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.