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A Day in the Life of a 'Street to Home Worker'

By Peter Atkinson


—a winter’s day in Hobart or snippets from the day of a Street to Home worker


0530—Alarm goes off, kettle on, shower, heat thermos, get dressed, make coffee (2½ spoons of sugar per cup—that’s a compromise on the 4 that many of my clients like). Defrost car (go back and get beanie).

0630—Meet Centrelink outreach worker and commence our weekly visits around known squats and sleeping locations in Hobart suburbs and city. First two are deserted except for empty medication box and pair of sandshoes (name on box lets us know who has been there).

0650—Check grandstand at suburban sportsground. Low light of dawn reveals something on the top wooden seat, and as I step on the first row I’m greeted by the barking of a startled dog, and then voice, ‘Quiet Rufus!’  The young guy Sam, was known to my colleague and I know of him; he has been homeless, on and off for a number of years. I offer him coffee from the thermos. ‘No thanks I’ve got an ulcer,’ so I pass him a packet of Quick-Eze. ‘That will help a bit, but a doctor can give you something better,’ I offer. ‘Do you know there’s a new one that bulk-bills?’ and give him directions. We ask what his plans are. He has some ideas; one member of his family is trying to help—but he doesn’t get on with the others. We suggest a few options and encourage him to visit the Housing Front Door Service. He didn’t really want to engage much further, so I leave my card and tell him to text if he needs something. As we leave he pulls his blankets and sleeping bag back up around him and Rufus lies back on Sam’s legs (body heat!).

0730—Check parking area in a bayside suburb used by travellers and homeless living in their car (24/7 toilets).  Noticed the car of a guy who I’d had a call from a community health worker about recently- garbage bags taped inside the windows, but no-one inside. Waited for a while but he didn’t return. Left business card, offering help if needed.  Offered coffee to a mainlander (big island up north), seemed to be living and sleeping in his care.  Checked on his welfare—does family know where he is? Offerred suggestions for work, gave him my card (never know, if he runs into a problem, it’s good to know a local).

0830—Stopped off at city ‘Pay it Forward café’, we grabbed coffee and sat outside to see who’s off to work, who’s coming for breakfast and who we know. Chat with a couple of formally homeless now living in community housing (still following their morning ritual of a ‘free’ coffee

My colleague from Centrelink headed off to work - with ‘problems’ to resolve for people we had met.

0930—Visited an NGO drop-in centre that has shower and washing facilities. Dropped off some donated soaps, shampoo and razors - a number of homeless persons use their facilities and can get breakfast also. Chatted with the manager about some of our shared clients, and any ways we could help each other meet their needs.

1030—Message came from a client, Georgia wanting to collect some of her belongings that I had in storage. Called her and she was heading to my office.  I went back and found her cases and a female colleague to be present while we spoke.   She arrives in a panic and very emotional, she’s been staying in a cheap hotel and has no money left. We make her a coffee, she pulls everything out of her cases, finds some clean clothes, some personal things and then says, ‘Peter, can I ask a really big favour? You know those toiletries you gave me the other day, I’ve lost my toothbrush. Would you please have another one?’

She said she felt scared to go to any of her male friends—truth is they weren’t friends. It cost her favours if she stayed there!  I tried to talk about some of the things we needed to advance her housing chances. She said she was too upset.  She needed a new bank account for Centrelink benefit – her last one was closed by the bank—who said they didn’t want her business.  She’s not the most polite customer when she’s upset or unwell.

We gave Georgia a lift to a safe place, and made arrangements for her to come back in a few days to see us. Then I returned the hotel key for her.

1230—Attended Nobux (free two-course meal in the city), run by volunteers in a church hall each weekday. Many who come are regulars—low-income, formerly homeless and some still struggling to secure ‘a roof over their head’ that doesn’t leak!

Reunited with my Centrelink friend from the morning, who introduced me to Bronwyn and her teenage son, who had a house but the power was disconnected as she hadn’t paid her bill.  She said she had diabetes and needed $3 to get insulin from the diabetes clinic. I gave her a $5 note, and she asked me where she could find me to give me the $2 change (that’s a first: I don’t often give money, and never get offered change!)

I encouraged her to make contact with a Salvos Doorways Centre only two blocks away, to get some emergency relief and also to ask them to advocate for her to have power reconnected and to enter into a payment plan with the power company. I wasn’t sure Bronwyn would go because everything just seemed to overwhelming for her. I offered to take her but she said she would think about it. Found out later that she went, her power is back on, she is keeping in touch with the Doorways worker who’s helping her with budgeting and some other significant life issues.  A ’well spent’ $5.00!

Had just finished having soup inside when someone quietly mentioned that a young guy probably needed help. Found him outside in a T-shirt, shivering and a bit seedy. He had just been bailed after being locked up early that morning for being drunk and disorderly. He’d lost his coat, wallet and phone, and probably his naivety.

Turns out he wasn’t really homeless, but he was very vulnerable and cold. I know it sounds very clichéd (and a bit Good Samaritanish) but I did take off my jacket which gave me a chance to say, ‘How about you come back to my work and I’ll find you something warmer?’

In the car more of his story came out. He wasn’t getting on with his parents, and a week ago he’d moved out to stay with a friend. He was hoping to get work with someone else, but so far it hadn’t worked out and the world was starting to ‘gobble him up’.

At the office I gave him my phone to ring his mum and dad, while I got him some clean warm clothes (‘and undies please,’ he said, ‘I had to throw mine away’).

We had a chat after about why the night had gone ‘pear-shaped’ and what some of his choices could be.  A bus ticket, some friendly advice and a warning that maybe this time he was lucky, and hopefully I won’t see him again!

I’m sure there are a few parents (me included) who hope there will be someone there for one of our children if they just happen to make a mistake!

 1400—Called into a private boarding house to check on James who had recently spent about six weeks ‘on the streets’, and was struggling with an extreme alcohol addiction. I’d been able to get him assessed at a detox, but he was still drinking heavily while waiting to get in.  I found James vomiting on the bed, it really worried me so I got him to the car and straight to hospital emergency. Rang a social worker on the way, who helped me fast-track his assessment. Real bonus, because I was a bit ‘knackered’—been a busy day!  

Short story, he’s completed detox, now in rehab program. I’m glad because where I first met him, in a park in the city, was the same park where I found my first ‘sudden death’ over 30 years ago—sadly another man suffering from alcoholism. Didn’t really want to relive that!

1600—That’s it for me today. But I reflect as I drive home. What’s the biggest thing I’ve learnt about helping with the homeless problem?  Well, I no longer say it’s a problem, because then I see those who are homeless as problems, and not as people…. people who need a hand!


And that’s what we Aussies do, isn’t it?   Give people a hand!

What happens if there is no-one here for these people, no-one to give them a hand?  What happens if they are ready to take a step out of their situation, and there’s no-one to give them a hand?  

It’s very difficult anyway  as most have been living in their world for a long time already.  

The patterns are deep, the holds are strong and it’s often easier just to stay where they are—particularly if there’s no-one to give them a hand!