Others may be experiencing a number of complex issues that have been building up over time. And we see that homelessness isn’t just people sleeping rough. Many people who are homeless are hidden; sleeping in cars, in boarding houses, overcrowded flats and shelters, and couching surfing. We’re talking about not knowing where you’re going to sleep from night to night.
Elizabeth Hukins spent four years at BaptistCare HopeStreet’s drop in community centre in the Illawarra’s Port Kembla, where street-based sex workers and people experiencing homelessness are offered support, connection and hope. Originally a nurse, she has a strong passion for social justice, social inclusion and community development. She shares her experience in coming alongside the Port’s most vulnerable.
“Inevitably, when asked about my work at HopeStreet, people are prepared to hear stories of sorrow, hardship and despair. And those stories certainly come to mind pretty quickly.
But there is a paradox in disadvantage, because stories that are full of adversity and hardship are actually stories of strength. They are stories of courage. Of hope. And of joy.
We work with people who are living along a continuum that stretches from chaos to some measure of stability. Living with complex needs such as homelessness, poverty, mental illness, addictions and disabilities is tough. Really tough.
When sitting in the warm, sun-filled dining room it is impossible not to experience the power in this community. Tom is our resident joker. He comes many times a week and has done so for years. He is the stereotypical quintessential Aussie bloke. We regularly hear laughter (and occasionally an objection) at Tom’s bad jokes.
Tom spent years working hard as a labourer across the country. He is nearly 80, lives in a boarding house and has no family that we know of. He comes, he drinks cups of tea, tells bad jokes for hours on end, and then he goes back to his lonely room until the next day.
Sharon is younger than me, probably around 38. She looks like she is double her age. Sharon has been homeless for many, many years. She grieves the children that she is unable to see due to them being removed from her care. She is living with chronic mental illness and often her conversations are blurred between reality and delusions.
Sharon speaks at rapid rates and is chaotic in her behaviour. We spend time making sure she remembers to eat, and give her toiletries, towels and a change of clothes to attend to self-care. She is the calmest when she is choosing what to wear.
We have called the ambulance for Sharon many times when her symptoms have become unmanageable. There are periods of time when we don’t see Sharon and our team worries for her safety. We hope that she is in hospital. Or jail. The alternative is difficult to contemplate.
We also keep an eye out for Nancy. She is our resident philosopher and social activist. Nancy is a senior citizen and gets around with the aid of a walker. She sleeps in an old caravan at the back of a vacant plot of land and has done so for many years. Nancy heatedly refuses any help to explore ways she might be able to live an easier life. She is adamant she is living the life she wants. Nancy arrives at the same time every day for a meal, a debate and to catch up on the local gossip.
This is what I see, and this is why I have hope, for I have no doubt that in the dining room, the gardens and the offices of HopeStreet that Jesus is present and that He has a gentle hand on all of our shoulders, and even a smile on His face hearing Tom’s bad jokes.
On my office walls for many years I have had a copy of the following quote. To me, it speaks to my very substance.
“To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.” - Arundhati Roy, The Cost Of Living.
This is what I see, and this is why I have hope, because despite (or maybe because of) what we witness each day, the heartache, the struggles, people living in distress and on the margins, I still have hope that life-transformation can happen for the people we work with each day across all of HopeStreet’s community centres and services.
HopeStreet provides trusted places in the community in some of the most vulnerable locations across NSW, offering hope to people living with disadvantage and distress. Its services include support for domestic and family violence, homelessness and women who work in the sex industry, as well as providing access to fair finance and affordable food.
HopeStreet sees the person before the issue, and has been privileged to put faith into action for over 45 years, with meaningful services and support that transform the lives of people.