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Applying the old school bandaid

James Barker Oration Part Two

Netty Horton* delivered the Australia Southern Territory’s annual James Barker Oration on Monday, 17 August 2015.

Netty HortonSo I found myself with a working holiday visa, for up to 12 months. I had a backpack, some dollars to keep me going, and enormous enthusiasm!

Australia has truly been a lucky country for me, and for many like me. But as I was quickly to experience, it is not so lucky for everyone.

My first job was with the government department providing funding to homelessness services. Remember I had just left Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, which regardless of your political opinion, was characterised at that time by huge cuts to public spending, high unemployment, and a growing gap between rich and poor, and between the north and south of the country.

I was surprised to find that in Australia, funds were available to the charitable sector to provide programs and services to the homeless, and that the role of organisations like The Salvation Army in preserving the safety net was critical. 

I was to learn that the large-scale deinstitutionalisation of services was only just being implemented. We had not yet realised that the closure of large-scale institutions was to result in growing numbers of people who were homeless in our community.

I quickly moved on to a role in a homeless day centre. I referred to myself as a street worker, (quickly learning that an outreach worker was a more acceptable term.) In that role, I learned more about people, injustice, Australia, homelessness and humour than I have probably learned again.

I had a bicycle, my only means of transport at that time, which proved to be a great way to carry out my role, peddling around to people who slept out in the parks and squats of Melbourne. For the first time I was to encounter The Salvation Army Gill Memorial Home, which provided dormitory accommodation for almost 250 men. I spent many hours, with my bike, in the mall between the Gill and the Wills Street Day Centre. 

From time to time I was invited in to the Gill by well-meaning officers to attend prayers, but was frankly more interested in the scones, jam and cream that often followed. My greenness or naivety was probably my greatest protection. 

The majority of the people I met were predominantly older single men who, even at their most inebriated, for some reason tended to offer protection and respect towards me. My focus was to develop a relationship with people who were not engaged in services, and in those days when services were not regulated, and legal retribution unlikely, I was afforded a freedom in developing models of services that would not exist today. 

I persuaded Melbourne City Council to deliver meals on wheels to a number of squats. I regularly visited people on my own at all times of day and night. I shared cigarettes with clients (even though I have never smoked) as an engagement strategy.

I once took a trip with a group of very marginalised single men to the beach and issued new bonds-brand jocks instead of speedos; I am sure that wouldn’t be allowed today! (And some would say, neither should speedos!)

I promised rogue landlords that, if they would accommodate my various clients, I would ensure the rent was paid, and clean up any of the mess they made – and I had to turn up with a shovel and a rubbish bin on several occasions. I deloused, administered medication, confiscated dogs, hamsters and cats, and even worse, I told clients what to do!

Homelessness at this time was characterised by a population of older single men. Alcohol was the drug of choice, And, although prescription drugs were also evident, most of our programs focused on alcohol.

Around this time, a redevelopment of homeless shelters was being planned in Melbourne. A survey of hundreds of men, and some women who used these centres discovered that many residents, required to book in on a nightly basis, had in fact resided there for many years and in some cases decades – on a night-by-night basis. 

I remember, as a young worker, that I would visit one of these crisis centres. Men were required to queue up for a shower, handing their clothes over to volunteers before entering, and being provided with clean pyjamas at the other end of the communal shower area. By 5.30 or 6.00 p.m., if they required a bed for the night, they were in pyjamas in communal areas, perhaps watching TV. 

Well-meaning workers like myself pranced around having a chat, but failing to notice the enormous lack of dignity afforded to individuals, who were homeless for a range of different reasons that were seldom articulated.

With the best of intentions, we focused on their immediate needs as we saw them. Food, personal hygiene, health, and a bed for the night. 

We didn’t really enquire as to why the person was there, and what they needed or required to perhaps provide a different way of life.
* Netty Horton is the territorial social programme director for The Salvation Army’s Australia Southern Territory, an administrative body encompassing the Salvos’ work in Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Click here for a PDF of the James Barker Oration Part 2

See Part Three here