When I gave up drinking 10 years ago, I had a vague internal sense that I’d got off lightly. Yes, I’d had physical problems, mental anguish and emotional toil; I’d had suicidal thoughts on and off for some time. I was clearly in a bad way. But I still had a job; I still got to see my kids; I had a roof over my head, a car, money in the bank and food in the fridge. I felt hollowed out, but the external stuff hadn’t yet disappeared.
Initially I took all of that for granted and was just filled with self-pity about my abstinent situation. But I gradually came across plenty of people at that time who had lost everything: Ex-Senior Managers who were sleeping in their cars; well-spoken mums who hadn’t had access to their children for over two years; former suburban family men eating in soup kitchens.
I heard someone say that alcoholism is like a lift going down and it depends when you get off as to how bad it affects you. I’d been lucky to get off earlier than some. There but for the Grace of God. And increasingly I wanted to acknowledge that by helping in some way. Showing my gratitude, rather than just being aware of it.
I joined a local charity on the Northern Beaches called Street Mission. On Wednesday and Saturday they cook a decent evening meal for the homeless. As you can imagine on the Northern Beaches, it’s fairly sanitised in comparison to the Inner City, but it definitely exists. It’s for the poor and marginalised as much as the actual street-dwelling homeless. It’s rife with mental illness and people battered by life.
I worked the Saturday evening shift. Only about three hours of cooking a three-course meal, handing out bags of fruit, and chatting to the regulars. Sometimes before I left in the late afternoon I’d wonder what I was doing: Going from an evening down the pub watching sport and getting drunk with mates in the past, to cooking a massive spag bol in a local community centre for penniless oddballs.
But I always left feeling great.
The people were so grateful. I mean, really grateful. Full of thanks for just getting a decent square meal cooked for them and having a social outing. If you gave them an extra banana in their bag of fruit they thanked you profusely.
I got to chat to the regulars and hear their stories: many were longtime homeless who were weathered and leathered and used to dealing with the system; others were ordinary people whose lives had been financially fragile, who had then quickly spiralled after a life-changing event. Sometimes a redundancy led to bankruptcy, divorce, drinking to cope, and then couch-surfing with sporadic access to their children.
One father often brought his three children to eat with him; they were beautiful, polite kids and it would break my heart. I have three children myself. But he was a lovely man who cared deeply about his kids and was just doing the best he could.
After a while I wanted to push the boundaries slightly and did an induction at the Wayside Chapel in Kings Cross. My job was to man the main desk on a Friday night with two or three others - the CSC (Community Services Centre). It was an eye-opener; a step up from the Northern Beaches homeless community. Or perhaps a step down.
Our job was to show homeless men and women to the showers when they came in off the street. To give them towels and toiletries to use, get them underwear and socks, and sometimes find them new clothes to change into. We’d charge their phones if they had one - invariably battered 10-year-old Nokias held together with tape.
We’d give people information sheets on where to find a free hot meal at one of the City’s soup kitchens - although many already had an encyclopaedic knowledge of such resources. Some would have post to pick up - the Wayside being their postal address in the absence of a permanent residence. Sometimes we’d phone around to try and help them get a bed.
Often we’d just listen when they needed to talk.
If I’d had the preconceived idea that homeless people were stupid or lazy, then that soon disappeared. I don’t think I’d consciously ever had such narrow-minded views, but I guess it was implicit in the thought that “it could never happen to me”; that I’d pull myself out of the situation. Friday evenings at the Wayside changed my thinking in that respect - it cemented that nagging thought that it could happen to anyone. The people I met worked hard at staying alive. Many were incredibly intelligent and knowledgeable. Most were badly damaged mentally and emotionally. All were stuck in circumstances that you had to be extraordinary to pull yourself out of.
Often people were drunk or drugged; very occasionally they were violent and the Police would be called, just over the fountain in the Cross. Invariably the violence was just an extension of their frustration at one too many days of struggle. Mostly people were just grateful and polite and respectful.
Regularly people would walk off the streets in just the clothes on their back. They’d dump the clothes, have a shower, pick up a new set of donated clothes, and head off into the night. I was told some of the smaller ones would climb into clothes bins for the night, trying to find warmth and comfort.
I won’t lie, there was initially an element of hubris about volunteering at the Wayside. I always posted on Facebook about attending in a subtle way. I wanted people to know I was doing my bit. I guess if that was the trade-off for actually helping people rather than just talking about it on Facebook, then it’s not terrible. But eventually that faded and I learnt to just turn up.
In fact I didn’t just learn to turn up, I started to love it.
Research has shown that the happiest people in life are those who help others. And I can see that now. Often I’d turn up on a Friday night after a week of corporate life, bent out of shape by missing a deadline, having to rewrite a strategy document, or losing a pedantic argument about some subtle nuance of marketing approach. I’d get a pair of underpants for a 60-year old ex-heroin addict and he’d be hugely thankful. I’d find a shower for an emancipated 25-year-old boy showing signs of paranoia. I’d find a new pair of boots without holes for an old lady carrying dirty blankets. And she’d be grateful. Really grateful.
And it would shame me. But shame me in a positive way: show me that my life was full of abundance, and that my concerns at work were relatively petty.
I’d finish my shift, get in my car, drive home to a warm bed, a full fridge and three beautiful kids. And I’d realise that my life was far better than it felt a few hours ago. That if I had problems in my life, they were high quality ones.
National Homelessness Week is from August 4 to August 10.