Getting off the bottom rung

Mark Parton MLA 25 July 2018 24
Steve, homeless man

My encounter with Steve.

It was one of those bone-chilling Canberra mornings. The sun was out but it was struggling to thaw out the city after another -5 minimum. I’d been working in my office at the Legislative Assembly ahead of the final Estimates Hearings later in the week. At 10:30, I stepped out of the office to pick up some bread, milk and a few other items for the office kitchen….and I made the call to buy coffee, as well. I headed over towards Coles in the Canberra Centre.

I laid eyes on Steve for the first time sitting on the footpath at the Guzman Y Gomez entrance to the Canberra Centre. I saw a slightly built, scruffy, bearded man wearing a big old jacket, a scarf, and a beanie. His head was bowed down towards his cardboard, hand-written sign, which very clearly said his name.

“Steve!” I said.

He looked up and acknowledged my greeting and I could see that he was younger than I originally estimated, maybe somewhere in his 30’s.

“How you doin’?” I said.

“I’ve been better.”

“I’m just ducking in to get coffee…..can I get you one?”

A big smile crept over his face.

“That would be awesome,” he said, “White with 3.”

“White with 3?” I said, “You want 3 sugars?”

He laughed and cheekily said to me, “If you were sleeping outside on these nights, you’d want 3 sugars too.”

I told him I was going to Dobinsons and asked if he wanted a pie as well. This was also a palatable idea.

So, I bought coffee for me and coffee and a pie for Steve. I dropped off his ‘morning tea’ along with a $5 donation, left him my card and went in to do my shopping.

He called me over as I was leaving to thank me again and we talked about his situation.

Steve struggled with drug addiction in his teens and twenties which led to some prison time in Victoria. He’s been trying to rebuild and moved here some months ago from Victoria with his wife, Jo. In part, they chose Canberra because Jo has some immigration and visa issues to sort out and they figured Canberra would be a good place to do that. When they married a year ago, they simplistically believed that once they were husband and wife, Jo – who’s German – would instantly become an Australian citizen. That’s not the case and they have to somehow come up with $7,000 to fund her visa application.

32-year-old Steve figured he could find work in Canberra and somehow manage to survive here while saving the money, but getting a job when you’re homeless is tough. He had tried a number of avenues but failed. In the meantime, they were surviving on his $275 per week Newstart Allowance and living in a tent. After a number of weeks of homelessness, Steve looked pretty shabby.

“Even if I manage to get a job interview, who’s going to employ me looking like this?” he said.

I hatched a plan on the spot. With Steve’s permission, I launched an appeal online to find him a job. Within 6 hours, I had found him three jobs. Universal Trusses at Hume, Monaro Windows at Mitchell, and Geocon all contacted me saying that they’d be willing to give him a go.

Steve was blown away.

I hooked them up with the Vinnies’ Street to Home program soon after getting a confirmation of his first job interview out at Hume. Vinnies took Steve and Jo away to Thread Together, which is like the Oz Harvest for clothes. They rescue brand new clothes that the clothing factories were going to take to landfill and repurpose them for people like Steve and Jo. Thread Together kitted them out in three brand new outfits each. Vinnies and One Link also put them on the database for transitional accommodation. Regrettably, there was no transitional accommodation available immediately, but One Link were able to provide one night’s motel accommodation the night before the job interview and Vinnies provided a much warmer tent.

I took Steve out to his job interview at Hume…and he got the job. He started the following Monday morning.

Of course, Steve and Jo aren’t out of the woods. He’s got a job, but they were still homeless. Holding down a full-time job while living in a tent is unsustainable, but they may struggle to find private rental in their price range and they’re not yet eligible for public housing. But they march forward with optimism believing that they can haul themselves up from the bottom rung of the ladder.

As Shadow Housing Minister, it’s been another chapter in my long learning journey about the housing and homelessness space. Steve and Jo are just one couple in a growing group who are either experiencing or on the edge of homelessness in our city. There are so many more whose lives are hell because they don’t have a regular roof over their heads. Without Vinnies, Reclink, Uniting Care and many others, their lives would be even worse, but it’s not fair that the way forward for most of them has so many barricades placed in their way.

I don’t pretend to have all of the answers to Canberra’s homelessness crisis, but I’m super keen to keep on learning and to eventually find them.

In the last week, Jo also secured part-time work in a café and they managed to secure some accommodation through Vinnies, for which they feel blessed. All power to them as they move forward.

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24 Responses to Getting off the bottom rung
Sherpa Tenzing Sherpa Tenzing 10:47 am 03 Aug 18

Great story and well done! But I guess it highlights the inability of our existing job network providers to offer genuine and appropriate support to people doing it tough.

Michelle Preston Michelle Preston 3:35 pm 29 Jul 18

Well done Mark! I truly hope that this is a new beginning for this couple.

Raihan Halim Raihan Halim 6:54 am 29 Jul 18

Beautiful and God bless

Stephanie Ciempka Stephanie Ciempka 3:07 pm 26 Jul 18

Thanks in Mark for keeping us up to date with the homeless issue. I agree its a real problem wehave so many church halls empty that could be used to assist. I certainly don't have the answers. It is a community issue but somehow Canberra does not show empathy to these people who ate are down on there luck. Please keep us updated on this issue. Any of us could be in there shoes on day.

