Tommy has been a mainstay around Woolworths Dickson for years, so when he mysteriously disappeared last week, it was no surprise regular shopgoers were concerned.
Soon flowers and gifts appeared in response to rumours that Tommy had died, quickly prompting a correction on signs around his bed that he is instead in hospital.
The outpouring of emotion draws attention to how many of the homeless in the ACT are more than strangers with worn clothes and a well-patted dog, but have grown to become beloved personalities in their area.
For instance, one notice reads, “ATTENTION. ‘Tommy’ (real name) is NOT dead. He is in hospital. To the moron that posted on the internet that he was, get your facts straight. You have caused a fair bit of grief.”
Staff at Woolworths back up this matter-of-fact notice saying, that as far as they know, he is in hospital.
Local Jayne Hooper says she met Tom a few years ago when he first became homeless and describes him as well-spoken and polite.
“I last spoke to him in November when I tried to give him a winter coat, but he wouldn’t take it,” she says.
“He wouldn’t take the food I bought him either. He was so polite, just saying, ‘No, thank you very much’. I introduced him to my grandchildren about a year ago, and he was so lovely with them. He’s a very intelligent man.”
Jayne says the last thing she heard was that his brother was trying to help him.
Lynton Sheehan is a director of Housing and Community Services for Woden Community Services (WCS) and says illness is “absolutely” an issue among the homeless.
“There’s some research out there that one year on the street is equal to six years in safe and secure accommodation in terms of a person’s health,” he says.
“Accommodation is a pillar of having our mental need for safety and security met.”
There are a number of businesses out there that provide services free of charge to people in need, including dental work. The Early Morning Centre on Northbourne Avenue provides access to a doctor.
WCS operates the ‘OneLink’ program, an intake service for homeless people in the ACT, designed to set them on the path to a safer life.
Lynton says calculating the total number of homeless people in the ACT is difficult because of the sheer number of different circumstances that come under the banner of homelessness. Some are more stable and secure than others. But it is believed there are less than 100 homeless people in the ACT.
The more common and invisible ‘homeless’ person includes those who couch surf with friends or family or live in unsafe accommodation, such as with violent partners or in overcrowded share houses.
“All up, we’re probably talking hundreds, if not thousands of ‘homeless’ people in the ACT.”
Lynton also acknowledges that a nomadic population moves around in search of either warmer weather or better support.
“Most people that we have contact with do live in the ACT, but there certainly is a number of people who travel between cities.”
He says the ACT has one of the best arrays of service providers to help these people and that there is a good team effort going on between providers and the ACT Government. The end game is to get them standing on their own two feet again.
“The ACT has one of the highest number of people accommodated in support services of any state or territory.”
It’s easy to approach homeless people on the street with apprehension or even indifference, but Lynton says one of the best things we can do is treat them with the “dignity of a conversation”.
“So often we try to hide our face, but take the time to ask how they are and how you can help. A lot of people will assist by buying food or taking them for a coffee – there’s a lot of joy to be had in sitting down with someone and having a conversation.”
Visit OneLink for more information.