Culture

“We Just Want Awareness”: Stories From Melbourne’s Controversial Homeless Camps

"Everyone can just be a couple of steps away from homelessness."

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A lot has been written on homelessness in the past few weeks — particularly in Melbourne — with all sides of politics arguing and trying to score points on the issue of housing. Some sections of the media seem to have taken sick delight in fanning the flames of hate and divisiveness.

Amongst all the noise, however, one major voice isn’t being heard — people who are currently homeless. So, I went out to the streets of Melbourne and had a few conversations with some people sleeping rough. No agenda, no loaded questions. I just turned on a recorder and asked them what they wanted to say.

Bangesh, 23

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“I came here from Pakistan in 2013. I’m waiting for my visa now so I can get my passport and go back and see my family. I came by boat, four days and four nights… I thought I was going to drown at sea. But on the fourth night a big Australian navy ship came, and I was so happy. I thought I was going to die. We had no water and no food. They took me to a detention centre on Christmas Island, checked my blood, [there were] no problems there so later on they sent me to Yongah Hill Detention Centre in Perth where I stayed for a while.

“Now I’m here, I’ve been looking for a job, for a home… My foot is all cracked from all the walking. When I was in the detention centre I was 75kg, now I’m 53kg. I think the weight loss is from missing my family — everyone misses their mum, their dad. You would too. But I can’t do nothing about it.

“No one helps me, man. I’ve been trying to get a job, get some money. The government won’t help me. I’m not a terrorist, man. There’s good and bad people in every nation, good and bad in Pakistan, good and bad people in Afghanistan, in Australia, in the USA — there’s good and bad people everywhere. I have a good heart; if someone gives me a punch I will say nothing, no worries. We must take care of each other.”

Tasha, 42

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“I’ve been homeless for about two-and-a-half years. Everyone can just be a couple of steps away from homelessness because you don’t know what’s going to happen to you — how things are going to pan out.

“My story is one of domestic violence. I had been with my partner for 16 years and he never touched me in my life and then one day he injected something that he should not have injected. It made him go from a normal person to somebody who needed a lot of help. He didn’t get that help [and] it turned into domestic violence. I walked out the door one day just to go to the shop and I never came back. It wasn’t planned, I just walked out the door and I thought ‘if I stay here, one day I’m not going to wake up’. It was getting to that point.

“You know what? There’s such good people that are out here and help people like us; you just don’t know where to start to give back to these people. Then there’s others that are less kind and some stare and make faces which upsets some of the other homeless, but they gotta understand that some people have not seen this before. Some people walk past us and you can see the intrigue in their face, they’re blown away that in a country like this there’s people living on the street. They don’t understand.

“95 percent of homeless people are pretty good people just down on their luck. We don’t want to see it happen to any more people; we just want awareness. Some people need help, some haven’t done schooling, some come from domestic violence that is so bad that they won’t even give their details to Centrelink to get a payment for fear. The council, the police, the government, and the homeless all gotta work together — not everyone butting heads. We all just gotta talk together and come up with solutions together.” 

Nicholas, 31

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“I’ve been on the streets for years. My parents were old-school; they were quite abusive to all of us when I was a kid. I couldn’t take that. Beaten by old-school parents, that’s not how kids should be brought up in this world — all that shows to kids is that they can beat their kids. One day I got up and left, I couldn’t take it any more. I’ve been on the streets ever since. Every night it’s cold, sometimes lonely, dangerous — which is why many on the streets form camps and sleep in groups; we’re safe in numbers, we look after each other at night.

“Yes, some people on the streets do drugs, but the only reason we turn to drugs is to help the psychological pain we go through in day-to-day living on the streets and having to deal with our past as well. Everyone on every level of society does drugs, it’s just the wealthy get away with it… People say ‘just get a job’ but none of us can get jobs. We don’t have a place to stay and wash our clothes and uniform, so we’re stuck in a cycle: no job, no house; no house, no job. 

Luke, 34 

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“For me it started out with a lot of family issues. Growing up as a child my father was a severe drug addict so the household… there was a lot of domestic violence and whatnot. Growing up was hard. I was living with my parents just like everyone else, but it wasn’t a good environment. I plugged along just like anyone would, I worked and all that, but when you don’t deal with something — from your childhood or whenever it may be — it will come back to haunt you so to speak. So with my family problems, on top of losing my job because it closed down, my father… I developed my own drug addiction when I was younger and after losing my job I ended up on the streets.

“Living on the streets was therapeutic for me in a way — I cleaned myself up while I was on the streets, it opened my perspective on the world actually. As much as there are bad things that happen to people on the streets, and you get your stuff stolen and whatnot, I have got so much thanks for the kindness of strangers and people’s generosity for getting me back on my feet. That’s really what got me to where I am now.

“People I didn’t know from a bar of soap went out of their way for me, it’s something I wasn’t familiar with my whole life — I thought we lived in this really cruel world but my perspective has changed a lot from the kindness shown to me by strangers and I’m a totally different person — a better person — for it.

“I can understand where some people are coming from when they yell at us to get a job and get off the streets because — [though] most of us out here are genuinely homeless — unfortunately there is a small percentage that are just professional beggars feeding their drug habits and taking advantage of people’s kindness. It gives homeless people a bad name. I think that’s the problem, if we can distinguish between those two then maybe we can start helping more people. People that are out here that are genuinely homeless, you’ll find that they want to better themselves, they really do.

“When I stand here I try to say hello to everyone that walks past, have a nice day and all that. You’d be surprised at some of the reactions. Everyone wants world peace but no one wants to talk to each other, no one smiles at each other anymore. But they’re probably the first people to complain about bad things that are happening. It all starts with small things.”

David Allegretti very much enjoys converting oxygen to carbon dioxide. You may remember him from such publications as VICE, The Age, and Global Hobo. Tweet him banana bread pics at @davidallegretti.