When a friend of mine heard that I was coming to Perth four years ago, his first reaction was “Oh, I suppose you’ll be working at….?” The vile, racist name he gave to a local inner city park was one I certainly won’t repeat here—but I assumed it might have been a one off, individual thought.
However, on arriving I heard it over and over, this local park where transient people gathered was known colloquially—without, it seemed, any care at all—by the most horrifying name. Who were these people in the park that caused such sentiment in the community? If you believed the letters in the local paper or posts online they were drunks, animals, ferals or bludgers hell bent on ruining “our” community. But, if you took the time to get to know those in the park you discovered a very different story.
They were mums, dads, grandmas, aunties, sons and daughters. Often they were from faraway places, here receiving treatment at the local hospital without adequate accommodation—or, more likely, they were here supporting a family member receiving such treatment. City accommodation is expensive but that wouldn’t stop an entire extended family traveling thousands of kilometers to be here with their loved ones. They came, spending a few nights in this safe, rather nice park that for generations has been a meeting place for people from right across WA.
Scratch the surface and what from the outside might look—to some, anyway—like gangs of people taking over a park was actually a beautiful example of family, a wonderful snapshot of community in action.
Recently, this lack of understanding around homelessness reared its ugly head once again. With over 200 people sleeping rough in the inner city each night, good and dry locations are hard to come by. One such location is in an alley behind a theatre, and on realising that homeless people had begun taking shelter in the awnings of their building the residents in this evolving hipster hotspot made their concerns known. Again, “those people” were dangerous, they were scary, and they needed to be somewhere else. So sprinklers were installed to hose away those who took shelter—hitting a new low in the conversation around homelessness in Perth.
In four years I have heard countless stories of innocent homeless people being given police move-on notices simply for being homeless; I have dealt with calls from people wanting our help to clear the blight of a homeless person from their vicinity; and I have witnessed the council blame the government, the government blame the charities and the business owners blame the homeless people for homelessness—everybody blames someone. Not much could surprise me anymore but here I was witnessing a new level of cruelty—now we just simply wash the homeless away.
There was an upside, though: Our friends at Common Grace, a movement of Christians who are passionate about justice, jumped onboard and started an online petition. Within two days over 15,000 people had signed, demanding the sprinklers be removed. 15,000 people who believed in compassion over cruelty. 15,000 people who understand that the solution to homelessness is not to move a person on but to move them in—to a home
There is hope for a better way.
Our Street Outreach Service, running from the Perth Fortress every day of the year has teams of Salvationists and friends who spend time in that park getting to know those who gather there—that’s how we know their stories. That’s how we are able to work with other concerned citizens to advance the cause for better hospital services, better accommodation facilities and a fresh way to look at what is taking place.
Our teams sit in that dark City lane with those who sleep there—often over a coffee—building relationships of trust which we hope will lead to links into our suite of support services. Because of these relationship, when the sprinklers were turned on, we felt it—these were our friends getting drenched. When your friends are in trouble you can’t help but be compelled to act.
We pray, and believe, that God’s Kingdom will come, that His will will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. We take seriously the command to love God and love others. It all starts with US.
As we sit alongside, share stories and build friendships with those in our community the Spirit speaks and you can’t help but see Jesus in the eyes of the person sitting opposite.
When you’re confronted with Jesus being mistreated, being called heinous names, being washed out of the place he calls home, you can’t help but be compelled to act.
The tide is turning, slowly. The conversation is changing, slowly. In Perth, each day a small group of passionate Salvos and friends take to the streets with not much more than the offer of a warm blanket, a coffee and friendship. Those caring friendships however are transforming lives – not least the lives of those who go out – and reforming society.
It all begins with the simple act of coming alongside and being friends with those on the margins, something within the reach of us all.
Kris is the Coordinator of Doorways Perth Community Programs and the Assistant Corps Officer of Perth Fortress Corps.