There are hundreds of heartbreaking stories on the streets of inner-city Sydney. Matthew Talbot Hostel’s external case worker, Margaret Williams knows a lot of them. Margaret works at ‘The Talbot’ in Woolloomooloo, talking with and helping the homeless men who visit there every day. She says she’s seen the best and worst in life in her job. Like the 80-year-old man who was so used to eating from garbage cans he ate the food scraps from the bin after he finished dinner at the hostel. Or the 90- something-year-old man who still sleeps rough in a park nearby.
For many these stories show how desperate life can become, but for Margaret, it shows how resilient humans can be. How they can survive despite the odds against them.
The Matthew Talbot Hostel is one of 37 homeless shelters owned and run by the St Vincent de Paul Society in NSW. For those sleeping in the streets, parks and even car parks it offers a warm bed and other important services. Every day men gather outside the hostel to find company and kindness from staff. The homeless can shower and visit volunteer doctors and on-staff nurses if they’re in need of medical attention. For the wounds not so easily healed, psychiatrists are also on hand.
Many of the men, if not all, wear clothes provided by The Talbot and can enjoy a hot meal for free. A kiosk inside the building offers coffee and tea at cheap prices, sweet treats and snacks like packet noodles. Not only can they access food, the men can take cooking lessons to learn how to whip up their own meal should the opportunity arise. They can also use email and the internet on computers or simply watch television. Margaret says it takes people with a strong will, a strong heart and a lot of patience to work at The Talbot. “You’ve got to have a love of it in your heart – you’ve got to do the things that are not part of your job description,” she says. To her, it’s a matter of balance in work and life. “You’ve got to have some sort of spiritual life because it’s not the type of job you can clock on and not be affected by.”
Workers are constantly dealing with a large number of homeless men, who are becoming younger and younger. The average age is now 34.
Margaret says many of the men who end up on the streets are there because of mental illness or drug and alcohol problems. Statistics gathered by case workers suggest around 89 per cent of the people assisted at The Talbot suffer from a mental illness. Adding to this, the type and nature of drugs homeless addicts use is changing. With heroin now off the streets and methamphetamine ice the new drug of choice, the expertise needed by case workers is also changing.
“With heroin, users are sleepy and happy and they’re easier to deal with… ice users are more aggressive. The most easy-going client, because of sleep deprivation, becomes aggressive,”
Margaret says: Despite the challenges set down by their clients, incidents are handled with great professionalism according to Matthew Talbot Hostel’s Chief Executive Officer Eric Ellem. “We have 200 to 300 people through here each day and to only have a small number of incidents is reflective of the great staff we have,” Eric says. Staff at the Matthew Talbot includes 250 volunteers who undertake a wide range of work from running the kiosk to sorting clothes although most work in the dining room serving meals.
The basis of Matthew Talbot Homeless Services was started in the 1930s when the St Vincent de Paul Society opened up a soup kitchen for those in need. These days The Talbot prepares more than 700 meals a day for clients. It is a fitting name for the centre according to Eric for more than one reason. “Matthew Talbot was an alcoholic and he had a conversion,” he says matter-of-factly, “he spent the rest of his life in prayer and [doing] good works.” For case worker Margaret, the work started by the St Vincent de Paul Society in 1938 has led to much success on the streets. “It’s been very successful,” she says, “there are men sleeping in the Domain car park or other parks and bus shelters and their needs have been met as far as hygiene and food are concerned. A few are Vietnam vets who dropped out of society and a couple had breakdowns.
“A lot of them live out for a very long time – 27 or 28 years without a home – and they have amazing survival skills,” she says. “They’re very proud people and come from a time before Centrelink so they never ask the government for help with money.”
Margaret works different hours to make sure she can catch the men who are not your normal nine-tofivers. Getting through to the men can sometimes be as simple as having a coffee and a chat on the recreation area on the roof of the Matthew Talbot Hostel. “If you call them into an interview room, some don’t want to be seen talking to you,” Margaret says.
For the homeless who have been in jail, being cooped up inside is not ideal. They prefer to sleep outdoors, so they will sleep rough at night. “We have 56 single rooms and some of the men won’t go into the rooms because they don’t want to be shut in.” Margaret says she discourages the ex-prisoners them from calling her miss or chief, as it’s something prison guards are called. “I’m emphatic they don’t call me that otherwise they keep in that mindset of jail,” she says.