    Mark Parton Mark Parton 5:37 pm 26 Jul 18

    You are so right Stephanie. So many in our community are only about 4 pay packets away from homelessness.

    Helen Walker Helen Walker 4:02 pm 27 Jul 18

    Well done Mark you have just shown us what one person can do. Now hopefully others may assist in a similar way. Even if it’s a coffee or a pie to help someone, everything counts.

    I am sure people have ideas and temporary fixes, we should have Facebook sites to help the homeless. Maybe an ideas input page.

    I have thought it would be possible to billet out these people. If only for a night two days or a week. So many people have empty rooms in their house or live alone ect

    I guess it would be difficult to implement

    Just a thought. Good luck to Steve and Jo such a wonderful outcome. It always feels good to help someone less fortunate than yourself. Congratulations for being that ONE person who made a difference.

TrishTuckerman TrishTuckerman 12:02 pm 26 Jul 18

Awesome story. Good on you for taking the time to help and not judging. Good luck Steve and Jo.

Tracey Crump Tracey Crump 9:59 pm 25 Jul 18

A fantastic start for Steve and Jo. I hope it's onwards and upwards for them!

Emma Fooks Emma Fooks 9:20 pm 25 Jul 18

An uplifting and heartwarming story. Wishing them both all the very best.

    Mark Parton Mark Parton 9:52 pm 25 Jul 18

    They are such a cool couple Emma. They’ve gone through so much together and helped each other to survive.

Helen Morgan Helen Morgan 7:54 pm 25 Jul 18

Hope all works out for them ,so hard sleeping rough in this cold weather ,Mark you are to be congratulated for the help you have given them .

Amy Smith Amy Smith 6:56 pm 25 Jul 18

Nice work Mark Parton MLA. And in this instance, a job is the most awesome win for this couple. A wonderful outcome and a great start for a new beginning on which they can build 😊

However, I think we fail in addressing why many of Canberra’s homeless are.. the mental health system is in dire need. Let’s start fixing the issues that are hidden here instead of just putting a bandaid on what we can see.

I’m not just complaining either.. I’m genuinely interested and want to be involved in a solution. For all of Canberra.

Joan Swan Joan Swan 2:29 pm 25 Jul 18

Well done Mark. It would be good to see if some of Canberra's public buildings could be utilised at night for homeless people to sleep safely and warmly. I understand there would be some resistance and many challenges to this possibility, but for the sake of humanity, we must be doing more without judgement for homeless, vulnerable people.

    Mark Parton Mark Parton 3:41 pm 25 Jul 18

    Joan, what Safe Shelter have done in this space in various church halls is remarkable, but it’s very clear that more needs to be done. Yes there are many many complications when it comes to utilising public buildings in this fashion, but particularly in the dead of a Canberra winter, we’re talking about a basic human right here. We need to think way outside of the box and with all respect to the Housing Minister, we’ve all waited far too long for outcomes from the Housing and Homelessness Summit.

    Alexandra Martyniak Alexandra Martyniak 3:50 pm 25 Jul 18

    I have often thought the same thing. I understand the logistics of what is involved in sustaining a disused building and the safety and security issues of running and maintaining such a place, but how many facilities do we have that are sitting empty and unoccupied.

Penelope Rose Penelope Rose 1:39 pm 25 Jul 18

Thank you Mark. Good luck to Steve and Jo, I really hope they make it.

    Mark Parton Mark Parton 1:57 pm 25 Jul 18

    I believe in them, but I know it’ll be tough.

Reprobate Reprobate 1:26 pm 25 Jul 18

Thank you Mark, that sort of humanity and kindness is all too rare these days. If only all of our elected representatives (local and Federal) would focus on building with lives and spirit rather than concrete and steel…

Great article too. Hoping one day you will lead a true alternative to the default Government of this town.

    Mark Parton MLA Mark Parton MLA 5:49 pm 25 Jul 18

    Thanks for your kind words. I’m still so impressed that Steve was able to hold down a full time job for a week and a half without a home. Luckily they have a home base now. Vinnies have been awesome.

Glynis Quinlan Glynis Quinlan 1:13 pm 25 Jul 18

Great article Mark but more importantly it is wonderful that you were able to help Steve and Jo. No one should be sleeping rough on Canberra’s streets when it is so very cold and when we live in such an affluent city. I think this is one of the most important political issues for the ACT and urge both the Government and the Opposition to make a difference for all the homeless.

Mike of Canberra Mike of Canberra 11:32 am 25 Jul 18

What a good news story this is. Here we have an individual, the opposition shadow housing minister, who has encountered a person who’s down on his luck but trying as hard as he can against seemingly impossible odds. The solution: find him and his wife stable if transitional accommodation, help them to improve their personal presentation and also connect them with job opportunities. At least this couple now have jobs and there seems to be a way forward. This stands in stark contrast with the current government’s approach, which appears to combine grandstanding with stasis and excuse making. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Canberrans need to take off their blinkers and open themselves to the new ideas and approaches that would come with a change of Territory government. Who knows, we may find ourselves hearing more of these sorts of good news stories.

    Mark Parton MLA Mark Parton MLA 5:50 pm 25 Jul 18

    I do appreciate those kind words Mike. I’m so pleased that I could help in this instance, but there’s so much more to do.

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