. But anything could happen, just got to wait and see," he replies. 

With 14 beds, showers and a kitchen, the diversionary centre is a refuge for the city's most vulnerable people, providing somewhere to stay, sober up, or just have a chat over a cup of tea. 

The community-run venture was set up 25 years ago, in a bid to keep First Nations people out of prison. Now, rather than locking people up for public intoxication, police can bring them here.

Last year, 2500 people walked through the doors. Three quarters of them were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

Murri Watch, the organisation that runs the centre (along with similar services across the state), has invited me to spend a night at the centre to see first-hand how it supports the community. 

As I'm about to find out, it's become much more than an alternative to prison. 

By 9pm, there are three clients at the centre - a slow night for a Friday. 

Tahlia Houston, a young Aboriginal woman from Perth, is spending her first night here. She was picked up from central station by MICAH, a local non-profit organisation that runs a night patrol picking up the city's homeless.

As Shane takes her through the mandatory paperwork, she clutches a bright pink teddy bear. 

"You had a feed?" he asks.

"I had a cup of noodles," comes the response. 

"A cup of noodles aye? Righto," Shane says, sounding less than impressed. "We've got curried sausages?"

But Tahlia's first priority is a hot shower. As she waits for the bathroom to be free, she tells me about the series of events that led her to Brisbane. 

"When I was back in Perth I decided my head state wasn’t in a great place, I was pretty suicidal to be honest," she says. 

"My ex-partner did this," she gestures to her missing front tooth.

"He was one of the reasons I had to leave. Couldn't get away from him. No matter what I seemed to do, something bad always followed. So I was like, might as well go somewhere."

Tahlia explains she's been homeless, on and off, since she was a child. 

Her mother died of breast cancer a few years ago, and she's never had a relationship with her father. Her sister lives on the opposite side of the country, and her brother is in prison. She has two young boys, whom she barely sees, and spent four months of her first pregnancy living on the streets.

She also tells me she's 19. I can't help but think back to myself at 19, living in a student share house and barely able to cut up a pineapple without calling my parents to ask for help. 

I ask Tahlia about attitudes towards homeless people. 

'Places like this, it's what really puts your faith back in humanity.'

'Just get a job', people often tell her, as she's begging on the streets with her sleeping bag slung over her shoulder. 

"It's not that easy," she says.

"As soon as you tell them you're homeless," she clicks her fingers, "job gone. You can't always get to work, and even if you do, half the time you haven't had a shower, you smell, you're not clean, you get fired pretty quick.

"And I'm only 19, I don't have any qualifications yet, I don't have any experience, unless it's street experience."

Tahlia says places like Murri Watch provide a much-needed break from life on the streets.

"When you can get a bed for the night, oh my God, that nice warm shower and that hot food in your belly - it's the best thing in the world. You'll give the bed up just for the shower to be honest.

"Places like this, it's what really puts your faith back in humanity." 

Shane supplies Tahlia a towel, pillow and blanket, and she shuffles off gratefully to the showers. 

Meanwhile Michelle, an older client, has come out to the kitchen for a late dinner. 

Also homeless and estranged from her family, she tells me the centre is one of the few places she feels protected. 

"I know that I can come here, I can have a little rest and I know I'm safe," she says.

"I know that my own people are looking after me and helping me, so no one don't hurt me or harm me."

The hours are ticking by, and it's almost 11pm, time for Shane to finish his 10-hour shift. 

I ask what he likes most about his job. 

"When you look after some clients and everything like that, they come back and appreciate it," he says.

"They say yes we loved it here, because it was a nice safe place... That’s the best part."

After Shane leaves, the next crew will take over, working through the night and providing a hot breakfast to clients in the morning. 

By 9am, the clients have to move on. 

At 1pm, Shane will be back to do it all over again.