The most difficult time for homeless men is undoubtedly winter. But sometimes it can be equally as hard for staff watching the men leave after dinner to find a bed in the streets. “They just say ‘I’ll be fine’,” Margaret says. One client of the service tells her he wakes up overlooking the harbour and asks whether The Talbot can offer a better view than that. “There’s definitely no come-back for that one,” she says with a laugh.
While the 104-bed Matthew Talbot Hostel is a place for refuge for many, the 60-bed Charles O’Neill House in Surry Hills is an educational establishment offering training in skills to equip them for returning to the community. For those who have reached the point where they want help with their addictions, Concord House offers drug, alcohol and gambling rehabilitation programs. It also offers longer term accommodation (10 beds) for those in need. Through Concord House and the other homeless centres, men are able to re-establish links to society.
For those who cannot struggle to return to society because of mental illness, Vinnies also offers a service, particularly for older frail men. Frederic’s House was set up in the 1997 as a permanent home to 61 such clients. Matthew Talbot Homeless Services President Barbara Ryan was involved with setting up Frederic’s House and she still knows clients living there today. Barbara says it offers a home they can live with dignity and with the specialist treatment they require. “It was an innovation at the time,” she says.
Barbara first became involved in homeless services by volunteering at The Talbot in 1992. She and her husband volunteered after reading a notice in a church bulletin and started off by measuring trousers which were given to homeless men. “My family are from the country and if my step father was coming into Sydney he would always bring a bag of potatoes and clothing with him … he was a very strong supporter of the service,” Barbara says.
Frederic’s House psychiatric and drug and alcohol nurse Ann Johnson believes it is an extremely important part of Vinnies services. “It’s a special place,” she says. The men are given the medication and treatment they need. There are registered nurses at Frederic’s House 16 hours a day, and personal carers stay with the men overnight to ensure they are ok.“The men here have all sorts of psychiatric issues – mainly long term schizophrenia. They can still be having delusions and hallucinations. We liaise with the staff and the GP about their management,” Ann says.
The youngest client at Frederic’s House is in his 40s while the oldest is 83-years-old. Ann says the men normally don’t leave Frederic’s House – clients stay on for the rest of their lives. Frederic’s is set up to look like a modern apartment block with shared kitchens and recreation areas. Rooms have their own ensuites and clients can decorate their rooms with family photographs and paintings.
Painting is one of the many activities on offer at Vinnies homeless centres. Men will express themselves through painting, tile work, sculpture, sport and music. In fact, the Matthew Talbot band, cleverly named MT Hands, is planning to release a CD soon.
Through their artwork, the men have created a calendar which will be sent to the Society’s major donors. The artwork is also used on thank you cards and there are plans to have a competition for the best Christmas card design this year.
There’s no doubt homeless men are most often seen on Sydney streets, but women and families are also suffering. Both are helped by Vincentian Village in East Sydney. The service offers short-term accommodation for single women and for women or men and their children.
CEO Eric Ellem says Vinnies has already purchased the building next door to the hostel. The Society hopes to expand the educational services available. A “men’s” shed between the two buildings could also be built. The project has been supported by Sydney City Council and both Eric and Barbara Ryan are working with the council on the final plans.
Charles O’Neill House will not be sold but will be completely overhauled as a home for women or men and their families. It will also cater for those with a disability.
While all the hard work is going on largely unnoticed, Eric says he is hopeful the new Matthew Talbot building will be open in July next year, to show the world what the service is about.
As for the immediate future for the homeless men, The Talbot’s President Barbara Ryan hopes for more funding. She believes more case workers are needed to work intensely with the homeless and help them find a home and re-integrate into mainstream society. “I’d like to see more money spent for packages for the mentally ill to be able to live independently,’” she says.
For now, Margaret Williams will focus on the small miracles which keep her and others like Barbara Ryan and Eric Ellem in their roles. “There was a man in his 70s… he said he had sprained his foot and this had been going on for far too long. I asked him to see the doctor and it turned out he had cancer of the leg. He spent nine weeks in St Vincent’s Hospital,” Margaret says. The man has now recovered and though he had been estranged from his family, he’s now back in contact with them. “The family just cried (tears of joy) – that was a really good outcome.”
This article is taken from The Record – Winter 2007.