Food for thought

9 June 2011

Written by: Sofia Monkiewicz

On the edge of a dark wintery Flinders Street, an out-of-place colourful bus is parked. The icy air is unbearable, as a wet mist coats the city.  The smell of burnt chicken burgers is spreading, warming the air. As hundreds of blind business people rush home to their couch and kettle, this bus is nothing to them.

For the 23 homeless youth waiting at its doors, this bus is their lifesaver.

Bare feet and a face heavily pierced with metal, it was Jess’s icy blue eyes that stopped me, greeting me with her broken smile. Blue and blonde hair is covered with a ‘Bearf’, which I soon learn is a ‘cross between a beanie and a scarf’; her invention woven together from Spotlight bin scraps. Passing up an opportunity for a chicken burger, Jess is content as she holds a cinnamon scroll and cigarette in one hand, and a blanket in the other. Here stands a young girl, just 16 years old. A life filled with more heartache and stories than the average lifetime.

Jess is a homeless teenager who finds refuge and support from the Salvation Army’s 614 Bus, which provides food, shelter and friendship to the homeless youth struggling in the city of Melbourne. Jess is one of the 3,500 people living homeless in Melbourne and falls into the 65-70 per cent of whom are under the age of 25.

Originally established as Urban Heart in January 2003, the Salvation Army developed a range of different homeless outreach services to adequately provide for the different needs of Melbourne’s homeless community.

Now known as Project 614, the youth bus travels around the city four nights a week, providing the simple pleasures that most of us take for granted to the homeless and disadvantaged youth of Melbourne. In a bid to get youth off the street, the bus was made possible when Axa Investments Insurance and Superannuation Australia pledged $235,000 to the project. Project 614 offers free internet, soft couches, résumé writing workshops and printing facilities, all which are helping hundreds of the city’s forgotten children become functional members of society.

Coordinator of Project 614 Brad Ellis says the homeless youth in Melbourne are usually kids who have fallen through gaps within the Department of Human Services system.

‘There are lots of kids we see on a nightly basis; they fall into this place because of poor youth support, and still they are trying to get back on track,’ he says.

The Salvation Army fundraise through their annual Red Shield Appeal which raised just under $7 million in the recent May door knock. The St Vincent de Paul Soup Van, Rosie’s Van, Matthew Talbot Soup Van and the Open Family Bus also provide food and blanket services to the homeless community in Melbourne.

Although State and Federal Government are more interested in the number crunching details surrounding homelessness than jumping immediately to the obvious need at hand, The City of Melbourne has responded with its ‘Pathways, City of Melbourne Homelessness Strategy 2011-13. This strategy began with a survey in March 2011 and will provide the City of Melbourne with statistics, planning strategies and opportunities, to help change the way homeless people live in the city.

The Homelessness Strategy will be completed at the end of June 2011, joining with the City of Melbourne’s partners in the homeless sector, the health sector, State and Federal Government as well as local businesses. This united approach will help to ensure that the homeless community will have the best chance of moving out of homelessness and into a more promising future.

Ruby, 17, sits at the computer scrambling gibberish up onto a blank word document. It sounds like she just enjoys the sound of the keyboard pattering, but it is more than that.

‘I wanna be a writer, I wanna tell the world about my world. Don’t have a computer or a phone… dunno how to type. It’s stupid. I sit and shut my eyes; I’m teaching myself to touch type. One day I want the world to know who I am and my story,’ Ruby explains.

This is the voice of the homeless youth in Melbourne. They are willing to do anything to help themselves.

In October 2004, a 13-year-old girl named Emma Oats died when she fell seven metres through a hole in the floor of an abandoned power station building in Melbourne’s CBD, where she was squatting with friends. Using Centrelink payments for food, alcohol and clothing, the also homeless ‘Robbo’ uses these struggling teenagers to feed his smoking addiction, demanding cigarettes for a sheltered spot in the squat he has claimed. ‘If you are late, you are out in the weather,’ says a boy on the 614 youth bus.

We keep hearing the inane mantra that Melbourne is one of the world’s most livable cities. It’s not particularly livable for our homeless.

It is undeniable that the cost of living is increasing, putting pressure on Melbourne families. This year it is estimated that 370,000 Victorians will, at some stage, not know when or where their next meal is coming from (Feed Melbourne Campaign 2011). With Melbourne now more expensive than Sydney, it is the working poor who are now also struggling to put food on the table.

Each year in Victoria, supermarkets, restaurants and the food industry throw away more than 700,000 tones of food (VLGA and Community Food Programs April 2011). The Feed Melbourne Campaign is an initiative that aims to raise food and financial support to help charities collect, store and distribute food to Victorians who are doing it tough. It is not only Melburnians suffering: down the Princess Freeway the Geelong Community has decided to follow suit, creating their very own ‘Feed Geelong’ campaign.

On June 15, Feed Melbourne will host its annual major fundraising event, Feed Melbourne, Share Lunch, Fight Hunger. This campaign urges organisations and individuals to share lunch or bring a packed lunch to work, then to donate the money saved to the Feed Melbourne campaign.

Already, $5,979 has been donated but they need more help so that every person in need in Melbourne can access this resource. They are also in need of fridges and storage facilities for the charities dedicating themselves to this cause.

It’s food for thought.

Eliza Houghton is a second year Media Studies student at La Trobe University. This is her first piece for upstart.