Can I help?

Tom* has one of those awful coughs that gurgles in his lungs, pushing through a swampy mess until it breaks free with a fresh production of phlegm. My friend and I look up, concern creased across our foreheads. Tom has a hospital-issued plastic bag, held firm at its rim by a plastic ring. Official mucus-collector, it seems.

It is a Sunday night. Outside the sunny winter day has evaporated into a chilly, cloudless night. I’m hanging out at Credo Café - the church runs a dinner on Sunday nights, and it’s always well-attended by lots of cold and hungry people. Often, on a Sunday night, the warm air of Credo is laced with an uneasy energy that I don’t feel during our weekday lunches. Credo is small and easily crowded. There’s a lot of people getting by on little sleep, and the tension is catalysed by drugs and alcohol, occasionally erupting into conflict. I run an open prayer time before dinner starts, where we light candles and occasionally sing a song. I always light a candle and say a prayer for Peace.

Tonight, my Peace candle has been noticed. Some people sit quietly, tucking into bowls of meat and roast vegetables. Others sit around the big table talking loudly and laughing. I eat my meal on the little stage with my Sunday Night Dinner friends, including John and Djar, who don’t usually come in during the week. I talk about bikes with John and art with Djar. It’s hard to engage them both in a conversation at once.

The little red Peace candle has melted almost entirely into the sand, which is clumped with hardened wax and various other foreign objects. My friend James has dropped by and we sit at the back of the stage area, chatting. A small possie of grey-headed men congregate nearby cradling milky coffee with too much sugar. They talk quietly and laugh in the hushed, cynical tones of the experienced. My conversation with James (war, politics, relationships) is interrupted by Tom’s cough.
“Are you ok?”
“Upper respiratory infection,” he croaks.
“Oh.” I pause, wondering what helpful thing I should say. The gap in the conversation is filled with another batch of coughing. “Did they put you on a course of antibiotics?”
“Do you have somewhere warm to stay?”
Tom sighs and looks up at one of the other men, who has a lined forehead and laughing eyes. “The hospital kicked him out,” says the man, raising his eyebrows high. “But he’s got a place til Wednesday.”
“Yeah, I collapsed on the way out,” Tom elaborates. “The doctors helped me up and sent me on my merry way. Staying in an old folks’ home now.”
“But only til Wednesday,” I murmur. “What then?”
Tom just shrugs. “Hopefully find somewhere warm.”
“Do you have a health worker?”
I receive a blank look.
“You know, like a nurse or a case worker or something?”
The man with the laughing eyes smiles at me and winks. “He’s had a few of those.”
The rest of the men roll their heads back and laugh. Wet, guttural coughs ring through the near-empty café.

That night, I discussed with Gemma and Dave what I might do to help Tom. They suggested calling one of the outreach nurses, who work with homeless people. The reality is, though, that the nurses are most likely well aware of Tom’s situation. The entire Melbourne welfare sector probably knows all about Tom. I imagine Tom has been homeless for some time. He’s probably very well linked in.

One of the things I’ve learnt since becoming a resident at Urban Seed is that usually, people don’t need my help. If someone is homeless, they’ve often been homeless for a long time, and know what phonecalls to make for crisis accommodation. Having experienced crisis accommodation, they also know that it’s sometimes safer to stay on the streets. They know more about the system than me – a community worker who has only ever experienced the welfare sector from the end of an office telephone.

People have a myriad of support services at their disposal, and many spend more time trying to avoid them than using them. Shirley* is a fiercely independent 75-year-old in a pink beanie and spectacles, who thinks the main problems with society are too much swearing and immigrants talking loudly on trams. Shirley yells at streeties for using the ‘s’ word. She speaks with annoyance about the nurses who come to her house to treat the cancerous growth on her hand. “Why can’t they just leave me alone!” she wants to know. I bet she gives them a tough time when they arrive at her home.

There is a housing crisis, and for many, secure housing is an impossibility. It’s no surprise that people don’t want my help, because the situation is hopeless – there’s nothing I can do.

However, even if housing is available, not everybody wants it. When you’re on the street, you have a whole lot of social networks available – drop-in centres, street culture friends etc. In the city, it’s easy to get a free feed, and if you want medical help, that’s usually available too. I have a friend who, after years spent waiting for a housing commission unit, finally got a place…in Broadmeadows. He knew nobody there, and spent the first few years wondering whether he would be better off moving straight back onto the streets, where at least he had support.

And so, I realise, there are often more important or more useful things you can do than providing material help. We sometimes refer people to services in Credo, but our main work is to provide something that the services don’t offer. Tom probably has a nurse looking out for him – several, perhaps. What the nurses can’t do is provide a warm space with prayer candles and good friends.

I also have the feeling that I am ‘helped’ more in Credo than the people I could potentially assist. My job is to build connections with people ‘on the margins’ – but in doing that, I think I am the one who comes out a healthier, more whole person.

* names changed