I still feel stirred up after yesterday’s trip into the city to hand out buddhas.
The first flush of spring was in the air but the concrete pavement was still cold to sit on.
I noticed the young guy had a few coins in his hat as he sat on his piece of pavement . So I offered a few coins from my purse and asked if he was okay if I sat with him a while. His mouth and eyes smiled as he quickly moved on from his surprise and said, ‘Yes, of course.”
After exchanging names he told me about his two years of living on the streets. As with a few of the guys I have spoken to, this man had come out of a public housing situation that turned toxic and chose to go back onto the streets.
A man with a severe alcohol problem was sent to live with him and it got so bad this guy felt he had to leave. For him sleeping out rough through a Melbourne winter was a better scenario than putting up with a belligerent housemate.
Largely its due to the friendship, safety, connection and sense of community they feel with each other that these men stay sleeping rough. They can choose who they share a laneway with and move on if the atmosphere becomes intolerable.
I wonder how any of us would feel if we were given a roof over our heads but then had to accept anyone the authorities sent along to live with us.
My new friend was delighted to choose a Buddha. He liked its colour and he said it looked like something slightly mummified. He had a keen interest in ancient things.
He told me about his most recent home- a laneway that had become a Melbourne tourist attraction due to the vibrant graffiti art covering all the walls.
Walking tours of tourists now visit this section of laneways constantly.
My friend lives there with a changing population of 3-6 other guys. They had been relatively warm as they slept in the building alcoves but in a bid to save the tourists the unpleasant sight and reality of homelessness the authorites had recently boarded up the alcoves, expecting the men to move on.
But they didn’t. My friend said, “Why would we? It is our home.”
They especially liked being around the art and colour.
Someone had come along at some stage and cut holes in the boarded up alcoves so these guys could climb in for some warmth. But not wanting to risk forced eviction they took their crates and rubbish bins full of possessions and set up down one of the side alleys.
The man with the hat had told me he often pointed out special features of the paintings that new tourist guides usually missed.
“Look out for the reflection of the cityscape in the eyes of the old aboriginal man in the painting on the right,” he would tell them. He had spent hours lying and looking at these works and he knew every inch of the painted walls.
He encouraged me to go and visit his ‘home’ in the laneway . So while he kept his hat open for business on the main street I wandered to the laneway that draws scores of visitors each week.
I recognised his spot easily. Another of his friends was sitting there and also another sleeping body was wrapped tightly in a duvet. When I mentioned having just talked to his friend with the hat I was invited to sit and talk with this guy, who was a 10 year veteran of sleeping rough. I found both guys I spoke to were open, honest and very humble.
Another Buddha was chosen by my second friend. This man liked the weight and solid feeling of it.
He said they had just got used to the fact that their very basic, exposed home was walked past by thousands of tourists every month.
On finishing my conversations, both men had thanked me very warmly for taking the time to talk. I constantly get the impression that these guys are not used to ‘ordinary’ people sitting down talking with them. Not welfare, not police, not people wanting to save them but just people willing to give time for friendly conversation and connection. They seem very happy to have these conversations.
As I began to leave the laneway I looked back at the cage-like structure made of crates and bins and at the tourists wandering by with their selfie sticks, listening intently to tourist guides about the significance of this artist or that painting.
I watched as many of the tourists’ eyes dropped down with a jolt of recognition as they realised the graffitied rubbish bins were in fact the walls of an open roofed bedroom for men sleeping rough. It was the men’s living room they were wandering through and some of them were currently at home.
The visitors largely didn’t know what to do at that moment of realisation so they would just hurry a bit faster to the next wall so their eyes could be thankfully drawn away from this unpalatable reality.
There was some uncomfortableness for me in taking these pictures but the men have said to me they feel like the the world would prefer they be invisible. I am sure you know they exist in every city of the world. It only takes a warm greeting and some time to chat to help them feel less invisible.
As I made my way back to the main street I literally started to feel shaky and stirred up.
It was like walking in a space between two realms.
And I felt more at home in one of them than the other.
Buddhas donated by Apada , Dantacitta and Siladasa Melbourne